The Fall of Shevardnaze

The Republic of Georgia is variously referred to as a “European” country (wedged between the Black and Caspian Seas, at the extremity of Europe), or as a “Middle Eastern” country (given its long history of interactions with, and conquests by, Persians, Arabs, and Turks, and its large Muslim and Armenian Orthodox minorities). These geographical designations are somewhat arbitrary (European Georgia actually lies east of the Anatolian peninsula, considered the “Asian” part of Turkey), but let us consider it, for the time being, a Middle Eastern country.
Bush on the Need for Middle Eastern Democracy

The neocons shaping U.S. Middle East policy have insisted all along that they want “democracy” to arrive in the benighted Middle East. That theme, once peripheral as the administration built a case for war on Iraq based on the imaginary threat of weapons of mass destruction and baseless allegations about Saddam-bin Laden ties, has become more and more central as a justification for the ongoing occupation of Iraq. Thus President Bush chose the occasion of a speech before the National Endowment for Democracy on October 4 to echo the theme of an earlier speech by Condoleeza Rice: Why shouldn’t people in the Middle East (like everybody, everywhere) have “democracy”?

“And the questions arise,” Dubya piously intoned: “Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even have a choice in the matter?” Alluding (as did Rice) to a supposed conspiracy of “observers” who having some weird inclination to dis Islamic potential for democracy, Bush elaborated:

“Time after time, observers have questioned whether this country, or that people, or this group, are ‘ready’ for democracy—as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own Western standards of progress. In fact, the daily work of democracy itself is the path of progress. It teaches cooperation, the free exchange of ideas, and the peaceful resolution of differences It should be clear to all that Islam—the faith of one-fifth of humanity—is consistent with democratic rule More than half of all the Muslims in the world live in freedom under democratically constituted governments.” (Such as? You find me Muslim-majority countries with a cumulative population of 500 million that deserve to be called “democracies” in which people “live in freedom.” Is Indonesia among them? Pakistan? Egypt? Morocco? Occupied Iraq? What idiosyncratic definitions are being applied here?)

He went on to speak of “the Middle East” (which, again, can include the mainly Christian Republic of Georgia) as “lagging” in “political development.” (As though Bush’s vision of “political development” is a universal process fated for all nations unless they screw up.) There, poverty is “deep” and “spreading” due to “the failures of political and economic doctrines.” (You have to wonder why the “failed” secularist dictatorships in the Middle East produced such advances in education, health care, women’s status and industrial growth.) Bush alluded especially to those who “allied themselves with the Soviet bloc.” He spoke of “torture, oppression, misery, and ruin.” In words that must especially amuse the inhabitants of those countries, he spoke positively of the rulers of Morocco, Oman, Kuwait, Yemen, Bahrain, and Qatar. He spoke approvingly of Saudi Arabia’s “first steps towards reform” and (noting Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel), urged Egypt to “show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.”


The Danger of “Hasty Elections”

Actually, few in the Middle East were impressed.
They know that when Egyptian President Mubarak tolerates a demonstration against the U.S. war in Iraq, the U.S. gets angry; when he crushes the same, he’s appreciated as a loyal ally. They know that Pakistan’s Musharraf has been pressured by Washington to (anti-democratically) prevent anti-U.S. protest marches. (By “democracy,” Bush doesn’t mean the right to oppose his Terror War.) They know that repressive Egypt is the number two recipient of U.S. aid (after Israel), and that Islamic fundamentalist absolute monarchies Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are important U.S. client states. They know that Turkey, with a multi-party parliamentary system, has taken fire from U.S. officials precisely because its democratic process denied the U.S. the right to launch an invasion of Iraq from Turkish soil.

Some know that L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. proconsul in Iraq, said in June that while the occupation imposes “no blanket prohibition” against Iraqi self-rule, and he’s not personally “opposed to it,” it has to occur in “a way that takes care of our concerns Elections that are held too early can be destructive. It’s got to be done very carefully” (Washington Post, June 28). (In other words, any democracy, any at all, of Iraqi choosing, that keeps Iraq aligned to the U.S., dotted with U.S. military bases, dominated by U.S. capital, will be fine.) It’s not a partisan thing. More recently, Rhode Island Democratic Senator Jack Reed has warned “A quick, hasty election [in Iraq] might bring to power a person who doesn’t share the values we’re trying to encourage.” (Don’t you hate it when democracy does that?) “But the more we wait, the more it looks like an occupation” (AP, Nov. 29). Duh. And an anonymous administration official told the International Herald Tribune, “We’re boxed in. We have a highly difficult set of issues to deal with here. [But w]e can’t settle for just anything that gets us out of Iraq.” In other words, democratic elections tomorrow would bring to power people who hate us. (Don’t you just hate it when, having done things that encourage people to hate you, they wind up actually doing so? And so you have to keep them down longer, trying to get them to stop hating, but in doing that, you make them hate you more, and Yeah, “boxed in” is a good term for it.)

