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Changing Georgia

Last week’s bloodless revolution in the former Soviet republic of Georgia is a reminder that change can come about peaceably, even in a region with a history as violent and turbulent as the Caucasus. What is needed is for all the players to rise to the occasion and play their parts resolutely, but responsibly.

Three distinct factors came into play in the Georgian revolution, and all of them are models for activists elsewhere. In the face of an election widely viewed as fraudulent, protesters took to the streets in wave after wave of protest, but they avoided violence. Georgian authorities, led by the republic’s veteran leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, chose not to overreact. As the pressure on the regime mounted from below, the great powers stepped in from above; Washington and Moscow, each with its own interests in the oil-rich region, worked together to craft an exit plan that promised an orderly transition.

Perhaps the most important factor was the character of the man who led the regime, Shevardnadze. It was he who had the wisdom to recognize reality and agree to step down without a fight, accepting that his continued rule was hopelessly tainted. In this he played out what may be the final act in a career that was marked throughout by the same dignity and moderation he displayed last week.

Starting out as a local communist boss known for fighting corruption in a rough region, Shevardnadze stepped onto the world stage in the 1980s as foreign minister and chief deputy to Mikhail Gorbachev during the historic dismantling of the Soviet communist dictatorship. Shevardnadze is remembered particularly for his role in transforming Soviet Middle East policy, ending Moscow’s decades-long hostility to Israel and moving toward something like friendship. His pragmatism, quiet determination and warmth earned him a permanent place in the stormy history of the last century. His departure last week ended the latest world crisis with a dignity all too rare these days, and should be remembered as a worthy cap to a worthy career.

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