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Caucasus: Georgia's Neighbors Look Warily To Tbilisi As Political Crisis Shakes Itself Out

Georgia's interim leadership moved swiftly today to restore order and ensure stability following the dramatic collapse of Eduard Shevardnadze's presidency. And the country's Caucasus neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, breathed easier. Landlocked Armenia depends on Georgia for access to the outside world. A major Azerbaijani concern is for the 500,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis who live in Georgia. RFE/RL reports that in both countries, there are elements that regard Georgia's "people's victory" as a portent for the strengthening of their own democracies, and -- possibly -- as a model for their future aspirations.

Prague, 25 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the Caucasus -- where public affairs are inextricably interwoven -- the recent events in Georgia will no doubt increase pressure for change in Armenia and Azerbaijan. In both of those countries, recent national elections also aroused unrest, demonstrations, and charges of election rigging.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking yesterday to his cabinet, put his finger squarely on an essential element of the Georgia crisis and its outcome. "What is absolutely obvious -- and I would like to stress it -- is that Eduard Ambrosievich Shevardnadze has never been a dictator. So what causes our legitimate concern is that the change in power in Georgia happened against a backdrop of strong pressure by force," he said. "Those who organize actions of this kind and those who encourage them take up an enormous responsibility before the people -- in this case, the Georgian people."

One month ago, Azerbaijanis lived through their own electoral crisis. Official results showed Ilham Aliyev, son of outgoing President Heidar Aliyev, with 77 percent of the vote. Isa Qambar, leader of the main opposition Musavat Party, was credited with only 14 percent. Qambar called the outcome fraudulent and said he would use all constitutional means to have the result nullified.

Angered by the election outcome and by an unprovoked election-night police attack on Musavat headquarters, thousands of Qambar supporters clashed with police in central Baku. At least one protester died.

Unlike Shevardnadze, however, Ilham Aliyev ordered a quick and effective crackdown, including the arrests of hundreds of people. The government already had firm control of news and communication outlets and strict laws limiting the rights of citizens to demonstrate.

Tom De Waal, Caucasus editor for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, is monitoring the situation in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. He says Georgia distinguishes itself through what he calls its "strong democratic tradition."

"Some people would say that actually Georgia is not so much democratic as chaotic, but it certainly has a plurality of views, of parties, of leaders -- of regional leaders -- and so on," he said.

De Waal says timing was also important. If Azerbaijani and Armenian elections were just ahead, instead of in the recent past, he says the Georgian experience might have strengthened their oppositions. But, given the relative strength of opposition communication outlets in Georgia, he says, perhaps not.

"[I] think a very important factor in this peaceful transition of power in Georgia has been the media -- the fact that a few years ago, for example, President Shevardnadze tried to close down Rustavi-2, the opposition coalition station, but he didn't succeed. And that was almost a rehearsal for what has happened in the last week -- that, in fact, Rustavi-2 has been able to broadcast the opposition message to the country and that has underlined the lack of legitimacy of President Shevardnadze," De Waal said.

Azerbaijan's Aliyev says his desire is for Georgian stability and his first concern is for the 500,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis -- who he calls "our ethnic brothers" -- who live in Georgia.

Ali Karimov of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party says he is looking for advances in democracy in Georgia to bolster hopes in Azerbaijan. "We can assume that democracy has principally won in the neighboring strategic ally of Azerbaijan, and I understand that the victory of democracy in Georgia will give a boost to democratic development in Azerbaijan," he said.

Armenian President Robert Kocharian, whose election was also criticized by opponents as fraudulent, says he welcomes stability in Georgia because, among other reasons, Armenia depends on transportation routes through its neighbor.

Armenian opposition leader Stepan Demirchian yesterday called the Georgian transition a "people's victory." He said the people in Armenia will eventually win, too.

From his vantage point in Tbilisi, De Waal says it is too soon to tell what kind of democratic model will emerge in Georgia. "I think that there are different routes that Georgia can take now," he said. "There are a lot of questions now about Mikhail Saakashvili, the leader of the radical opposition. Some people say that he is very sincere in his fight against corruption, that he is a genuine democrat. Other people say that he's a bit of a populist, that he keeps changing his message."

De Waal said that a long look at what has transpired in Saakashvili's stronghold in western Georgia is not altogether reassuring, however. He says Saakashvili has systematically weeded out opponents and replaced them with his own followers -- as De Waal put it, "kind of like replacing one clan with another clan."

Meanwhile, events in Georgia are moving rapidly. Early today, the Supreme Court cast out the results of the 2 November parliamentary elections, which had been ruled official by the Central Election Commission less than one week ago. Subsequently, Georgia's parliament scheduled a new presidential election for 4 January.

Also today, Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze, a Shevardnadze ally, resigned. His resignation followed by a day that of Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili.

The country now faces two major elections that will be conducted under many handicaps, not least of which is the lack of acceptable voter registration lists. The old lists are considered irredeemably tainted.

Three Georgian politicians already have declared themselves presidential candidates, including Mikhail Saakashvili, leader of the radical opposition bloc. He is the man whose call for a campaign of civil disobedience mobilized the crowds that toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze. Saakashvili has joined interim President Nino Burdjanadze in calling for a re-establishment of order.

Caucasian specialist De Waal says that after the tumultuous events in Tbilisi, only one thing is clear -- Georgia will never be the same. "This has been a very difficult procedure because, first of all, the elections were pronounced as officially correct. Now they have been annulled," he said. "I think the country had no option. What it does mean is that the country now is going to have two sets of elections -- parliament and presidential elections -- that are basically going to totally alter the political landscape. I think that the Georgia that emerges in a couple of months' time will be very different from the one that we have today."

De Waal says major political changes throughout the Caucasus are probable, too -- but not necessarily soon.