Rene — The Not-So-Velvet Revolution

Topic(s): Georgia | Comments Off on Rene — The Not-So-Velvet Revolution

The Not-So-Velvet Revolution
The New York Times
May 30, 2004
Georgia’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili — called Misha by just about
everyone in the country — took power on Nov. 22, 2003, by storming
Parliament on live national television. Yelling from the back benches,
he ordered Eduard Shevardnadze, who was widely seen as having stolen
the recent parliamentary elections, to step aside. Shevardnadze, the
former Soviet foreign minister and custodian of Georgia’s descent into
poverty and lawlessness, seemed frozen, then shaken by Saakashvili’s
rhetorical fire. As Shevardnadze was shuttled out the backdoor,
Saakashvili, who had served a contentious term as justice minister
under Shevardnadze, marched to the lectern, scanned the riotous scene,
found the cameras and drank Shevardnadze’s tall glass of tea.
Out in the streets, protesters stuck flowers in the barrels of
soldiers’ assault rifles, and the Rose Revolution, as it was called,
was over. Saakashvili, a charismatic 36-year-old graduate of Columbia
Law School, was elected president two months later, winning 97 percent
of the vote. Georgia — a nation cracked open by three breakaway
regions, racked by corruption and a tsunami of crime, reeling from
two civil wars, pocked by constant electricity and water shortages
and unable to collect taxes from its citizens — was his to govern.
Saakashvili promises the country will be ready for European Union
consideration within three years, will have reconstituted borders
within five years and will operate under the rule of law pretty much
immediately. His popularity remains high, but critics have begun to
take shots. Koba Davitashvili, a revolutionary ally who broke with
Saakashvili when the president pushed through controversial changes
in the constitution that increased executive power, recently said,
“Misha makes a lot of promises, but pensioners aren’t getting paid
and liberal society isn’t being nurtured.”
When it was part of the Soviet Union, Georgia was a popular holiday
destination and the wealthiest Soviet republic. By the late 1990’s,
even adventure tourists considered the country too dangerous to visit,
and Georgia had managed to become one of the poorest of the former
Soviet states. The International Monetary Fund cut off financing in
September 2003, and the World Bank severely cut back on lending. In
January, after the revolution, George Soros, the New York financier,
helped to establish a special anticorruption fund to supplement the
paltry salaries of most government employees, from the president
(who gets $1,500 a month from the fund) down to border guards ($500
a month).
Corruption had become pandemic under Shevardnadze, almost as much a
physical part of the country’s topography as broken roads, crumbled
buildings and snowcapped mountains. “It’s a big dilemma,” said
Irakli Okruashvili, the new prosecutor general. “There is too much
evidence for too many cases.” When we spoke in his office in Tbilisi,
Okruashvili compared his walled-in life with those of the Sicilian
antimafia judges who must live under around-the-clock protection. Under
Shevardnadze, few managed to stay clean. “We could arrest everyone,”
Okruashvili said. But now, nepotism, cronyism, bribery, paying for
school grades, even showing up for work at 11 a.m. — all of these have
been labeled by Saakashvili’s government as enemies of the revolution.
Recent history would suggest that implementing reform in a failing
state is nearly impossible. Yeltsin in Russia, the former Communist
chieftains who continue ruling in Central Asia and Shevardnadze
in Georgia: across the former Soviet Union presidents have come to
power making many of the same promises as Saakashvili. What reason
is there to think Misha is different? Saakashvili argues that the
difference is in the historical moment — he has learned from the
others’ failures, he says — and in his electorate too. The people
are on board with his program, he says; other leaders never really
had a mandate for radical change. “There’s a popular will to change
things from the bottom up,” Saakashvili said. Still, for Georgians
to cheer the arrest of Shevardnadze’s son-in-law — who was detained
in February for tax evasion and later released after his wife paid
a $15.5 million fine — is one thing; for Georgians to condone the
arrest of their own corrupt sons-in-law is another. Fady O. Asly, who
until recently was the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in
Tbilisi, said that right now in Georgia, “it’s business as usual. At
the top level, people are cautious; they’re scared. At the lower level,
the game is still on.”
