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Georgia: Crisis Could Have Implications For Entire Caucasus Region

Georgia has been thrown into political turmoil after President Eduard Shevardnadze fired the entire cabinet yesterday amid a scandal over a failed police raid on an independent television station. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox speaks with an expert on the Caucasus for an assessment of the unfolding crisis.

Prague, 2 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tbilisi, it wasn't just the bungled raid on independent television station Rustavi-2 that brought them to the streets.

Protestors were angry at what they saw as an attack on media freedom in Georgia, after security agents tried but failed to enter Rustavi-2's offices on 30 October under the pretext of investigating the station's finances. The station has been critical of government policies.

The incident brought to the forefront tensions that have been brewing in the country for months, with many people angry at corruption and economic hardship.

In the wake of the protests, Shevardnadze on 30 October accepted Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze's resignation. But demonstrators continued to demand that Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze and Prosecutor General Giya Maparishvili step down, too.

Then, yesterday, Shevardnadze sacked the entire government: "The situation was very tough indeed. And I had to take a decision, involving my colleagues, my friends, my fellow politicians. The decision,... to be honest, reflected neither my will nor my mood. I had to take this step for the sake of Georgia and its stability."

The episode was the last straw in a months-long power struggle within the ruling party. That's according to Svante Cornell, an expert at John Hopkins University's Central Asia-Caucasus Institute: "It's been a long process in Georgia of what you could call the disintegration of the ruling party, with the divisions between the so-called young reformers and what could be termed the old guard, especially the Interior Minister [Kakha] Targamadze and the Security Minister [Vakhtang] Kutateladze. It has been widening, and with one of the young reformer leaders being the [former] Justice Minister [Mikheil] Saakashvili, who resigned a few months ago. So this is just the latest event, so to speak, that broke the camel's back."

Cornell says the situation now looks like a tentative victory for the young reformers: "The people in the power ministries really overplayed their hand by attacking the free media, which had been so far the only real impediment to their power in Georgia. They had never been able to touch the free media, especially because of Western backing, which is crucial for the country, which the media was enjoying. What prevented the old guard from having full control over the country was the free media. So once they stepped in to try to curtail [it], which is actually what happened, there came a popular reaction. And it also showed that a lot of parliamentarians, even of the ruling party of Georgia, really felt that this was really too much."

The list of top officials vacating their posts did not end with cabinet ministers. Parliament's speaker, Zurab Zhvania, also stepped down yesterday in what he said was an effort to the stop the crisis from deepening. And today brought another resignation in the form of Zaza Shenguelia, the chairman of the state television and radio corporation.

Also today, protesters continued to block a main avenue in Tbilisi, saying they will not disband until Shevardnadze himself resigns. Cornell says he doesn't think this is likely to happen: "The problem is that if he resigns, there is no real alternative. Even the parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania, who was [next] in the line of succession, was not really seen by most observers as a credible alternative that could actually handle the complicated situation -- internal and external -- of Georgia. Now Zhvania has resigned. Who is there who could fill Shevardnadze's shoes at this point? I think Shevardnadze's not likely. But if it does happen, it could really directly worsen the situation in Georgia to the point where it might be a case of disintegration of the country."

Even if Shevardnadze stays on -- as he says he will -- Cornell says stability in the country is gone. This could make matters worse in Abkhazia, which gained de facto independence from Georgia after a 1993 war in which Tbilisi says the separatists were supported by Russia.

Cornell says: "At this point, you don't have a parliamentary chairman. You don't have a state security minister. You don't have an interior minister. And Georgia is a country that very often has been subjected to outside pressures and subversion and interference from its neighbor. If its neighbors are interested -- as some of its neighbors are -- in contributing to the destabilization of the country, then this is the golden opportunity to do so. We could see the situation in [the breakaway region of] Abkhazia spiraling further out of control. We could imagine a situation in other parts of the country that the government really didn't ever control getting worse."

Cornell says a worsening internal situation could have grave implications for the whole region, including the future of a $1-billion gas-pipeline project. The pipeline to Turkey would be the first to bring Caspian gas across the Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Georgia is crucial to the regional security, especially energy security, with a recent gas agreement being signed by the Azerbaijani and Georgian governments that needed to be ratified by the Georgian parliament in November. Now we don't even know if we'll have a Georgian parliament in November. So much of the energy architecture that is being built up in the region goes through Georgia and will now have to be put on hold."

Cornell says fresh parliamentary elections are possible, but even these might not bring stability due to the fragmented political scene.