ASTONISHING TV pictures from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, showed protesters storming the parliament building as popular anger with the regime exploded last week. The president, Edward Shevardnadze, was forced to scuttle away. The slogans of the uprising were directed against government corruption and ballot rigging.
But something much more fundamental drove it forward-the extreme poverty of a large section of the population. Until 12 years ago Georgia was part of the USSR, of which Shevardnadze was foreign minister. Deepening economic crisis in the 1980s under Brezhnev and then Gorbachev led to an explosion of popular discontent. In 1991 the USSR fell apart after an unsuccessful military coup.
The rulers of all the new republics that emerged after the break-up of the USSR told people that a rapid turn to the market would lead to massive improvements in their living standards. The harsh reality in Georgia, as elsewhere, was quite different. Today 60 percent of the population live below the poverty level, and nearly a third of the people in Tbilisi are unemployed.
Workers can go for months at a time without getting paid while the official trade unions behave, as they did in the time of the USSR, as a branch of management. Healthcare is supposedly free, but in practice is only available for those who can afford to pay for it.
Shevardnadze took control of Georgia ten years ago after a civil war drove out the independent republic's first president. Shevardnadze's victory was greeted as providing the salvation for Georgia by virtually the whole of the Western media. When he was re-elected as president in 1999 the Western media were again ecstatic.
The Guardian reported, 'Edward Shevardnadze, the president of Georgia, hailed a strong election victory yesterday as vindication of his pro-Western and pro-NATO policies.'
In practice, however, his policies had amounted to sharing out ownership of industry between the old state bosses and the mafia. The level of corruption was shown when Hilary Clinton's brother tried to set up an export business with one of the best known mafia types, Aslan Abishidze. The only reason the project did not go ahead was that Abishidze was a political opponent of Shevardnadze at the time-although he tried to help Shevardnadze last weekend.
The all-important thing for the US, under Clinton and Bush alike, was working to pull Georgia into the US sphere of influence. In particular the aim was to protect a pipeline that is being built through the country to export oil from the Caspian Sea to the West via Turkey. It was afraid that otherwise the oil would go through cheaper routes run by regimes less friendly to the US-Iran or Russia.
So the US trains the armed forces, deploys 200 troops in the country, and gives the government more foreign aid per head than anywhere else in the world apart from Israel. The aid goes to increase corruption in the country, and helped keep Shevardnadze's oppressive regime in power for a decade.
However, when it became clear how unstable Shevardnadze's government was the US began hedging its bets and cultivating sections of the opposition. It hopes that three people who used to be close to Shevardnadze before joining the opposition will be able to get control.
The trio are Mikhail Saakashvili, a US-trained lawyer who used to be justice minister, Nino Burdzhanadze, speaker of the parliament, and Tedo Japaridze, head of the security forces. Hopefully many of the people who took to the streets last weekend will have other ideas.