In the constellation of states that emerged from the breakup
of the former Soviet Union, Saakashvili is not just an anomaly
but also a president from another solar system. His predecessor,
Shevardnadze, traveled with more than a dozen well-armed, U.S.-trained
bodyguards. When Saakashvili decided to take a ride in Tbilisi’s
dilapidated subway (a bit of a campaign stunt), he took a handful of
security men who kept their revolvers in hidden holsters.
“To me, the difference when Shevardnadze came into power was that
people’s relief was essentially backward-looking,” said Mark Mullen,
chairman of the Georgian branch of Transparency International, a
global corruption watchdog group. “The country was blown to pieces,
and there was the sense that Shevy could bring back stability. And he
did that, but he didn’t do anything other than that. Saakashvili needs
to dismantle corrupt systems, bring in capital and fix things. This
is a tougher path.”
I flew with the president on his French-built helicopter one afternoon
from Gudauri, a Georgian mountain resort, to Tbilisi. Saakashvili
spent most of the flight brooding, gazing out the window. But then
he suddenly pulled me into his chest so I could see the landscape
below. “Do you see how the colors of the fields are distinct from
one another?” he asked. “In Soviet times, the colors blurred because
the farms were collectivized.” Surprised at being clutched by the
president, I mumbled how pervasive the Soviet backdraft in Georgia
is. “You have no idea,” Saakashvili said.
A famous joke from the Soviet era holds that under that system,
the people pretended to work and the government pretended to pay
them. At some point during the past 10 years, both Georgians
and their government stopped even pretending. In the decrepit
Chancellery Building housing the offices of the president and
his staff, open doors reveal administrators playing computer
solitaire or simply watching television. “Getting anything done in
this building is practically impossible,” said Natalia Kancheli,
executive assistant to the president. Like 80 percent of government
ministers, and like Saakashvili himself, Kancheli is young, 31. She
boasts an American college degree, and she comes to the job with
a turn-everything-on-its-head approach and a near-maniacal energy
level. (Saakashvili, for his part, schedules appointments until 2 a.m.)
“The current orthodoxy is that if you change the system, you can get
rid of corruption because people are rational actors,” said Christopher
Waters, a legal scholar and Georgia specialist at the Center for
Euro-Asian Studies at the University of Reading in England. “There’s
truth to this, but Georgia is what in the 1960’s people used to
call an honor-and-shame society. It has relied so heavily in the
last few decades on social networks and kinship that this not only
demands corruption but ultimately economic stasis.” It is no longer
“fashionable” in studies of corruption to consider a nation’s culture,
Waters said. But in Georgia, culture “is really what the president
is up against.”
An estimated 50 percent of the Georgian economy is underground,
unmolested by government bureaucrats. Tbilisi collects practically
no taxes; when the government managed to raise its tax collections
by 30 percent in the first two months of 2004 — an additional $22
million, or approximately $5 for every citizen — it was heralded
as a major victory. Saakashvili’s tax collectors have begun to make
anticorruption raids, which are meant to turn the country’s businesses
into taxpayers. But the zeal with which prosecutors have been swooping
into offices to review the books has turned the business community
into Saakashvili’s angriest constituency. “It’s confusion and despair,”
said Esben Emborg, a manager with Nestle in Tbilisi.
Saakashvili took me along with him to a meeting with a delegation
of visiting Americans from a group called Business Executives for
National Security, or Bens, where he endured a battery of Developing
Nation 101 advice: “Make your government transparent”; “Engineer
your tax system to encourage foreign investment”; and, simply, “End
corruption.” Saakashvili nodded his head throughout, but an American
government official who works with Bens later told me its consensus
was to stay clear of Georgia.
