It's all about oil again

Observations on Georgia

On the highest part of the building's roof, so close to the edge, it looked a very long way down to the sodium glare below. It seemed the parliament building actually trembled as tens of thousands of protesters roared below. The shout of "Geor-gi, Geor-gi . . ." rippled in unseen circles from the speaker on the great steps to where the crowd frayed into the darkness in the park across the road. Cold and tired, they sensed victory. It gave them an energy that coalesces only in vast crowds or individual acts of great bravery.

Such energy had kept the Georgian opposition leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, going through several weeks of standing up to the electoral advantage stolen by the president, Eduard Shevardnadze, after the disputed parliamentary elections. At times, his view of the future must have inspired political vertigo equal to the view from the roof. It was a long way to fall if things went wrong. But the crowd's patience was suddenly rewarded when, at about 6pm on 23 November, Saakashvili appeared on the steps and announced: "He [Shevardnadze] will be gone within the hour." And he was.

The fear had been that interior ministry troops would obey Shevardnadze's order the previous day to enforce a state of emergency. But the commander of the interior special forces unit, rather than arresting Saakashvili, embraced him among the crushing crowd. The sheer numbers outside the parliament made the military decide that Shevardnadze was a lost cause.

But there were other influences. A western diplomat later briefed that Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, had clearly indicated the US and Russian resolve not to support the old president if he resorted to force. One analyst in Tbilisi explained that Shevardnadze, important as he had been to laying the foundations of democracy in Georgia, had made two big mistakes. He had failed to reform the lumbering bureaucracy of the Soviet era, and he had allowed corruption and nepotism to invade his politics. "Corruption and an inability to establish territorial integrity" have impaired investment and development, said Archil Gegeshidze of the Georgian Institute of Strategic Studies.

Georgia's great economic hope is the revenue-generating oil pipeline carrying crude from Azerbaijan to the Turkish Mediterranean coast. It is a cause of friction between Russia, which would like to tax and control the export, and the US, which sees it as a vital alternative to an unstable Middle East. With Georgia in ferment, investment dollars are on hold, and although a western diplomat described this weekend's quiet revolution "as a successful result", he firmly stated that the "method was dangerous".

Asked about Saakashvili, the source grimaced and said: "Well I'm not going to go into negatives" - a harsh judgement on the American-educated lawyer who speaks at least four languages. But the images of people power apparently swayed the US and its European allies into believing that business will do better even with an opposition they don't rate.

Saakashvili is a social populist while Nino Burjanadze, the interim president, appeals to middle-class and intellectual voters by promising institutional reform and development. They united to oppose what international observers acknowledge were election results rigged by, and in favour of, the former president's New Georgia party. Perhaps the west doesn't think their union can hold once the unifying threat is gone. At the moment, their public front seems sound, but the cracks may yet appear.

Tim Lambon is a producer with Channel 4 News