On November 26, senior Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (usually described as the most influential religious figure in Iraq) demanded a general election to create a new government and draft a constitution. U.S. reaction? The New York Times headline said it all: “Iraq’s Shiites Insist on Democracy. Washington Cringes.” Word on the street is the cringing Occupation seeks a compromise falling short of a democratic election. Occupation supporter Senator Hillary Clinton has said that while Iraqis “are peripheral to the real enemies that are trying to attack the United States,” nonetheless the U.S., having invaded Iraq, should now wait longer than Bush desires to transfer power to Iraqis—lest democracy produce the wrong result. Meanwhile, ostensible proponents of democracy ban reporters from the al-Arabiya cable channel (based in the pro-U.S. Union of Arab Emirates) from doing their job in Iraq. Their reportage has just gotten too inconvenient.

Obviously the U.S. government is less concerned with establishing “democracy” (even the skewed bourgeois democracy they find in Muslim societies like Turkey or Malaysia) than with maintaining a local kiss-ass attitude towards U.S. imperialism. Kiss ass correctly, and whatever your flaws, you’ll be assigned a position of dignity with the Free World. Didn’t Dubya’s father, George H.W. Bush, back in 1981 (as Reagan’s vice president) toast Philippine fascist dictator Ferdinand Marcos, declaring: “We love your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process”? h (Just a few years afterwards, during the “People Power” revolution that toppled Marcos, Washington gave him his walking papers, and as the scandalous reports about his murder of Benigno Aquino, his anti-communist death squads, and colossal pilfering of the national coffers came to light, whisked him away to comfortable Honolulu exile.)


Bloody Eduard’s Democratic Record

But now back to Georgia. To the long list of Middle Eastern dictators favored by democracy-promoting U.S. administrations, let us add the just-deposed President Eduard Amvrosiyevich Shevardnadze. This man (known in Georgia as “Bloody Eduard” for his record as the head of the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs, 1965-72, and First Secretary of the Georgian SSR, 1972-85) is doubly special, his career straddling the Cold War and the Terror War rather like his nation straddles the Caucasus. In both wars he proved highly serviceable to Washington’s objectives, and was rewarded accordingly. As the Soviet foreign minister in the dying days of the USSR, he made it abundantly clear that his career as Georgia’s Communist Party head had really been a joke, and that his real commitment was to the all-round restoration of capitalism (in this case, the gangster capitalism prevalent in post-Soviet states) in cooperation with the U.S. Later, pronouncing himself a “true son of the [Georgian Orthodox] Church,” Shevardnadze made it plain to his local power base and foreign backers that he was on the same page ideologically with the born-again Christians in Washington.

Soon after Georgia gained its independence from the USSR in 1991, Shevardnadze was elected president of the new republic, immediately accessing U.S. largesse, military assistance, the usual package. Over the following decade the small nation (of five million) received over a billion dollars in aid. In May 2002, hundreds of U.S. troops arrived to refurbish two Soviet-era bases, and train several Georgian SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) battalions for use against al Qaeda-linked operatives imagined to inhabit the Pankisi Gorge region. During the build-up to the Gulf War, Shevardnadze agreed to let the U.S. military deploy military aircraft at the Vaziani airbase 50 km from Tbilisi for attacking targets in Iraq. That’s friendship.

The oil fields around the Caspian Sea (mostly in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan) are thought to hold about 10% of the world’s known oil. At present it reaches world markets through pipelines via Russian territory, but the U.S. oil industry is keen on delivering that oil through friendly puppet states like Georgia and Afghanistan. A host of U.S. political and corporate dignitaries have visited Georgia since 1999 to insure that Georgia resists Russian pressure and stays with the U.S.’s preferred pipeline program: Zbigniew Brzezinsky, Lloyd Bentsen, John Sununu, Dick Cheney, former FBI director Louis Freeh, CIA director George Tenet. Shevardnadze’s generally been with the plan (again, a friend), but in recent months has given drilling and pipeline concessions to Russian firms. Washington didn’t like that, and on November 2 denounced the recent Georgian elections as fraudulent. According to Eric Margolis of the Toronto Sun, “Cash and anti-Shevardnadze political operatives from the U.S. poured into Tbilisi to back up the president’s American-educated principal rival, Mikhail Saakashvili.” This is not to say the uprising against Shevardnadze wasn’t a genuine expression of popular feeling; it’s just that external forces who may have either bolstered or undercut the president decided to join the Georgian masses and do the latter.

