"Oh, fatherland! How I think of you now," lamented Euripides' Medea, the princess of ancient Colchis -- today part of the republic of Georgia. "In every way the situation is bad." Modern Georgians understand her sentiment only too well. In the first decade and a half since their independence from the Soviet Union, they have faced civil war, separatist movements, economic malaise, rigged elections, and dysfunctional government.

Recently, however, Georgians have started to take matters into their own hands. In November, they staged a bloodless revolt against their president, Eduard Shevardnadze, for overseeing fraudulent parliamentary elections. When Shevardnadze tried to open the new legislative session, protesters took over parliament peacefully, some handing out roses to the police. At first, Shevardnadze responded by declaring a state of emergency, but he soon thought better of his legacy. Within days, he agreed to resign. New presidential elections, which international observers deemed generally free, were held on January 4, 2004. By an overwhelming majority, the vote awarded the presidency to Mikheil Saakashvili, a 36-year-old Columbia University-educated lawyer who had led the demonstrations.

During his brief electoral campaign and tenure as president, Saakashvili has made all the right moves. He has promised to fight corruption, to reform government -- from the structure of the constitution to taxation policy -- and to improve relations with Russia while maintaining strong ties with the United States. What his government must do first, however, is find a way to win the allegiance of all Georgia's inhabitants, including staunch secessionists in the north and a prickly potentate along the Black Sea. Before it can become a real democracy, Georgia must become a real state.

VANISHING LINES

The peaceful ouster of Shevardnadze was a signal event in the politics of Eurasia -- but only because it is unlikely to be repeated elsewhere in the region. Georgia is the only member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the association of 12 former Soviet republics, that can be said to have genuinely democratic aspirations. Some -- Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova -- still use the language of democracy but have spent the last several years perfecting their own brand of illiberalism. Others -- Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Turkmenistan -- have tired of even pretending. Since the downfall of communism, most governments across the region have simply replaced Soviet authoritarianism with homegrown varieties. Elections -- if they are held at all -- are systematically manipulated, either at the ballot box or, more subtly, through control of the media and harassment of opposition parties. In Russia, the "dictatorship of law" promoted by President Vladimir Putin now seems disturbingly close to a dictatorship pure and simple. If, as the old adage goes, democracy is a system in which it is safe to lose an election, then Eurasia's democrats still need to watch their backs. Georgia's "revolution of roses" stands out as the former Soviet Union's only successful popular uprising against this trend and the lackluster statesmanship and corruption that have attended it.

Observers have been quick to draw lessons from the Georgian experience, for Eurasia and for other parts of the world. The billion dollars in democracy and development aid that Georgia has received from the United States since 1991 -- by far Washington's largest per capita investment in any Soviet successor state -- seem to have paid off. Washington at first lauded Shevardnadze as a beacon of democratic reform, but as the 1990s progressed, his democratic credentials became more suspect. The United States, along with nongovernmental organizations such as the Open Society Institute, stepped up support for the growing political opposition. That assistance was an important catalyst of change. And it is evidence, observers say, that sustained political engagement, party training, and civil-society building can eventually bring down autocrats.

Yet the story of Georgia's awakening is also a cautionary tale. Development strategies there and in many other parts of the world have sometimes encouraged democratization programs without tackling basic problems such as undefined state boundaries or weak government capabilities. In failing states, the strategy has been to build a democracy and hope that, in time, the rest will take care of itself. But the history of Georgia since 1991 illustrates that leaving fundamental questions unanswered -- Is this one country or several? Who is sovereign? Where are the country's legitimate borders? -- can stymie reform and pollute public life.

Development specialists are not wholly blind to this problem, of course, which is why "governance" -- capacity building, institutional design, anticorruption campaigns -- has recently become a fashionable focus of international assistance programs. But "governance" is simply a euphemism for what used to be known as "politics," the first requirement of which is to know where power resides. Since the early 1990s, Georgia has been divided among a weak central government and several functionally independent regions, with predictably corrosive effects on national politics. Turning Georgia into a country that is both functional and democratic is the goal of the post-Shevardnadze leadership and of Georgia's friends in the West. The coming months will show whether it can be achieved without first settling the basic issue of territorial control. So far, the lesson seems to be that it cannot.

