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Western Press Review: The Georgian 'Revolution Of Roses' And The Return Of Croatia's Nationalists

Prague, 25 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia's "Revolution of Roses" continues to dominate commentary the world over in the wake of the 23 November resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze. The president bowed to popular calls for his ouster following disputed parliamentary elections on 2 November. A beleaguered Georgia now faces an uncertain future and much analysis is devoted to what lies ahead both politically and economically as Tbilisi's new leaders confront an empty state treasury.

Also discussed are the tactics used in Georgia's peaceful popular revolt, inconsistencies in U.S. support for fledgling democracies, and the return to power of Croatia's nationalists.


Peter Baker of "The Washington Post" says Georgia's "Revolution of Roses," which deposed President Eduard Shevardnadze in a bloodless coup on 23 November, was partially "inspired in the streets of Belgrade."

The Georgian opposition, led by the National Movement bloc, modeled its campaign on the action to remove former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from power in October 2000. Georgian opposition leaders traveled to Belgrade for advice and guidance in how to take on "entrenched" power -- how to protest peacefully and how to stay organized, a key element of a successful demonstration.

Baker says in May and June of this year, more than 1,500 National Movement members took two-day training courses in political activism that were based on what had transpired in Serbia.

"And the opposition persuaded Georgia's independent television network to air a documentary on the Serbian [uprising] twice in the last 10 days." Baker cites National Movement Secretary-General Ivane Merabishvili as saying the film was instrumental. Everyone in Tbilisi knew what to do because they had seen it done in Belgrade.

Georgia's opposition movement "proved disciplined and peaceful throughout," Baker observes. "After [National Movement leader Mikhail] Saakashvili led protesters who burst into government buildings bearing roses, he promptly assigned activists to guard them to prevent looting or destruction. Aside from minor scuffling, street protests involving tens of thousands of people yielded no casualties."


A "Chicago Tribune" editorial takes another look at the case of Mikhail Khodorkovskii, former CEO of Russia's Yukos oil giant. Khodorkovskii was arrested in October and charged with fraud and tax evasion, but many observers both within and outside Russia believe his detention to be politically motivated.

Khodorkovskii might well be guilty of breaking the law, the paper says. He and the rest of Russia's so-called oligarchs were deeply involved in the dubious mass privatizations of the post-Soviet era. "But the timing and choice of targets is curious." Khodorkovskii had been financing opposition parties as well as charitable organizations, and had hinted at interest in a political career. He additionally "used his influence at times to block [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's legislative agenda."

Khodorkovskii's detention and upcoming trial are "a reminder that Putin is firmly in charge." And this underscores "the unsettled nature of basic rights in Russia." A dozen years after the Soviet collapse, Russia "has yet to fulfill its aspirations for free markets and free politics."

The Chicago daily asks: "What does the rule of law mean in a state where Kremlin-imposed secrecy about process and policy is almost as much the norm as [in] Soviet times? How secure are property [rights]? Is the state trying to reassert control over private business? Where are the checks and balances that limit governmental abuses of power?"

The paper says, "The prosecution of a powerful political foe of ex-KGB agent Putin only enhances the conviction that even in the new Russia, old habits die hard."


Writing in "The Washington Post," Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observes that U.S. President George W. Bush recently articulated a policy of promoting democratic reform in the Middle East, based on the belief that Islamic terrorism will not flourish where democracy does. But Carothers says it's ironic that Washington pledges a new commitment to promoting democracy in the Mideast but allows U.S. support for democratic reform in the former Soviet republics to languish.

The Kremlin's persecution of former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii attests to "the sobering return of a firm KGB grip on the main levers of Russian power," as Russia slides back toward "semi-authoritarian rule." October elections in Azerbaijan brought former President Heidar Aliyev's son to power, indicating "that the strongman leaders of Central Asia and the Caucasus are not going away."

Following the 23 November ouster of President Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia may now have a "second chance" -- but Carothers calls this "a lonely exception." Subsequent post-Soviet era U.S. administrations have deferred "[to] 'friendly tyrants' in Central Asia and the Caucasus who promised America access to oil and gas."

Today, in order to keep Russia on board with his war on terrorism, Bush "uncritically embraces" Russian President Vladimir Putin. Eager to secure access to energy resources in Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Bush administration "gives the strongmen leaders of those nations a free pass."

Carothers says Washington must link the "high-flying rhetoric" about democratic ideals "with real commitment and resources, to promote genuine democratic processes, not pro-U.S. political figures."


