November 22nd, 2003


The rise of the velvet revolution.

As I mentioned recently, the country of Georgia has been on the verge of chaos and civil war, due to widespread vote fraud by the government of Eduard Shevardnadze.

Recently, Shevardnadze's government declared itself the winner of the recent elections, despite evidence suggesting an intentionally perpetrated fraud on the part of the government, but -- true to their word -- the opposition not only stopped a bogus parliament from being called, they have declared a revolution, of sorts... a largely non-violent "velvet revolution".

The US State Department, which until recently had firmly stuck to a neutral position, obviously saw the writing on the wall the other day when Schevardnadze's government declared itself the winner of the election. A State Department spokesman said the poll results reflected "massive vote fraud" and failed to "accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people." It is unlikely that the US modified their position out of humanitarian concern, however -- Schevardnadze's election "win" was largely based on ballot stuffing by ultra-nationalists with strong ties to the Russian government and the former KGB. No doubt the US felt that Schevardnadze's win would come at a price -- increased influence in Georgian politics by the Russian military hardliners.

It remains to be seen whether the Georgian military will get involved, or whether all parties involved will remain neutral, but today, the day belongs to the protesters / erstwhile revolutionaries led by 33-year-old Mikhail Saakashvili, who feels confident enough to directly threaten Schevardnadze's rule. "We are giving the president one last chance. Within one hour, either he comes to the people or the people will come to him."

So, who is Mikhail Saakashvili? He fashions himself as a pro-democratic reformer with close ties to the US -- infact, he holds a degree from Columbia Law School and previously practiced law in NYC. Some of his opponents accuse him of being a fascist and a puppet of the West. While accusation of fascism seems extreme, he has at varying times suggested acts (such as banning the Communist Party and negating the votes of Georgia's Labor Party, which competes for a similar constituency . It also appears that his supporters are bankrolled by George Soros through his Open Society Georgia Foundation. (It should be pointed out that Soros has also pledged to spend millions to defeat George Bush in the next election.)

While Saakashvili's behavior seems questionable, it's important to consider the environment he is working under. Georgia is currently one of the poorest countries in the world, with citizens earning about a dollar a day. The nation is divided to the point of civil war on many different levels, and corruption, crime, and drug trafficking is widespread -- not exactly fertile ground for a representative democracy. Does that mean that the best that Saakashvili can aspire to be currently is a benevolent dictator? Uncertain.

It's worth noting Saakashvili's outspoken concern about Georgia being used as a major route in opium smuggling -- opium that comes from Afghanistan. Much of this trade flows through the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia has a flourishing trade in drugs and arms, along with a large Chechen refugee population. Both Russia and the US have security concerns regarding this region, as this black market flow of drugs, guns, and money strengthens both the Chechen rebels and the Afghani warlords.

Schevardnadze fled the parliament and is refusing to step down. He also appears to have substantial support from the Georgian military, but it is unknown what the military and police will do under these circumstances. To further complicate matters, both the Russian and US military have troops in Georgia. The Russians, in particular, may be concerned that a Saakashvili-led government would lead to the departure of their troops from Georgia and a reduction in Russian influence. It's anyone's guess how this all will play out. It could remain a relatively non-violent coup, or there could be a military crackdown. As for US and Russian interests, they both coincide and conflict in this matter.

It should perhaps be mentioned that the Velvet Revolution would be a great name for a Prince cover band...