Prague, 24 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Media coverage and analysis today is dominated by the weekend resignation (23 November) of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who bowed to popular pressure after three weeks of demonstrations following disputed 2 November parliamentary elections. Both international observers and the Georgian opposition challenged the election results, variously described as deeply flawed or blatantly fraudulent. While many observers praise the peaceful overthrow of an unpopular leader, others warn that Georgia -- strategically important as a conduit for Caspian energy to Western markets -- now risks descending into chaotic factionalism or even civil war.
An editorial in "The Times" of London says now that President Eduard Shevardnadze has been ousted from power, Georgia must move quickly to hold new elections. Only establishing a legitimate transfer of power will validate the peaceful revolution that took place in Tbilisi over the weekend.
"[Shevardnadze's] hold on power had become untenable," says "The Times." His decision to resign became inevitable following mass protests that virtually shut down the capital. Widespread public discontent "had been quietly growing [at] dizzying official corruption, absurdly small salaries and pensions, and fitful services." Allegations of rigging and mismanagement that dominated 2 November parliamentary elections "finally tipped Georgia into chaotic open rebellion."
But Georgia's democratic future remains uncertain. Opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili has already outlined a timetable for "regularizing the power void." An acting president has been named until presidential elections can be held, and parliamentary elections will take place in 45 days.
"Holding clean elections quickly is crucial," says "The Times." Saakashvili is likely to win any ballot. But the paper says who wins is not really the point. What is most important is to establish "a framework for a peaceful, legal transfer of power."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" warns that the fall of deposed Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze "might merely be the beginning of bigger troubles in Georgia."
The opposition, led by Mikhail Saakashvili, "was right to protest against the result of the parliamentary poll," the paper says. "But what happened in Tbilisi over the weekend looks disturbingly like a coup against a president with strong democratic credentials," particularly in comparison with other regional rulers. Now the Georgian opposition will assume power "with no more legitimacy than the previous government had." Civil war is now "a real danger."
The paper says Georgia's mix "of factions, organized crime groups and extreme politics" is a "volatile mixture" that also makes the country "vulnerable to troublemaking by Russian agents. If Georgia splinters, Russia would be more than happy to step in and reassert its authority. After all, Georgia sits on strategic export routes from the oil-rich Caspian basin." The paper calls for the United States and the international community to make "a more concerted effort" to support democracy in Tbilisi and ensure the independence of "this beautiful, chaotic country."
The paper writes: "Throughout the former Soviet Union, [the] march of democracy and rule of law has stalled, and often reversed. Violence broke out in Azerbaijan [after] a disputed election there, and family dynasties are consolidating power in Central Asia. These countries need to liberalize their politics, and the West needs to help them. Stability without real democracy is a mere illusion."
The British daily "The Independent" lauds Shevardnadze for resigning from his post as Georgian president yesterday but remarks that, in reality, "he had little choice." The 2 November parliamentary elections were criticized by election observers as deeply flawed. Opposition supporters believed they were blatantly rigged. And so Shevardnadze failed to achieve his "hidden purpose," that of preparing for his own retirement by securing his party a solid hold on the legislature that would allow him to hand over power to one of his supporters.
Following the widespread allegations of electoral fraud, "when push came to shove, the security forces and the police stood aside. As in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, a president, well-known abroad but deeply distrusted at home, fell to the sheer power of the people and the unwillingness of the military to intervene."
The peaceful manner of this "velvet" coup can offer "some hope for a country which has suffered so much from corruption, separatist conflict and war with its neighbors and Russian interference." But Georgia faces a tough struggle for reform after years of "economic stagnation, huge disparities of wealth and deep internal divisions."
To overcome these obstacles and "achieve what the Poles, Czechs, [Serbs,] and others have already done," "The Independent" says, Georgia will need cooperation and support from Russia, the European Union, and the United States.
Tom Warner and Stefan Wagstyl of the "Financial Times" say the rapidity of Georgia's bloodless revolution over the weekend has left many Georgians wondering what will happen next.
"The prospect of prolonged political confusion fills many ordinary Georgians with horror. In the 12 years since their country broke away from the Soviet Union, successive governments have failed to control violence, disorder and the de facto secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia provinces in the mid-1990s." And with "different regions in Georgia pulling in different political directions, even the country's existence could be at stake."
Opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili's support base is strongest within Tbilisi. Georgia's borders with the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are guarded by Russian troops. And the Adjaria region remains technically within Georgia but ignores the central authority in the capital.
There is so little real power concentrated in the central government that Georgia's "self-proclaimed new leaders" -- notably Tbilisi City Council Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili and Nino Burdjanadze, former parliamentary chairwoman and now acting head of state -- may find themselves as powerless as Shevardnadze was.
Corruption in Georgia is part of the problem, and it runs deep, says the paper. It saps the state "of the financial resources it needs to pay salaries and diverts the state's human resources to activities other than providing public services and maintaining law and order."
Georg Watzlawek, writing in Germany's financial paper "Handelsblatt," discusses Georgia's situation following Shevardnadze's forced resignation yesterday in a bloodless "velvet revolution."
Watzlawek sees the tragic side of this longtime politician's career. Fourteen years ago, he helped bring down the Iron Curtain and reunite a divided Germany. In his native country, people put their hopes in him to tackle widespread poverty, civil war, and separatism in the provinces. In this respect, Shevardnadze failed. Only in his final moments as president, says Watzlawek, did Shevardnadze "regain his stature as a statesman. He did Georgia one last service by renouncing the use of force," choosing instead to resign when faced with widespread popular opposition.
Watzlawek says, in fact, Shevardnadze had little influence over the fate of his nation. There is no other country in the Caucasus that has been as much of a "ball game for foreign powers." The U.S. views Georgia as a front-line state in its campaign against terrorism and as an important thoroughfare for the energy resources of the Caspian Sea. Georgia lags behind only Israel in receiving the most aid per capita from the United States -- and yet, Washington still cannot top the Kremlin's influence.
Russia is partly responsible for the unrest in Georgia's provinces and is also somewhat to blame for the fraudulent election results, says Watzlawek. The fact that the Russian foreign minister negotiated Shevardnadze's resignation "is an irony of history -- but it also indicates Moscow's influence. Whoever succeeds Shevardnadze will be moving in a minefield," Watzlawek concludes.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH:
An editorial in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" says Shevardnadze's rule, "which began in 1972 when he became head of the Georgian branch of the Communist Party, has at last come to an end."
He had been a longtime "popular figure in the West, first as an agent of detente, then as a counterweight to Russian power in the Caucasus." But as president of Georgia, "economic growth had been sluggish and corruption egregious." Most Georgians still live on about one U.S. dollar a day. The country's voters saw the 2 November parliamentary elections "as the chance for a new start." With ballot rigging and electoral fraud, Shevardnadze "brought a 'velvet revolution' on himself."
The editorial goes on to discuss other regional regimes, remarking that the political records of Soviet-era holdovers "have generally been dismal. In Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka presides over a failed state. By taking over from his father in Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev has achieved the postcommunist world's first dynastic succession. In Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov has effectively been made president for life."
While Shevardnadze "was not quite of that ilk," the "rigging of the November 2 elections showed he had become unfit to rule."
Writing in "Liberation," Gerard Dupuy says Shevardnadze went as far as he could in a bid to quell the popular revolt against him following charges of electoral fraud. But he stopped short of firing on the crowd as his Azerbaijani neighbors did, following allegations of vote rigging in that country last month.
"No one will regret his departure, perhaps not even himself," says Dupuy. The events of past days in Georgia are something of a democratic success, but it is important not to overestimate it. "Georgians know what they have lost, but they don't yet know what awaits them."
Three ethnic seccessions in Georgia have torn apart its territory. Almost everything lies in ruins and the economy is in pieces. Corruption is systemic and is not limited to the former president and his administration. Before Tbilisi's civic and moral rebirth, many members of the opposition had long adapted to such a regime.
Shevardnadze's departure was mediated by an unlikely partner, says Dupuy. After years of the Kremlin sowing instability in Georgia and its territories, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov stepped in to pacify the situation. But this conciliatory attitude does not overshadow Russia's brutality throughout the Caucasus, trying at once to control oil routes and assert its regional dominance -- even if it means enduring costly disorder.
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)