Georgia, a nation in the heart of the Caucasus, has a history of blood feuds and civil war. But the Georgian democracy movement's peaceful ouster of President Eduard A. Shevardnadze suggests that the country of almost 5 million people may now be on a more promising path.
Shevardnadze's fall was deserved but the demise of a pro-Western, potential democratic reformer could hardly be more disappointing. As Soviet foreign minister from 1985 to 1990 he was involved in the reunification of Germany, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the dismantling of the Soviet empire. Although he had the diplomatic skills to help bring freedom and democracy abroad, he lacked the political ones to create it at home.
For both Russia and the United States, which want to see completion of a major oil pipeline through the country, Georgia has been a problem child. Russia accused Shevardnadze of failing to crack down on Chechen fighters seeking refuge in Georgia; the U.S. has gotten fed up with its financial mismanagement. In almost 12 years as president, Shevardnadze ran his country into the ground.
Though Washington has provided $1.3 billion in aid, Georgia is bankrupt, and corruption there is rampant. The reckoning came in the Nov. 2 elections. Last summer, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III had persuaded Shevardnadze to agree to exit polls; it proved the Georgian's undoing, as his people stormed the parliament after they saw voting irregularities and discrepancies in reported results that led them to believe that their government was trying to steal the election. The final blow came when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell quietly told Shevardnadze over the weekend that the United States wanted him to resign. Georgia's supreme court has since tossed out the results of the election.
The interim leadership has taken action to maintain order by calling for new elections Jan. 4. Interim President Nino Burjanadze says the "path of democracy is irreversible this time," and security forces appear to be complying with the government. The Bush administration is wisely sending advisors to help ensure free elections.
A move to democracy in Georgia could have a salutary effect on other Central Asian countries. Recent national elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan have been tainted by vote fraud charges and protests.
The Soviet collapse and the independence of Central Asian states resulted in authoritarian regimes. The stronger that democracy grows in Georgia, the more powerful an example it will set for its neighbors. The protesters who carried bouquets into parliament and ended the Shevardnadze regime with the "revolution of the roses" must let democracy bloom.