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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shevardnadze's Rocks and Hard Places

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A certain glow still surrounds the image of Eduard Shevardnadze: His courageous diplomacy as the Soviet Union's foreign minister in the late 1980s helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful end. Now, as president of his native country, the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Shevardnadze stands before another momentous decision. Earlier this month, Georgia held parliamentary elections. Internationally sponsored exit polls and parallel vote tabulations showed that a pro-Western opposition party came in first. But the official count has been undermined by massive and blatant fraud, much of it organized by an authoritarian provincial leader with close ties to Russia. Shevardnadze can either ratify the fraud and retain control over the parliament in league with the regional boss, or he can throw out the fraudulent results and accept the opposition's victory.

Either course could bring turmoil to Georgia. Bush administration officials pressed Shevardnadze to hold a clean election and now warn him that if he accepts the fraud, he can lose his Western partnerships and Georgia's hopes of one day joining NATO and the European Union. Opposition leaders, who have been staging large street demonstrations, are vowing to drive Shevardnadze from power.

But Shevardnadze is also under considerable pressure from Aslan Abashidze, the ruler of the region of Adzharia, where one of the Russian military bases is located. Abashidze submitted election results that would have the effect of tripling his party's rightful representation in parliament; he claimed to have received tens of thousands more votes than there are registered voters in his fiefdom. He has threatened to declare Adzharia's independence from Georgia if this fraud is not accepted. Shortly after the election, Abashidze flew to neighboring Armenia, where he met the Russian defense minister. He then traveled to Moscow, where he met with officials close to President Vladimir Putin. If Shevardnadze gives in to this thug, he will have his support to remain in office, but he will also probably have fewer means to resist Putin, who is working assiduously to restore Moscow's imperial influence. There are limits to what the United States can do to influence the outcome of the crisis. It can only keep pressing Shevardnadze to choose democracy and the West -- and stand ready to support him if he does.

This comment appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.