THINGS FELL APART

Georgia is among the smallest of the former Soviet republics -- a little bigger than West Virginia, with a population of about five million. Yet it loomed large in Soviet history and post-Soviet politics. Its capital, Tbilisi, was the site of one of the first major Bolshevik operations, a 1907 bank heist that swelled party coffers. (One of its planners, Iosif Dzhugashvili, would later change his name to Stalin.) Blessed with an appealing climate, productive farmland, and legendary hospitality, Georgia was also among the Soviet Union's wealthiest republics. After the end of communism, it adopted a strongly pro-Western orientation and learned to leverage its strategic location on the Black Sea's eastern shore to become a major player in discussions about routes for Eurasian oil and gas exports. (The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline now under construction will be the primary conduit for transporting hydrocarbons from the rich Caspian basin to the rest of the world. Transit fees are expected to bring Georgia billions of dollars in the coming decades.)

The breakup of the Soviet Union was accompanied by the fracture of Georgia itself. In the northwest, members of the Abkhaz ethnic group asserted their right to self-determination, and the Georgian army launched a poorly executed war to prevent their secession. Ethnic Ossetes also declared their own separate republic in the north, while, in the south, Azeri and Armenian minorities complained of discrimination and occasionally rumbled about breaking away. Political differences, fueled by competition among regional clans and criminal gangs, escalated even among ethnic Georgians. A full-blown civil war of Georgians against Georgians raged alongside the secessionist conflicts.

Because of these disputes, the state known as "Georgia" has largely been a fiction of recent international diplomacy. Nearly 20 percent of the country's territory remains beyond the central government's control. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for example, function as de facto independent countries, even though no one has recognized them. The presence of Russian soldiers -- in peacekeeping contingents authorized by the Georgians themselves and on bases left over from the Soviet era -- has discouraged Tbilisi from trying to retake the areas by force. And Adjaria, a province along the Black Sea, maintains an uneasy "autonomous" relationship with the Georgian center -- and hosts a Russian military base to underscore it.

When Shevardnadze stepped into the presidency in 1992 promising to restore Georgia's territorial integrity and promote ties with the West, he was greeted as a savior. Relative political calm did return during his tenure, but he proved unable to solve the basic conundrums of territorial control and state performance. Today still, the central government's influence begins to wane just a few miles outside Tbilisi. Even in the capital, average citizens often do without electricity or running water. Although the population is highly educated, the economy is in shambles. Georgia's per capita national income is lower than Swaziland's, and more than half of the population lives under the poverty line.

Under Shevardnadze, the government's inherent weakness was exacerbated by a dysfunctional political system. Parties appeared and disappeared. Elections were falsified. Corruption became rampant: police officers extracted fines for imaginary traffic offenses and government officials misappropriated international aid or helped sell off state industries to their cronies. In the end, nothing became Shevardnadze in power like the leaving of it.

This is the difficult legacy that Saakashvili's government has inherited. The secessionists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia will look no more kindly on the new leadership than they did on the old. There are signs, in fact, that they may be even less inclined to cooperate with energetic reformers than they were with the generally accommodating and avuncular Shevardnadze. As soon as Shevardnadze fell, the renegade regions appealed to Russia, their long-time protector, to dissuade the new Georgian leadership from making aggressive moves. Elsewhere, local elites have become accustomed to running their own affairs, and efforts by the central government to rein them in may produce conflict. That is the case with Aslan Abashidze, the potentate in Adjaria. Once a rival of Shevardnadze, Abashidze threw in his lot with the former president and often manipulated electoral results to guarantee a victory for Shevardnadze's party, as he did last November. Abashidze has already proved to be a thorn in the side of Saakashvili by discouraging Adjarians from participating in the latest presidential elections and complicating plans for the next parliamentary ballot.

Then there are the entrenched interests of bureaucrats and businesspeople who benefited from the largesse and laxity of the Shevardnadze years. (Off-the-record deals are said to account for 60 to 70 percent of the country's total economic activity.) Corruption has long tentacles in Georgia, and setting out to tame the criminal networks that infest state structures can be a dangerous pursuit. Shevardnadze himself was the target of several assassination attempts, even though he was hardly a serious reformer. The murder of Zoran Djindjic, the reformist prime minister who tried to clean up Serbia after Slobodan Milosevic, undoubtedly weighs heavily on the minds of Saakashvili and his cohort.

