Georgia: Tipped by the Velvet

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In scenes not seen in the former Soviet states for a decade, tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets to topple a corrupt regime.

On live television Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, favoured by the west but detested by his people, was interrupted mid-speech addressing parliament. Thousands poured into the building as he looked on helplessly. Within hours he was gone.

The media coverage has portrayed this as a 'velvet revolution' - the overthrow of a corrupt leader who defrauded an election to retain power. The fact that Shevardnadze had been a favourite of the west for two decades received somewhat less attention. He was the Soviet foreign minister who helped usher in 'mafia privatisation' in Russia and later in Georgia. In 1989 he was the second key figure in the Soviet regime that ordered protesters to be mowed down in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Events in Georgia have a significance far beyond its borders. Georgia is a key link in the oil pipeline now being constructed from Azerbaijan through to Turkey's Mediterranean port Ceyhan. The Caspian oilfields are key to the US's strategy of breaking the dominance of the Gulf states.

Blair's friend, Russian president Putin, is also vying for influence over his neighbours. He and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, played off nationalist divisions across the region in order to regain a foothold after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, between 1990 and 1993 over 40,000 died in conflicts between Georgia and its secessionist states. Over 250,000 people were made refugees.

Russia and the US are vying for influence while at the same time uniting to defuse popular revolt, fostering a set of leaders they each hope they can do business with. The crucial question is whether the popular revolt in Georgia will send tremors across the region and foment another front of resistance to Bush and Blair's project of war and privatisation.