In Georgia, high hopes, hurdles

Acting president Nino Burjanadze pledged Monday to hold new elections within 45 days.

After days of political protest and, finally, revelry at the peaceful departure of President Eduard Shevardnadze, the sun rose Monday on a near-empty parliament square - and a new reality in Georgia.

A handful of diehard protesters still huddled around smoking fires, nursing their own visions of what Georgia's "rose revolution" means to them - and voicing high expectations for Georgia's new leadership that analysts say could be impossible to meet.

"We have such hopes everything will change, so that all people have jobs and will be happy," says Kakha Mtchedlidze, a young artist from the eastern provinces who has yet to land his first job in Georgia's impoverished economy, and says he needs work "like a thirsty man needs water."

"A family should have a piece of bread to put on the table, and some clothes," says Mr. Mtchedlidze. "And freedom, of course. Nothing else."

Satisfying such demands may prove harder for Georgia's new leaders than storming the parliament and seizing power.

Led by interim president Nino Burjanadze, today's leaders - who were yesterday's opposition - will have to move immediately, analysts say, to balance Georgian dreams with the harsh realities of the dysfunctional kleptocracy Mr. Shevardnadze left behind.

"It's very difficult for people. They are waiting for salaries and pensions today - not a month or a year from now," says Natia Zambakhidze, a political commentator on Rustavi 2 television. "It's not possible to solve all problems immediately, but one should be solved with dramatic steps as a first step for the people," says Ms. Zambakhidze. "Now [the former opposition] have no one else to blame, if things don't get done."

But the list of top priorities equals the list of Georgia's problems. The challenges include ensuring that the change of power remains nonviolent, and dealing with the apparatchiks of the former regime, who have everything to lose.

In her first speech to the nation Monday, Ms. Burjanadze pledged to hold presidential and parliamentary elections within 45 days, in line with the constitution. But election experts here say it will take more than two months just to upgrade voters lists, a crucial step toward making sure the vote is fair.

The protests that led to Shevardnadze's ouster were sparked by a Nov. 2 parliamentary election discredited by allegations of fraud.

Corruption is one of the most deeply rooted problems here. Georgia runs on patronage and family ties. Although the US has spent $1.3 billion in aid in Georgia over the past decade - and the European Union even more - well over half the population of five million lives below the poverty line. The average daily wage is just $1 a day.

"Corruption has been the biggest disincentive for outside investment," says Roy Reeve, head of the Georgia mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has 85 border monitors in the region. He notes that problem areas for the new government also include the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

"The size of the task is immense, and it may be tackled after the election, but until then, expectations of people in the street aren't going to be met," says Mr. Reeve, adding that opposition leaders should try to lower hopes fast. "There is an early need to introduce a dose of reality for Georgians, who are expecting instant change."

Many here are warning that the honeymoon for Georgia's new leaders will be short.

"This was a revolution, and the goal was reached peacefully, so the opposition can't now tell people they have to wait for change," says George Khutsishvili, head of the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi. "For poor people, it will not be so easy, and it will be a long way before things get better," Mr. Khutsishvili says. "The new leadership must be methodical, to show they are making progress. But I'm sure people will soon begin to criticize them, and say 'We gave you power, and you have not improved our lives.'"

Added to these concerns are the challenges of keeping Georgia's complicated clan and power centers in balance, the way that Shevardnadze did during three decades of influence here.

"Shevardnadze was legendary at manipulating the local chessboard, and there is concern about whether the new leaders are comparable," says Khutsishvili, whose office staff celebrated Monday with champagne and chocolates. "He used to juggle, but now we need managers, who can show the world that Georgia is not just soaking up money and producing nothing."

The new leadership is focused on efforts to "move forward" with the economy, says a Western diplomat, though corruption remains a "very difficult issue." Graft permeates the Caucasus nation from the top, on down to the cops on the street, who, paid just $25 to $30 per month, take fines from motorists, send a portion "up the ranks," and then use the cash to "put bread on the table for their children," the diplomat says. Customs officials, he adds, are "presented with enormous temptations."

It's issues like these that most rankle Georgians, despite weightier strategic questions about Georgia's possible suitability for EU membership or its role in a long-standing regional tug-of-war for influence between the US and Russia. "All Shevardnadze did was the deeds of a dictator, who uses his power for his own profit," says David Kikilashvili, a former factory worker, who was among those tending dying fires outside the parliament building Monday at dawn, as street cleaners began sweeping up the garbage left after Georgia's wild victory party just hours earlier. "Salaries, pensions, jobs. Nothing is working now."

In her speech Monday, Ms. Burjanadze said that because of the rigged elections, the previous parliament - which she chaired - would resume its duties until the new elections are held.

The acting president convened a meeting of the country's top security officials Monday, including Tedo Dzhaparidze, the security council chairman whom Shevardnadze had fired Sunday after the official publicly acknowledged electoral fraud and called for new elections. Conspicuously absent was Koba Narchemashvili, the interior minister who had stood by Shevardnadze as he declared a state of emergency Saturday.

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