“If you run the numbers, Georgia is not a buy,” said Giorgi
Bedineishvili, the president’s chief economic adviser. He said he is
determined to change that: “We have to be nicer to investors than
other countries are. We need to cut down the number of cases where
investors were abused. And we have to be very careful not to create
new disasters.”
One hundred and eleven days after the revolution, Saakashvili ordered
the arrest of a fugitive from the law: Vasily Mkalavishvili, an
excommunicated Orthodox priest who before the revolution was allowed
by authorities to repeatedly lead his congregants on violent rampages
against religious minorities, like Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In
one reported attack, Mkalavishvili used a large metal cross to beat a
Jehovah’s Witness bloody. The arrest of Mkalavishvili was messy and
violent. The police were heavily armed; several dozen people were
injured by batons and tear gas.
The tactics of the police immediately provoked fierce criticism
by many who might be called the Tbilisi revolutionary vanguard —
intellectuals and leftists, as well as business interests upset at
what they see as an inclination, on the part of Saakashvili and his
advisers, toward intimidation. “The government would like to create
a culture of fear in all of Georgia,” said David Gamkrelidze, leader
of New Rights, the main opposition party in Georgia. “The business
community is really afraid. All civil servants are afraid. People are
thinking what the government wants, rather than what the law demands.”
Saakashvili’s supporters argued that Mkalavishvili’s arrest was
necessary. “This was the single most brave step Misha took,” said
Nick Rurua, a Saakashvili ally in Parliament who once worked for the
A.C.L.U. in Atlanta. “This is an authoritarian church that wants to
create a fundamentalist state in this country. Enforcement of the
law doesn’t always look nice.”
Despite Rurua’s words, a growing number of Georgians, as well as
foreign observers, have grown wary of Saakashvili. Sitting in a
plane on the way back from a meeting of Eastern European presidents
in Bratislava, Saakashvili looked a bit stunned when I reeled off
the criticism, not because he was hearing it for the first time
but because he considered it outrageous. “We have a problem in this
country: the opposition represents tiny interest groups, not mature
parties,” he said. “And it’s us, the government, who are introducing
the rule of law. People are objecting to tactics — that’s not the most
substantial thing. Look at what we’re doing: we’re putting people in
jail who have stolen millions. That’s the rule of law. Nobody should
be scared of that.”
Saakashvili’s reform measures have created unintended
consequences. Okruashvili, the prosecutor general, gets field reports
from outlying cities that judges and cops have responded to the new
anticorruption regime with a spasm of bribe-taking. Okruashvili’s
theory is that everyone is trying to extort as much money as possible
while they can still get away with it. But Sarah, an American working
along Georgia’s eastern border (she insisted that she not be identified
by her last name), offers a different analysis: Saakashvili simply
isn’t a factor in the outer regions, where life, and corruption,
continue much as they had before.
In February, Saakashvili shut down a powerful Georgian corporate
conglomerate called Omega Group for, among other things, supposedly
smuggling cigarettes across the border. Then prosecutors raided
an Omega-owned television station. They were there ostensibly
to scrutinize the books, but they left with boxes of electronic
equipment, causing several programs dependent on the equipment to be
canceled, according to a journalist at the station. In a country that
maintained a high degree of free media throughout the darkest days
of the Shevardnadze regime, Saakashvili’s TV-station sting raised
criticism over eroding media freedoms. “I cannot say all media is
controlled by the government,” Gamkrelidze said. “But step by step
they’d like to do it.”
The parliamentary elections at the end of March set up a confrontation
between the Saakashvili government and the ruler of an autonomous
area in the southwest corner of the country called Ajaria. Aslan
Abashidze, the dictator of Ajaria — until recently he held the title
of president of the region — barred Saakashvili at the point of his
militia’s guns from crossing the border into his province, claiming
that Saakashvili intended to invade the region. A tense overnight
standoff ensued, which Saakashvili told me later was humiliating:
here he was, the elected president, and he was being blocked from
entering part of his own country by a “man out of the Middle Ages”
who derived power by terrorizing his province with a private militia.
