msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Georgia, a former Soviet republic, faces a deepening crisis as opponents of Mikhail Saakashvili, the country’s American-educated president, call for his ouster. Georgia is site of a low-level tug-of-war between Russia and the United States, as they seek to deepen their economic and political influence in this strategically important country.

Why does Georgia matter?
Wedged between Russia and the Middle East, Georgia’s location has helped it become a major corridor for oil from the Caspian Sea. An important section of a major pipeline passes through Georgian territory. Neither Russia nor the United States want to see Georgia descend into chaos. They are concerned the country could become a haven for terrorists.

Who is Saakashvili?
The English-speaking Saakashvili spent some of his early years abroad, studying at George Washington University and Columbia Law School in the United States, also spending time in Ukraine, Italy and France. He returned to Georgia in 1995, initially as a protégé of then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who wanted to nurture some young leaders with no ties to the former communist regime. After serving in parliament and as justice minister, Saakashvili left the government in 2002, decrying its corruption, and formed an opposition group.

How did he become president?
Saakashvili rose to power in the so-called “Rose Revolution” of 1993. He grabbed the reins from Shevardnadze, his one-time mentor, in a largely non-violent movement following contested parliamentary elections. For weeks after the election, demonstrators poured into the streets to demand Shevardnadze’s resignation, accusing him of corrupt rule. Eventually, protesters led by Saakashvili stormed parliament and forced Shevardnadze to resign. Saakashvili was later elected president.

Why does Saakashvili face protests?
Critics say Saakashvili has not moved fast enough to spread Georgia’s growing wealth. He has been accused of sidestepping the rule of law, violating property rights, muzzling the media and arresting political opponents. Protesters initially called for changes in the dates of planned elections and in the electoral system. But after Saakashvili rejected their demands and accused their leaders of serving the Kremlin, they made his resignation their central aim.

What is Russia’s role in Georgia?
Russia’s precise role in Georgia is disputed. Many Georgians believe that Russia, Georgia’s neighbor to the north, would like to exert even more control over this former Soviet republic. Russia has been accused of supporting separatist movements in two breakaway regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Critics say Russia's meddling has exacerbated an already unstable situation. Saakashvili, a U.S. ally who has tried to integrate Georgia with the West, blames Russia for fomenting protests. Russia denies it had anything to do with the disorder in Georgia and said Saakashvili was trying to distract attention from domestic problems.

What’s next?
News reports suggest that Saakashvili’s declaration of a state of emergency in response to his political crisis has done little to endear him to the populace. He has proposed moving up elections that were scheduled for late next year. Georgia was ravaged by civil war after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and now faces separatist rebellions in two regions of the country. Saakashvili wants to take Georgia into NATO and the European Union, policies which have set him on a collision course with Moscow.

Information gathered from The Associated Press, Reuters and the Council on Foreign Relations.

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