Rene — Politics, pipelines converge in Georgia

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Politics, pipelines converge in Georgia
The Globe and Mail, Canada
Monday, November 24, 2003
It looked like a popular, bloodless revolution on the streets. Behind
the scenes, it smells more like another victory for the United States
over Russia in the post-Cold War international chess game.
Once, the game was played out on a truly global scale, in places such
as Angola and Afghanistan, and was cloaked as a fight between
capitalism and communism. These days, as Russian power and influence
have shrunk, so has the playing field. The fight for influence goes
on, but the battlefields have edged much closer to Moscow – former
colonies such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia, and
Azerbaijan and Georgia in the Caucasus.
Eduard Shevardnadze used to be one of the chess masters. Yesterday, he
was knocked aside like just another pawn.
The roots of Mr. Shevardnadze’s downfall go much further back than
Georgia’s disputed parliamentary election, held on Nov. 2, which even
his chief-of-staff has now acknowledged were rigged. They lie to the
east, in the oil under the Caspian Sea, one of the world’s few great
remaining, relatively unexploited, sources of oil.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Washington have
been jockeying to control the route that will eventually take these
enormous resources more rapidly to market in the West. Georgia and
neighbouring Azerbaijan, which borders the Caspian, quickly came to be
seen not just as newly independent countries, but as part of an
“energy corridor.”
The old, Soviet-era pipeline runs from the Azerbaijani capital Baku
north into Russian territory, then west to the Black Sea port of
Novorossisk, in the process running through the troubled separatist
region of Chechnya. Anxious to build a more secure route, Western
investors built a second line in 1998 from Baku to the Georgian port
city of Supsa. Plans were laid for an even larger pipeline that would
run through Georgia to Turkey and the Mediterranean.
When these plans were made, Mr. Shevardnadze was seen as an asset by
both Western investors and the U.S. government. His reputation as the
man who helped end the Cold War gave investors a sense of confidence
in the country, and his stated intention to move Georgia out of
Russia’s orbit and into Western institutions such as the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union played well at the
U.S. State Department.
The United States quickly moved to embrace Georgia, opening a military
base in the country two years ago to give Georgian soldiers
“anti-terrorist” training. They were the first U.S. troops to set up
in a former Soviet republic.
But somewhere along the line, Mr. Shevardnadze reversed course and
decided to once more embrace Russia. This summer, Georgia signed a
secret 25-year deal to make the Russian energy giant Gazprom its sole
supplier of gas. Then it effectively sold the electricity grid to
another Russian firm, cutting out AES, the company that the
U.S. administration had backed to win the deal. Mr. Shevardnadze
attacked AES as “liars and cheats.” Both deals dramatically increased
Russian influence in Tbilisi.
Washington’s reaction was swift. Within weeks, U.S. President George
W. Bush had sent senior adviser Stephen Mann to Tbilisi with a
warning: “Georgia should not do anything that undercuts the powerful
promise of an East-West energy corridor,” he said.
After the energy deals with Russia went ahead anyway, Mr. Mann was
followed by former U.S. secretary of state James Baker, ostensibly an
old friend of Mr. Shevardnadze, who warned the Georgian leader of the
need for a free, fair parliamentary election on Nov. 2.
(No such warning was given in neighbouring Azerbaijan, where outgoing
president Heidar Aliyev handed the presidency to his son in what
observers called a mockery of a vote. Mr. Aliyev had never been as
cheeky with the Americans as Mr. Shevardnadze.)
After the vote in Georgia, a U.S. organization called the Global
Strategy Group quickly released exit poll results that contradicted
the official count, and gave victory to the party of
Mr. Shevardnadze’s U.S.-educated opponent, Mikhail
Saakashvili. Richard Miles, the U.S. ambassador to Tbilisi who also
happened to be posted to Serbia when Slobodan Milosevic was toppled by
a popular revolt, made the rounds in Tbilisi, lending tacit support to
the opposition’s contention that Mr. Shevardnadze had to go.
Yesterday, Mr. Shevardnadze went. The U.S.-backed candidate for
president, Mr. Saakashvili, won the day. And Russian Foreign Minister
Igor Ivanov, after telling Mr. Shevardnadze there was nothing more
Moscow could do for him, flew from Tbilisi to the coastal resort town
of Batumi in the autonomous republic of Adzharia to stir up new
The game begins again.