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Velvet revolution risks political vacuum

London, Nov. 24: The bloodless revolution that deposed Eduard Shevardnadze looked like a reprise of the collapse of the Communist Party regimes of eastern Europe more than a decade ago.

Shevardnadze, who used the brutal skills honed during years at the top of the Soviet political machine to bring together the disparate clans of Georgia, eventually became a man out of tune with his time. In his desperation to cling to power the dictator made the same mistake as many of his contemporaries in eastern Europe when they tried to hang on despite the overwhelming opposition of the people they ruled.

In a phrase that was borrowed from the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia more than 10 years ago, Georgian Opposition leaders called their coup a “velvet revolution”.

The problem for Georgia, however, is that while Czechoslovakia had the charismatic Vaclav Havel to act as its guide from dictatorship to democracy, Tbilisi has little but a fractured Opposition.

The only aim that united the clans that make up Georgia’s political opposition was to rid the state of Shevardnadze.

Thus far the army has not intervened, and clearly aware of the impossibility of stemming the tide of revolt, it has remained in its barracks. Nino Burdzhanadze, the parliamentary speaker who has been appointed as acting President, must move swiftly if she is to steer Georgia smoothly to its second election in two months.

The possibility of a further collapse in law and order is immense in what is effectively a political vacuum that will be fought over by fractured opposition groups with no obvious national leader.

While Shevardnadze may have been ruling on borrowed time, he was, because of his consummate political skills, once the only figure able to unite his notoriously corrupt and volatile country, which sits on a planned oil pipeline to open up the Caspian basin to the West.

The east European states that became most successful at becoming democracies in the early Nineties were all led by former dissidents who had spent sometimes decades as underground leaders. Havel and Lech Walesa in Poland were internationally admired while East Germans had a ready-made country into which to melt. Hungary, long the most liberal of the Soviet satellites, needed little more than fine-tuning to become a democracy. Romania, with no opposition to speak of due to the brutal, if eccentric, dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, had a bloody revolution, followed by a neo-communist autocracy.

Despite staging its “velvet revolution”, Georgia’s current political state, with its lack of any effective Opposition leadership, is more akin to Romania’s situation in 1990. Had the Opposition waited for Shevardnadze to hold new elections before stepping down, as he would inevitably have had to do, much of the immediate uncertainty would have been avoided.

Mikhail Saakashvili, the most prominent Opposition figure, was willing to allow Shevardnadze to stay providing he announced a new timetable for presidential elections, but the crowd had lost patience and was not going to wait.

It will require the skills of a Shevardnadze in his heyday to see Georgia through the next 45 days without a proper government. There will be hundreds of supporters of the fallen regime who could be expected to plot revenge, both out of fear of retribution at the hands of the mob as well as a sense that they were unfairly robbed of power.

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