Just as President George W. Bush renewed his commitment to spreading democracy to the Middle East, I was sitting in Tbilisi, Georgia, wondering whether the United States would have any credibility with the Arabs if it could not get democracy "right" in this small, pro-American country. I was an election observer for the November 2 parliamentary elections, which truly will determine the future of this pivotal state. If President Eduard Shevardnadze agrees that the election results should reflect the will of the people, his country can continue along a path of further integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. If not, there is a very real prospect that Georgia's internal instability might spread to the rest of the South Caucasus.
The United States has spent enormous political and financial resources since the end of the Soviet Union to help Georgia become a prosperous, democratic state anchored in Euro-Atlantic institutions. Initially, Shevardnadze was himself the reason: as the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, he played a key role in the unification of Germany, and was adopted by George Bush Sr. and his Secretary of State James Baker as the great hope for democracy.
The moral and historic commitment to Shevardnadze continues to this day-in fact, President Bush sent Baker to Georgia as his special envoy in July 2003 to help him broker a deal with the opposition parties on ways to hold the November elections freely and fairly. Thus the White House put its credibility on the line with the so-called "Baker plan"-the first in the former Soviet Union-and gambled on Shevardnadze's desire to be remembered in history not only as the man that brought down the Soviet Union, but also as the leader that turned his country into a democratic, stable European power.
The Georgian people's strong aspiration to once again become part of the European family was another reason for continued U.S. engagement in Georgia. In many ways Georgia is a natural ally for the West: its tolerant culture towards ethnic and religious minorities and its traditions of culture and arts have all given it a good deal of "soft power" in the region.
A third and possibly most important reason for the U.S. and the EU to care about Georgia is that it is the essential transit country for Central Asian and Caspian oil and gas and other resources getting to world markets. Due to the protracted conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Georgia has emerged as the strategic, albeit weakest, link, of the East-West corridor. In fact, just as the post-election crisis was developing, the IFC approved funding for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline last week and the EBRD did so on November 11. Now that it is a declared NATO candidate, one with several frozen conflicts in its territory, it cannot afford to collapse back into the civil war of the early 1990s.
But this is only a possible future for Georgia-one that can still be avoided. Thanks to the Baker plan and U.S. programs on democracy training and civil society building, on the day of the elections there was excellent media coverage and hundreds of passionate Georgian local election observers manned the polling stations, often until 4 or 5 in the morning. The exit polls and parallel vote tabulations, the most credible numbers so far, showed that the pro-Western opposition party, National Movement, came in first. The government's For New Georgia party came in second. The autonomous Ajaran republican leader Aslan Abashidze's Revival party was lower on the list. These results indicated that the parliament that will take Georgia to 2005 elections would have a majority of pro-Western members. Now, however, Abashidze is blackmailing the government to award his party the victory, or he will declare his region's independence from Georgia.
Abashidze's story is complicated. Fearing for his life, he has not visited Tbilisi for the last decade, and runs a stable but authoritarian regime in Abashidze's small region on the Black Sea coast. Most of Georgian smuggling and some of the oil transportation goes through Batumi and the Russian military base there has no indication of closing any time soon. Abashidze managed to disregard all of the election law requirements, and announced that 95 percent of the people came out to vote and, of course, over 95 percent voted for his party. He even increased the number of the voters in all of Ajara. If all the votes from Ajara are included in Georgian elections, then the results are skewed such that he comes out as the winner of Georgia's historic parliamentary elections. If this happens, he will be the most important power broker ahead of the 2005 presidential elections, when Shevardnadze's second term comes to an end.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the leader of the National Movement will not go along with this. Consequently, he has been holding peaceful demonstrations with the other pro-Western opposition party, Burjanadze-Democrats (led by current and former speakers of parliament, Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania) for over a week to reach a compromise with the government. The compromise may include canceling the elections altogether. Saakashvili is strongly backed by a youth movement Kmara (Enough), which in turn is backed by George Soros and is based on the anti-Milosevic movement in Serbia that managed to oust him from office through peaceful demonstrations. This same formula cannot work in Georgia, as some hotheaded security ministry elements are preparing for clashes. On November 10 civilians stopped a truck coming from the Pankisi Gorge with troops to be deployed in Tbilisi. If the situation is not calmed in the next couple of days, we will not see the Velvet Revolution but Balkan-style civil war
Thus, Shevardnadze's dilemma: go against the will of the people and try to crush them by force, or work out a compromise with Abashidze and others that keep him in power. It is possible that if he goes against Abashidze and lets the opposition declare success, Abashidze will try to declare independence as he threatened. If Shevardnadze loses Ajara, the pro-Western opposition will try to oust him as the weak president who cannot preserve his country's territorial integrity.
Ironically, the only way to get out of this box is the right way. Most of the Georgians and the international community want Georgia to have a smooth, democratic transition in 2005, not to oust Shevardnadze from office. The President himself declared that it is very important to him that under his leadership Georgia can have free and fair elections and that even the opposition can win. Given that there were huge problems with the voter lists that prevented almost 1/3 of the Georgians from voting, and in some key areas elections were not held freely or fairly, he can have the elections canceled and, after improved conditions, re-hold them in the proper way. Alternatively, he can work with the OSCE and other international organizations that suggest canceling votes from the most problematic regions, including from some districts in Ajara, so that the final results reflect the exit polls and the parallel vote tabulations.
Internationally, he can engage two powerful neighbors: Russia and Turkey-both of whom have close ties to Abashidze as well. Shevardnadze talked with Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 9, and the day later went to talk to Abashidze in Batumi. On November 11 Abashidze and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov were both in Armenia-leading to many worrisome speculations. On November 12, Abashidze also went to Baku to hold a meeting with Azerbaijan's new president Ilham Aliyev. It is interesting to note that the Armenia and Azerbaijan trips were firsts for Abashidze since the end of the Soviet Union, which inevitably leads to speculations that these trips are coordinated with Shevardnadze. Turkey is keeping quiet so far; ahead of the 1999 presidential elections, however, when Abashidze wanted to run against him, Shevardnadze engaged the good services of then Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, who helped alleviate the tension; Demirel may still be able to help.
Shevardnadze can and should also ask the United States for help-President Bush and his envoy Secretary Baker have already invested much to maintain stability in Georgia, and by extension nearby Armenia and Azerbaijan. Given that tension is extremely high in the South Caucasus, and even in Russia, it is urgent that the post-election situation in Georgia is brought to calm before it gets out of control. In fact, it is already seriously worrisome. The Georgian Defense Minister declared on November 9, "the situation has practically gone out of control…the situation is no longer manageable.'