The crisis ended after Saakashvili ordered a blockade of the railway
and the port of Batumi, the source of Abashidze’s wealth and a major
conduit for goods, mostly oil, transported between Central Asia and
the Mediterranean. The four-day blockade worked — Russia, which
has a military base in Ajaria and often voices support for Ajaria
independence, for once played a neutral role — and international
organizations brokered a compromise.
So Saakashvili won, but he also lost. Foreign investors in the Ajaria
port were furious over the blockade. “We put our plans on hold —
$10 million a year that would’ve gone to local Georgian business,”
said Hew Crooks, an American investor who is on the board of the
Batumi Oil Terminal.
Then, on May 2, Abashidze reignited the crisis when he suddenly blew
up bridges connecting his territory with the rest of Georgia. This
time, the region’s chess masters came out of the shadows: the United
States and Russia, each posturing to appear as an architect of regional
stability, worked in tandem to persuade Abashidze to give up power,
and on May 6 a Russian government plane flew the renegade strongman
to Moscow and into exile.
Saakashvili was jubilant after Abashidze’s retreat: a 13-year-old
thorn had been vanquished without a drop of spilled blood. Crooks
sent me an e-mail message tempering his previous fury. He said he
and his investment group were entering into “a much more constructive
relationship” with Saakashvili’s government.
The Americans and the Russians have long sparred for influence over
Georgia. For the United States, Georgia’s strategic value is in the
black crude to be transported in a Caspian-to-Mediterranean pipeline
now under construction, as well as the bragging rights in becoming
big brother to a formerly Soviet state. NATO officials announced this
month that Georgia is being considered for eventual admission into
alliance membership.
But Georgia’s most dangerous and fraught relationship is with
neighboring Russia, which has over the past 10 years alternately
indulged and punished — but mostly punished — its weaker
neighbor. Russia’s interest in Georgia is complex, said Alex Rondeli,
president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International
Studies in Tbilisi, involving interwoven compacts with neighboring
states, a postimperial impulse to control its backyard and an emotional
relationship with a people Russians consider both historical vassal
and a reflection of Russia’s own cultural aspirations.
Since taking office, Saakashvili has hugged Russia close, as
a boxer does to prevent an opponent from being able to throw a
punch. Saakashvili has publicly praised Putin’s involvement in Georgia
without giving Russia any real concessions over outstanding policy
disagreements. The strategy has apparently kept Putin from intervening
in Georgian affairs for now, but many experts say that Russia will
in return make heavy demands on Saakashvili behind the scenes. As
Rondeli said, “The question for Misha is not whether he can get what
he wants from Russia but what very high price he’s willing to pay.”
One hundred and thirty-four days after the revolution, Saakashvili,
at his desk, returned a phone call from his prosecutor general. A
personal friend and financial supporter of his presidential campaign
had damaged a government helicopter that he had leased for his personal
use. The friend had taken the controls of the helicopter, put his
young son on his lap and promptly crashed. Damages were estimated as
high as $1 million. The prosecutor general told Saakashvili the man was
refusing to pay, shouting that he was a friend of the president. What,
the prosecutor wanted to know, should he do?
For the past 13 years, being a friend of the president was more than
enough to let you walk away from any legal obligation. Saakashvili
told me that he realizes that many of the country’s most pressing
problems, like territorial integrity and judicial reform, will have
to be dealt with gradually, with careful compromises. But he also
said that he is determined to puncture the culture of corruption,
and that change, he said, needs to start at the top.
On the phone, Saakashvili hesitated for just a moment and then shouted,
“To jail!” and slammed down the receiver.
Ilan Greenberg often writes about Central Asia and the Caucasus. His
last article for the magazine was a profile of Saparmurat Niyazov,
the president of Turkmenistan.