Georgia's political crisis threatens to spiral out of control. Thousands of protesters are demanding that President Eduard Shevardnadze annul last week's parliamentary elections and resign. Georgians are angry about the denial of democracy in their country, which many believe is riddled with corruption and controlled by criminal groups.
Georgia is a borderline failed state. Under Shevardnadze's rule, it has lost control of a huge swath of land, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since 1989, one million people have emigrated. The gross domestic product has shrunk by two thirds and expenditures double receipts. Up to 80 percent of the economy is illicit. Shevardnadze has always been quick to blame Russia's so-called "siloviki" -- a mixture of Russian intelligence and military figures with ties to the old regime -- for undermining Georgia's progress in order to reassert Russia's influence in the Caucasus. President Vladimir Putin of Russia says he supports resolving Georgia's problems within the framework of its territorial integrity. However, the siloviki have cozy relations with separatists groups and ties to mafia networks profiting from Georgia's conflict economy. They dream of restoring Russian influence in the "near abroad" and reminisce about happy holidays in dachas on the Georgia's Black Sea coast. Amid the chaos, Shevardnadze has turned to Russia for assistance. In a recent telephone conversation, Putin pledged that Moscow is prepared to "give all possible support to Georgia."
Moscow still has important economic interests in the Caucasus. To safeguard its stake in the region's energy development, Moscow has sought to influence the selection of pipeline routes transporting oil and gas from the rich Caspian fields as well as from Central Asia. It has taken steps to rehabilitate the northern route to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, monopolize Georgia's energy sector and acquire ownership of electrical utility systems throughout the Caucasus.
Most important, Moscow has urgent security concerns in Chechnya. During the 1990's, tens of thousands of Chechen civilians fled across the border into Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. They were infiltrated by Chechen fighters and Al Qaeda members. The Russian military carried out cross-border operations and refused to relinquish old Soviet bases on Georgian territory.
Russia is not the only country with strategic interests in the Caucasus. Russia and the United States have found common cause in the fight against terrorism. The U.S. military assistance and training program, which was established in 2002, has been instrumental in helping Georgia rid the Pankisi of Chechen and Arab fighters.
Georgia has been a significant beneficiary of U.S. foreign aid aimed at supporting democratic and free-market development. In addition, American companies have important positions in the Caspian energy consortium; Washington pushed hard for construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline via Georgia. The Bush administration feels it owes Shevardnadze a debt of gratitude for stewarding the collapse of Soviet Communism as a Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev. Instead of proactively addressing Georgia's problems, Shevardnadze has engaged in intrigue by playing Russia and the United States against each other. During this turbulent time, Shevardnadze must abandon efforts to divide Moscow and Washington. Instead Shevardnadze should reaffirm his reputation as a statesman by encouraging the former superpower rivals to work together in stabilizing, securing and strengthening Georgia's sovereignty. But first, Shevardnadze must diffuse the current crisis by calling new parliamentary elections and reaffirming his pledge to step aside when presidential elections are held next year. Shevardnadze made history by enabling democracy in the former Soviet Union; he must not stand in the way of history by obstructing the next phase of Georgia's democratic development.
The writer is deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.