A decade of graft and decline in post-Soviet Georgia

The Caucasus nation this week considers initial measures to chip away at corruption.

The wilting white-and-purple bouquet in Carlos Gviniashvili's hand is all the evidence he needs that this once-hopeful nation has hit rock bottom.

"I don't want to sell these flowers," says the retired veterinarian, whose complaints are echoed widely across this former Soviet republic. "I had an income, I had a job.... Now I have to sell flowers to buy bread for my family."

Hard luck stories may be common across the fledgling states created by the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. But the dramatic decline in living standards in the Caucasus nation of Georgia - once one of the most prosperous patches on the Soviet map, and an area with many advantages as it entered into independence - form a case study in the difficulties of creating a new society from the Soviet past.

Georgia has received $1 billion in American aid in the past decade, making it among the top handful of recipients per capita of US aid.

But Georgians say they have seen little result from all that Western attention - and that endemic corruption, old-style leadership and what they call a "law-breaking mentality" have all conspired to block the creation of a prosperous civil society.

The first moves toward stopping the graft and decay could be taken this week, however: Georgia is considering a raft of long-overdue anticorruption measures put forward by an American-funded Georgian commission.

If Georgian President Edvard Shevardnadze signs the anticorruption decree, it could bring new accountability to Georgian political and economic life, and - theoretically, at least - begin chipping away at privileges that foster corruption.

Preliminary measures

Government office expenditures would be posted publicly, and inspectors could question owners of luxury cars about tax payments. Special license plate numbers, which denote a privileged class and create public resentment - could disappear for police, officials and other elite groups. Efforts would be made to stop traffic police shakedowns of motorists.

"It's of crucial importance," says David Usupashvili, the US-educated lawyer who heads the anticorruption commission, which drafted the current, preliminary measures and a much broader framework to rein in corruption.

Money from the US Justice Department, the US Agency for International Development, and other American donors is funding the eight-month program; European donors are expected to cover the bulk of future costs of a permanent watchdog commission.

"If [Shevardnadze] signs the decree, it will be a clear signal that he will go with the whole program," Mr. Usupashvili says. "If he delays, cynicism is growing."

The pessimism in Georgia today is a far cry from the early 1990s euphoria of independence.

As living standards have fallen, tension has risen. Electricity is scarcer every winter. Demonstrators took to the streets last November in protest over chronic power cuts, erecting barricades and burning tires.

One popular joke asks: "What did Georgians use for light before candles?" Answer: "Electricity."

In the past three years, Mr. Gviniashvili, the flower seller, has received just one pension payment - the equivalent of $6. "I blame Shevardnadze," says Gviniashvili. "It's like a family: If something is wrong, we blame the father."

While he may be the target of popular blame, analysts say that Shevardnadze is, in fact, godfather of the two trends that have defined post-Soviet Georgia: Western largesse and Georgian corruption. As the Soviet foreign minister who presided over the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union, he won Western gratitude in the form of top-dollar support. Georgia was also part of an American strategy to create a buffer against Russian influence.

But in coping with the first years of independence - marred by a civil war, two breakaway regions, and lawlessness - Shevardnadze, who has survived two assassination attempts, was forced to make deals with an unsavory militia chief and other shadowy elements. Shevardnadze was reelected last April in a vote that was widely seen as rigged, which further soured the public mood.

"Shevardnadze really did save the Georgian state, but he could only do so on the basis of the former Soviet elite, which was completely corrupt," says Anatol Lieven, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, who visited Georgia in December.

The 50 or so anticorruption measures now on the president's desk, while preliminary, are being seen as a key to Georgia's economic future and government credibility.

Big money, small results

Aid to Georgia has been spent on everything from training the judiciary, reforming the military, and bolstering the border police force to soup kitchens and a wave of expensive Western consultants. There are signs of progress, but they appear small compared with the money spent.

Mr. Lieven says "some good" has been done, especially with the border guards, court system, and antipoverty programs. Many new laws have been passed. But "nothing" has been done to improve infrastructure, he says, and "money to the Army seems to have been completely wasted."

"It's not like [past] lending to Russia, which disappeared en bloc," Lieven adds. "This is lots and lots of programs, and every one is being continually sapped by corruption. That adds up to an awful lot of money down the drain."

Georgians are often as surprised as donors at the poor result. "We were all optimists and thought we would be like Holland, maybe live even better than the West," says Vakhtang Shamiladze, a senior Georgian lawmaker. "Politicians thought they would sign a document, and we would live in a democracy the next day. But the dreams and reality didn't correspond.

"You [in the West] wanted fast integration; we wanted it, too," he adds. "It's also your problem: You should not give money without better control."

Most ex-Soviet republics are finding the transition from seven decades of central rule and command economy difficult. Western officials acknowledge that their hopes were too high. Today, by all accounts, projects are more focused.

"When the Soviet Union collapsed, no one realized what a mess it was, or how distorted the economy was," says a Western diplomat in Tbilisi.

"There was also a misunderstanding on both sides of what outside assistance could do, and how fast," adds the diplomat, who says a long-term, nation-building view is necessary to gauge success. "It's not enough to pass a law. You can take people to the West, and translate [democratic] ideas into beautiful Georgian. But someone must implement them."

Breaking old habits

Rooting out corruption in Georgia will require changing a Soviet-era mentality. Breaking the law was for decades a form of rebellion against Moscow. Georgia, which occupied a special place in the Soviet economy by providing wine and fruit to the rest of the empire, had a reputation as the most corrupt republic, and those who cheated the "system" based in faraway Moscow were treated as heroes.

"There were always ways around the rules, to cheat the law. People invested their whole life into trying to prove they don't abide by any regulation, because rules came from the other side of the universe," says George Khutsishvili, director of the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi.

"Now we are building our own society, but people still have that mentality," he says. "They don't believe in law or rules. We are trying to develop a civil society, but they don't care."

Some observers say they see positive signs when comparing Georgia to other ex-Soviet republics such as Belarus or Uzbekistan.

"Wherever you go, there are police states with heavy-handed bureaucracies. Compared to those, Georgia is an oasis of democracy," says Georgy Tarkhan-Mouravi, head of the independent Center for Geopolitical and Regional Studies in Tbilisi.

The flood of cash from the US and West "was not a totally failed investment," he adds. "If there was no American money, people would be starving years ago. If we have economic stability, that is thanks to the US and leads to political stability. Without that, we would have turned to Russia."

Still, many Georgians say they want better from their government, and want to see that their president is serious about confronting corruption.

"When you enter the 21st century without lights...and you see what the rest of the world is doing, the only way you can go is up," says Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, head of the opposition National Democratic Party and a former deputy.

"But we have to shift quite serious resources from pockets to budgets, and reconstruct our mentality. We're not used to having this country as our own."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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