Monday, November 24, 2003

After "Where is Raed?", now it's "Where is Shevardnadze?"

I'm sure you all know by now that the Georgian president and Soviet statesman, Eduard Shevardnadze, was overthrown by demonstrators enraged by alleged vote-rigging in the recent presidential election at the weekend. After the usual proceedings of post-Communist political theatre - mass demos under the new-old national flag, initial contempt from the boss, then offers of negotiations, followed by the ostentatious mobilisation of troops and the denouement often brought about by the generals refusing to fire into the crowd, usually for the worst of motives - Shevardnadze resigned yesterday, bringing the opposition speaker of parliament into the presidency pro tempore as laid down in the constitution. There were many curious features of what the new Georgian rulers are already calling their "velvet revolution". For a start, there was an unusually democratic flavour - the two sides plotted to elect their own speakers rather than gathering guns, and the climax occurred when protestors burst into the parliamentary chamber to prevent the dismissal of their speaker. But more importantly, and more tellingly for the true nature of this particular "velvet revolution", what was the Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov doing in so many photographs with the opposition leaders when we heard next to nothing of him at the time?

Russian intervention has been a standing feature of independent Georgia, ever since the Abkhazian rebellion in the early 90s, when most people involved believed that the Abkhaz were a cat's paw of Russian power. Russian military bases exist to this day in Georgia. It was certainly remarkable that, after the Abkhaz rebels had brought the new state to the edge of collapse, the rebellion seemed to be turned off like a tap after talks between Shevardnadze and Russian representatives permitted the stationing of a Russian "peacekeeping force" in Abkhazia. Many curious events have been blamed on Russian interference - things like assassination attempts, for one. A persuasive argument exists that Shevardnadze started out being too independent for Russia, and then made a U-turn under duress - but continued to seek Western economic and military assistance as a guarantee. In recent years, this has gone further than ever before, with the deployment of US military advisers to Georgia in an effort to pursue supposed jihadists out of the Pankisi Gorge on the Chechen border. Russia was not remarkably pleased by that development. From a Georgian point of view, though, it was a stroke of the cunning Shevardnadze was famed for - it dealt with Russian demands that Georgia drive supposed Chechen rebels out of the Gorge or face Russian military intervention there, whilst also offering something like a Western guarantee of security. Russia, though, could hardly argue against the mission, having spent so much time demanding military action in the Gorge, which by now was a cauldron of weird politico-military groupings - Chechen rebels, for a start, jihadis, very likely Russian special forces, and something strange called the Brothers of the White Forest that claimed to be a Georgian nationalist guerrilla group equally opposed to Chechens and Russians, but might have been a front for Georgian government forces, Russian forces, or perhaps even the CIA. Confused yet?

Getting back to my title, though, an interesting sidelight on the whole story has emerged in various German-language papers. Almost all major German news sources have been reporting first that two "mysterious" aircraft arrived from Georgia at Baden-Baden Airport today, carrying various passengers including Eduard Shevardnadze. That in itself would not be surprising - Germany is the Western state most committed to Eastern Europe, and has close economic and diplomatic connections to Georgia, as well as a degree of historic interest going back to the First World War and to various romantic historians of the 1840s - if it wasn't for the fact that the Federal Border Patrol (Bundesgrenzschutz) office in Weil am Rhein, responsible for Baden-Baden, has just categorically denied that Shevardnadze was one of the passengers. His family have meanwhile declared that he is at home in Tiflis. Who's lying? Cunning he may be, but being in two places at once is a rare accomplishment.
FAZ story

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