Several German-language papers discuss the victory of the nationalist Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) in 23 November elections.

The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says the swing in Croatia from the political right to the left is "a principle of pendulum democracy." This is even more apparent in post-totalitarian societies where democracy has still not taken root and whose milieu is steeped in dissatisfaction with the economic situation, including a high rate of unemployment, low incomes, and few prospects.

This kind of radical change is normal, the paper says, and yet also significant. The leader of the nationalist party, Ivo Sanader, embodies the new spirit of the old party. The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says Sanader will have to deal with the ultranationalist wing within his party so that he can ensure Croatia cooperates with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, addresses the issue of the return of Serbian war refugees, and forges a lasting peace with his Serbian neighbors.


The Swiss "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" considers whether Croatia's election results imply a widespread return to nationalism. The paper notes that since the recapture of Krajina from the Serbs in 1995 and the reintegration of East Slavonia in the following year, national issues in Croatia had largely been resolved.

"The country again achieved state unity. Moreover, the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) now respects the integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This situation differs considerably from Serbia, which is still battling with the uncertainties of its loose alliance with Montenegro and the status of Kosovo."

Although a nationalist government may slow down reform in Croatia, the Swiss daily says the progress achieved in the country has been admirable and the general political atmosphere appears to be healthy. The victory of the HDZ will not mean a reversion to the days of authoritarian President Franjo Tudjman, the paper concludes.


An editorial in "The Moscow Times" today says that when Georgians head to the polls again, most likely in January, whoever becomes the country's new leader will face "an uphill battle," including "crushing poverty, crumbling infrastructure and organized crime."

A crucial consideration will be whether the trinity of opposition forces that united to oust Shevardnadze -- notably former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, acting President Nino Burdjanadze and former parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania -- will be able to maintain unity through new presidential and parliamentary elections. The troika may otherwise "splinter, weakening themselves and giving pro-Shevardnadze forces an opportunity to regroup."

A second concern is "whether the new government will take on powerful and corrupt vested interests that wish to maintain the status quo or whether it will find itself too weak and/or intertwined with those interests to act. This is crucial if Georgia is to push ahead with economic reforms."

The Moscow daily suggests that Tbilisi's new government "should force the pace of reform and tackle the most painful reforms immediately, while the new team's political capital is still intact. Corrupt vested interests must be smashed before they become further entrenched."


An editorial in "The New York Times" says Georgia's 1991 independence heralded the emergence of another former Soviet state "born in the grand illusion that free from imperialism they were headed irrevocably toward prosperity and happiness."

But a free Georgia "was a poor land riven by tribal hatreds and dependent on Russia for energy and jobs." President Eduard Shevardnadze had to dodge assassination attempts, deal "with secessionists in South Ossetia and Chechen rebels who used northern Georgia as a staging area, and fight widespread corruption and economic decline."

Ultimately, Shevardnadze failed "because he found no answers." But except for the Baltic states, "no former Soviet republic has found a satisfactory path to independence." The paper says, "At least Mr. Shevardnadze did not choose the path of dictatorship that most Central Asian leaders took."


"The Washington Post" in an editorial today says Georgia's new leaders "now face the daunting task of organizing free and fair elections," while mitigating the influence of regional players that might seek to undermine this process.

"They will need considerable help from the United States, Turkey and other Western governments to succeed," the editorial says. The U.S. administration "can repeat its support for independent observers of the elections; it can assure Georgians that a government that is fairly elected will have a chance to pursue closer relationships with Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union."

But perhaps most importantly, the paper says, Washington should pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin "to accept independence and democracy in his neighbor -- or at least, to stop Moscow's clients from deliberately wrecking it."


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" discusses Croatia's future in the wake of the nationalist's election victory.

The paper says the electorate has lost respect for the Social Democrats, who were "half-hearted and indecisive." There is widespread acknowledgement that the nationalists were responsible for much of the social malaise and misery at the end of the 1990s. But since the ruling coalition had not kept its promise to alleviate the social ills, the public pinned its hopes on the opposition.

Now, nationalist leader Ivo Sanader will be judged according to whether or not he is capable of sparking an economic upturn, including putting a brake on the country's growing debt and providing favorable conditions for foreign investment.

The paper emphasizes, however, that a nationalist victory does not mean a return to the intolerance and factionalism of old. The days of "bitter ideological conflicts are over in Croatia," it says.

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)