Earlier, one couldn’t have expected pointed criticisms from Washington about electoral irregularities. One can’t have expected condemnation of the suppression of religious minorities, and the corruption that throve under the white-haired statesman. One couldn’t have expected Shevardnadze to really help bring democracy to the Middle East. And Washington didn’t expect him to! Here’s what Mark Almond, lecturer on modern history at Oxford, writes in the New Statesman concerning U.S. handling of this puppet: “Those who pointed out the routine fraud of his elections or the horrors of his prisons were denounced by the U.S. State Department. In 1995, I visited the isolator prison in Tbilisi with a senior official. Every prisoner had TB. You could smell the vileness of the place outside the walls. The Georgian official retched on leaving the building. And the U.S. National Democratic Institute gave Shevardnadze its Medal of Freedom. Richard Perle told me: ‘He is one of ours.'”

“One of ours,” indeed. Washington’s principal, privately communicated, complaint was that the “pace of economic reform” was too slow, and its aid dollars were enriching Shevardnadze’s cronies rather than paving the way for pipeline construction. Finally falling out with his patrons, the Georgian leader, like Mobuto, Marcos, and Suharto before him, fell—with U.S. approval—not because he was a vicious, corrupt dictator but because he was no longer effectively getting the job done. Colin Powell got on the phone with Shevardnadze. So did the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov. (The Russian role, according to Dodona Kiziria, a Georgian political analyst, was dictated by the desire to generate “good will;” Georgia remains mostly in the U.S. camp, but it made good sense for Russia to side with the mass movement.)

The U.S. State Department’s official line is that neither it nor Russia removed Shevardnadze. Washington “certainly stayed in very close touch” with him during the crisis, and “encouraged him to make decisions that would lead Georgia forward in a peaceful manner within the constitution of Georgia.” But, adds State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, “We did not tell him what to do.” (Of course not; that would be anti-democratic.)

On November 23, Shevardnadze resigned as president. Some reports depict him as a bitter man, angered that his American patrons, abetted by Ivanov, pronounced his political death sentence. He has specifically accused American financier George Soros (once a friend and ally) of orchestrating his ouster. Soros has in fact been a backer of Saakashvili, and his involvement in Georgia does not seem to be coordinated with the Bush team; indeed, the electoral defeat of Bush in 2004 is among billionaire Soros’ priorities. In an interview with Agence France-Press, Shevardnadze avoided criticism of the Bush administration itself:

“I don’t want to talk about the United States. They have various bases of power, democratic institutes… various structures, there are embassies. Some participated, some helped, some aided. I don’t think the administration itself participated in what happened in Georgia. The West supports realistic power. They saw, they were convinced that others had come to power. They said to themselves: ‘Shevardnadze was a good person, we cooperated with him well, but everything comes to an end, he has a year, year and a half left (in his presidency) and then he has to leave.’ Who are we going to deal with afterwards? They looked for someone and found those three [Nino Burjanadze, currently acting president; Zurab Zhvania, State Minister; and Saakashvili].”

Whatever the contradictions between Soros and the neocons, their interests dovetailed here. But up until his fall, Medal of Freedom laureate Shevardnadze enjoyed an honored place in imperialism’s hagiographic canon, just as the Sultan of Oman and the King of Bahrain have acquired more recently. In the Bushite perspective, they’ve all been on the side of “democracy in the Middle East,” just as they’ve been on the right side in the War on Terrorism and the right side of History. If they stray a bit, they might be dismissed gently, with a few words of praise acknowledging their historical services. (Recall Madeleine Albright’s comments about Indonesia’s Suharto, just as the old man was succumbing to a popular uprising in 1998, and the U.S. was cutting its losses: “Now he has an opportunity for an historic act of statesmanship [by stepping down].” Thus he might “preserve his legacy as a man who not only led his country but provided for its democratic transition.” Suharto, responsible for about 700,000 deaths, remains honorably at large in retirement.)
Those that go graciously can, of course, always apply to further serve democracy by, for example, performing in Pizza Hut commercials.

* * *

To anyone aware of this background, Bush’s words about Middle East reform ring hollow. Just as the “Free World” of the Cold War era was really a mishmash of political forms including brutal dictatorships, the “democracy” Bush wills upon the expanding American empire is really what the U.S. has subsidized in Georgia: regimes dependent upon Washington, hospitable to U.S. troops, positively disposed to U.S. investment, boasting two or more competing political parties generally committed to “American political values,” with human rights records that (however awful) can be certified as “improving” every year. The Georgian “democracy” of yesteryear, exposed by the recent uprising as a fraud, will give way to another “democracy” under a new clique, praised and subsidized by its great patron until it, too, outlives its usefulness.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: