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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 November, 2003, 18:40 GMT
Q&A: Georgia's 'velvet revolution'
Georgian opposition supporters
Many Georgians got fed up with Mr Shevardnadze's broken promises
The former Soviet republic of Georgia has undergone a political upheaval, with opposition forces taking over the country's parliament and forcing the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze.

The crisis was precipitated by parliamentary elections earlier in November, which were widely criticised for serious irregularities.

BBC News Online looks at the issues behind the crisis.


Q: Why was Mr Shevardnadze forced to resign?

The opposition were incensed by what they saw as a string of broken promises and missed opportunities by President Shevardnadze.

To many Georgians Mr Shevardnadze - once renowned for his role as Soviet foreign minister in ending the Cold War - is a failed leader who has been unable to deliver on rampant poverty and corruption, energy crises and resolution of conflicts such as that in the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Just recently the president made another promise - to hold democratic and fair parliamentary elections.

But on election day, 2 November, it became clear that this had not happened. International observers said the elections were marred by spectacular irregularities. The result, giving victory to two blocs which backed Mr Shevardnadze, was at odds with opinion polls suggesting his supporters would lose their majority in parliament.

The fact that official results were not finally released until 20 November, almost three weeks after election day, raised further doubts about the poll's legitimacy.

Anti-government protests in Tbilisi began almost immediately after the election and continued almost without respite until Mr Shevardnadze's resignation.

Q: Who is in charge now?

Nino Burjanadze, the speaker of the last parliament and one of the opposition leaders, has been named by other opposition figures as acting president.

But while Georgia has a working constitution which allows for such a transition, there is now no working parliament to ratify it. The body which was elected in the flawed vote on 2 November has not been sworn in, and is in any case not recognised by the opposition.

It seems that only fresh parliamentary and presidential elections will be able to provide the country with a legitimate leadership.

Q: Could the country break up?

Georgia is already fragmented, with Abkhazia in the north-west a de facto independent state following a war in the early 1990s in which 10,000 people were killed. South Ossetia, which has strong ethnic and cultural ties with the Russian region of North Ossetia, has not recognised Tbilisi's authority since Georgia became independent in 1991. But Mr Shevardnadze can at least be credited with holding what was left of the country together.

The main concern for Georgia's new leaders will be that Ajaria in the south-west might now secede.

Veteran strongman Aslan Abashidze, considered an old-style Soviet politician and formerly a bitter opponent of Mr Shevardnadze, joined forces with him against an opposition which he saw as being more of a threat than the president. Now that Mr Shevardnadze is gone, correspondents say that Mr Abashidze - who has already declared a state of emergency in the region - would have no compunction about organising a crackdown and possibly even breaking with Tbilisi altogether.

And with Georgia being a patchwork of diverse clans and fiefdoms, others might follow.

Q: Why is Georgia in such a desperate economic state?

Georgia was once one of the most prosperous regions of the former Soviet Union, and came to be known as its "fruit basket". But it has been drained of its wealth since independence by a string of ethnic conflicts and a civil war in 1992, coupled with years of widespread corruption and misrule.

Now unemployment is around 20% and the majority of the population lives below the poverty line. Pensioners are forced to live on 14 laris ($6) a month.

Q: Where does Russia stand?

Mr Shevardnadze has until recently tried to move Georgia away from Russia's influence.

Relations have been tense. Moscow and Tbilisi have clashed frequently over Russian support for separatists in Abkhazia and the presence of Chechen rebel fighters in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.

But two weeks ago Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to help Mr Shevardnadze in any way he could in the crisis. He sent his Georgian-born Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, to Tbilisi. It was Mr Ivanov's mediation which ultimately led the way to Mr Shevardnadze's resignation.

Q: What is Georgia's strategic significance?

With Russia to the north, and Turkey and Iran to the south, the southern Caucasus has always been a battleground of empires, faiths and ideologies.

But now it is also a source of concern for the United States. Washington has invested huge political and financial capital in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which will take Caspian Sea oil from Azerbaijan to the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

It is potentially a massive alternative source of energy in the event of instability in the Middle East.

For years, Washington saw Mr Shevardnadze as a bringer of stability and democracy to the region, and sought to bolster Georgia's independence with hard cash.

Georgia became the second biggest recipient of US aid per capita after Israel.

But the US lost faith in Mr Shevardnadze, who came to be seen as a weak leader who would not be able to secure a better future for his country.

The election irregularities may have been the last straw for the US. The State Department said it was "deeply disappointed" with the Georgian leadership.




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