Georgia's revolution injects a welcome dose of uncertainty in a region where political outcomes have become oppressively predictable. It is unclear, however, whether the country's new leaders will have the conviction and deftness to capitalize on Shevardnadze's departure. They will have to deal with (or buy off) local power brokers without prompting them to turn to violence. They will have to root out the widespread use of public office for private gain. They will have to find ways to keep the electricity on and the water flowing. Otherwise, Georgians will begin to wonder whether the end of Shevardnadze really marked the beginning of something better.

BALANCE OF POWERS

Georgians say that the country's biggest problem is Russia. The Russian government has never denied that it takes a keen interest in its neighbor, and Georgia's secessionist leaders welcome Russian support -- they even visited Moscow just days after Shevardnadze resigned. Russia has effectively cemented the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as protectorates by maintaining preferential visa and passport regimes with them and making it easier for their inhabitants to obtain Russian citizenship. (It has extended that special relationship to Adjaria as well.) Russia also operates military bases in Georgia, in contravention of international agreements to close them down.

To balance Russia's influence, Georgia's central government needs outside help, especially from the United States, which has been the country's most generous backer for a decade. A stable and democratic Georgia is the linchpin of U.S. policy in the Caucasus, and the Caucasus, in turn, is a critical part of the strategic future of Eurasia and the greater Middle East. The Clinton administration gave Georgia massive amounts of aid, a good deal of which helped Shevardnadze stay in power so long. Since the "revolution of roses" last fall, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other senior U.S. government officials have visited Tbilisi, underscoring Washington's commitment to Saakashvili and his associates. These moves are encouraging to many Georgians, who say that the country needs to establish the right "pressure gradient" in its foreign policy. They hope that the United States and its allies will put pressure on Russia, so that Russia, in turn, will put pressure on the Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaderships to give up their quest for independence. With a big enough push from the outside, their logic goes, Georgia's territorial problems would go away.

Things are more complicated than this, however. Abkhazia and South Ossetia certainly depend on Russia. Their trade is oriented almost exclusively toward the north, and Russian financial assistance, especially via subsidized energy supplies, is the bedrock of their existence. Moreover, Russian bases support local economies, even outside the secessionist zones; closing them down without a plan for replacing the jobs lost would be disastrous. At the same time, residents of these regions remember the violent conflicts of the early 1990s and remain understandably wary of the central government. Over the past decade, they have built their own administrations, security forces, and -- most critically -- school systems, with little connection to the rest of the country. Shevardnadze did little to reach out to the average people in these peripheral regions or to restore their confidence in the recognized government. Reversing that practice should be one of the key criteria by which outside powers judge Saakashvili's leadership.

Thinking creatively about what a meaningfully united Georgia ought to look like, instead of simply condemning Russia's dark influence, is the best way forward. There are several ways to bring together the country's disparate regions and interests, provided someone dares to consider and implement them. Federations, confederations, condominiums, and various forms of limited sovereignty have never really been put on the table in Georgia, even though these solutions are already being discussed in other parts of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Until now, the situation in Georgia has not been sufficiently dire for anyone -- at least not for anyone with real political power -- to worry about solving it.

Saakashvili has a chance to change Shevardnadze's dismal legacy. But that will require statesmanship in the purest sense of the word, including articulating a clear case for why residents of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and any other part of the country should think of their future as lying within a state controlled by Tbilisi. Continued kvetching about territorial integrity and the nefarious designs of the Russian Federation will only alienate the secessionists further. In time, even Georgia's friends may come to wonder whether a country with fictitious borders and no plan for making them real is a country worth helping.

Georgia's strategic location and its pro-American foreign policy first helped put the country on the United States' radar screen. The government's weakness and Washington's fear that terrorists might set up camp in the country's mountain passes have kept it there. Money has flowed freely from Washington to Tbilisi for more than a decade, and U.S. soldiers have helped train the Georgian military. It is only recently, however, that the U.S. commitment to Georgia has come with meaningful admonitions about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Washington's growing honesty about the reality of Georgian politics helped bring about Shevardnadze's resignation. The United States should now help Georgia's new leadership think creatively about basic questions of sovereignty, territorial control, and institutional design. The central government must recognize the multiethnic and multireligious reality of the country. It must accept a decade of state-building in the secessionist regions and allow local governments to be empowered. If these efforts succeed, Georgia could well become the positive example for eastern Europe and Eurasia that observers have long hoped for.

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  • Charles King is Associate Professor of Foreign Service and Government at Georgetown University and author of The Black Sea: A History.
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