Crisis in Georgia

November 24, 2003

The following is a transcript of an interview conducted by Bill Hemmer with Strobe Talbott on CNN’s American Morning program.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: The White House now is offering cautious support for the interim government now running the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The outgoing president, Eduard Shevardnadze, resigned yesterday under immense pressure from Georgians in the street there. Shevardnadze was forced to flee parliament Saturday, as opposition forces stormed the building. What led to the bloodless coup, and why is the situation in Georgia so important to the U.S.? Good questions now. Questions for Strobe Talbott of Brookings Institution, back with us live in D.C.

Good morning to you on this Monday. Nice to see you.

STROBE TALBOTT, BROOKINGS INST.: Thank you, Bill. Good to be with you.

HEMMER: A hundred members of the U.S. military in that country, oil pipeline under construction, are those the two reasons why this is important to the U.S.?

TALBOTT: Yes, there are strategic reasons, but also democracy is alive, and that’s important too. I think you put it pretty well a few minutes ago when you said that these were the growing pains of democracy. It’s painful, but democracy, at least, is growing there. And that’s not been the case elsewhere in that part of the world and that part of the former Soviet Union.

HEMMER: So then the threat of terrorism in Georgia and also the oil issue, is one more important than the other right now?

TALBOTT: Well, I think the collapse of Georgia would also be very bad for the region, the world, for us – not to mention for the Georgians. Let’s return that one reason that Shevardnadze fell as swiftly as he did is because Georgia is a very weak state. And to have a weak state vulnerable to pressure from outsiders, terrorists, large states, one always worries a little bit about Russia and its intentions in the area, that should be of concern to the United States.

But remember, as you were hinting a moment ago, there have been a number of countries in that region where democracy has suffered terrible setbacks in the last 10 years. It hasn’t done very well in Georgia either.

But this was a good development yesterday. It was a peaceful outcome. You do not have chaos in Georgia today, and you certainly don’t have a lot of bloodshed, which many people were worried about.

But it’s not a happy ending because it’s not over. There are still some scenarios that could be pretty bleak. And it’s going to be important for the United States, countries in Western Europe, to pay a lot of attention to Georgia during this period before they have new presidential and parliamentary elections.

HEMMER: You take us right into the next category. And if the growing pains right now are groaning, what replaces Shevardnadze? Is it a democratic form of government, or are they going in the other direction?

TALBOTT: I think there’s more reason for hope than apprehension there, but it’s not certain. You’ve got basically a triumvirate of relatively young, quite sophisticated pro-Western opposition politicians who have quite a bit of popularity, particularly if you put their support together.

The question is whether they can stay together. You’ve got Nino Burdzhanadze, who is the woman who is the acting president. She was the speaker of the parliament. And you have this very charismatic Misha Shaakashvili and Zorab Zhvania — they are smiling, they’re appearing together, they’re presenting a united front to replace Shevardnadze, but there is a big question whether they will remain united, or whether they will fall out among themselves, which they’ve done over the past several months.

HEMMER: Final question here, don’t have much time for it either. The opposition is saying there is fraud in the recent election. That’s what led to the people coming out in the streets. If you prove fraud in that country, then what’s the impact of the democratic movement?

TALBOTT: Well, Bill, it’s not just the opposition that said there was fraud. There were 600 or more international observers there for the election. I was part of a National Democratic Institute delegation that went out there. There’s no question that there was massive fraud, and it was really anger against that that brought Shevardnadze down.

HEMMER: Thank you. Strobe Talbott from D.C., Brookings Institution, nice to chat with you.

TALBOTT: Thanks, Bill.