A Letter from Tbilisi

June 11, 2003

A Letter from Tbilisi

 It often seems there are two periods in Georgia: election period and pre-election period.

 It often seems there are two periods in Georgia: election period and pre-election period. Since 1998, anytime I asked the Georgians about the fate of the much-needed political and economic reforms, I was told, "it is too difficult now; we need to wait for the next elections." Georgia was making good progress in the mid-1990s, but has lost the last five years waiting for the perfect moment when the country's multitude of problems would finally be tackled. Now the only game in town (again) is the November 2003 parliamentary elections. The main difference this time is the degree of pessimism about the country's future, coupled with a strong desire to see American engagement and guidance to ensure free and fair democratic elections.  

There is vibrant opposition and, in fact, I was able to watch a major pro-democracy opposition demonstration in front of the Georgian parliament on June 3. After weeks of discussion and failing to reach a compromise with the government on the formation of the electoral committee, a large group of pro-democracy opposition parties and their supporters demanded their constitutional right for a free and fair election. These demonstrations matter in Georgia . In November 2001, demonstrators were able to force President Eduard Shevardnadze to get rid of two very corrupt ministers (he fired his whole government).  

While opposition knows what it does not want, it has yet to offer viable alternatives, and even more importantly, how to get there. Georgian civil society is well developed and understands that without democratic elections they have little chance of full integration into the Euro-Atlantic alliance. But there is also serious misunderstanding and "misuse" of democracy- a term used by the highly regarded head of the Supreme Court Lado Chanturia.  Thanks to US assistance to develop free press and NGO's, Georgia now has almost full transparency but almost  no accountability-for example everyone knows details of corruption at the ministerial level but no one senior is ever arrested.  Feeling demoralized, a small but growing group of people in Georgia are supporting populist or extreme religious groups, most of which are strongly anti-American.   

The one shining star in the midst of all chaos is the speaker of the parliament Nino Burjanadze, who is visiting Washington this week.  Georgia 's ‘iron lady" speaks rarely but when she does, people listen.  She is now with the pro-democratic opposition movement, but not a member of a party and could potentially unite the movement ahead of the elections.   

Then there is Badri Patarkatsishvili. Following his split with President Vladimir Putin due to his partnership with Russian fugitive tycoon Boris Berezovsky, Patarkatsishvili set up shop in Tbilisi , buying all he can get his hands on.  He is now not only financing several political parties but also owns businesses ranging from mass media to soccer clubs- just like he did in Russia and became a kingmaker. For now many Georgians are happy to see that someone is investing in the country, creating jobs and paying descent salaries. In some private discussions, however, I heard concern about possible implications of a single person holding too much power in a small country like Georgia .  

Currently, while some people claim otherwise, I think (whether you like it or not) Shevardnadze is still the only one that can make things happen in this troubled country-and even he is now having difficulty juggling all the balls he put in his hands.  He now has unfortunately associated himself with a group of political forces that are widely disliked by the Georgians (and Washington). He seems to be suffering from same fate as most leaders in the Caucasus and Central Asia --primarily listening to people who managed to gain his personal trust and later are manipulating him for personal business deals, which are often in contrast to the country's long term national security interest.  

A related debate in Tbilisi is whether Russian gas monopoly Gazprom will take over the Georgian gas network.  At a press briefing at the Georgian parliament, along with Georgia's NATO parliamentarian Gia Baramidze, I highlighted the risks of such a move that could eventually put Georgia in the same position vis-à-vis Russia as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Armenia.  The visiting U.S. ambassador for Caspian energy issues Steven Mann also expressed concerns about this deal.   

I left Tbilisi cautiously optimistic that if the United States nudges Shevardnadze in a credible way (which is a big if), then he can take some bold actions and let the November elections be free and fair. I remind nay-sayers when last year Georgia and Russia were at gunpoint over the presence of  terrorists in Pankisi Gorge, Russia wanted to go and "clean up" the area itself.  They argued that Georgia would never be able to do this itself.  Georgia , however, did "clean up" the gorge on its own, albeit with strong American assistance.  So it can happen, but possibly only at gunpoint and a firm push from the United States .  


Zeyno Baran is the Director for International Security and Energy Programs at The Nixon Center (http://www.nixoncenter.org).