Georgia Vote May Weaken Leader's Hand

Times Staff Writer

At a shop that looks out on a Stalin statue dominating this town's central square, a middle-aged woman dispenses groceries off the shelf, fish from a countertop bucket and pride in the hometown boy who made it to the top.

Here at the birthplace of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, reviled in the West as one of the 20th century's most evil leaders, people such as salesclerk Tsitsino Kharibegashvili prefer to ignore his terror and concentrate on his accomplishments: After all, he transformed the Soviet Union from an agrarian society into a nuclear-armed superpower and beat back Nazi Germany along the way, even though many millions died in the process.

But when it comes to Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze -- who as Soviet foreign minister became a darling of the West by helping end the Cold War -- she is not so forgiving. "There can be no comparison between Stalin and Shevardnadze," she said, laughing at the idea. "Shevardnadze is a liar, and Stalin was a man of principle."

For Shevardnadze, 75, facing a popularity contest with Stalin may be particularly risky here in Gori, given a hometown's bias. Yet many Georgians share the salesclerk's disappointment in his 11-year rule. After a burst of optimism in the mid- to late 1990s, when economic growth was solid and talk was of reforms, corruption and inefficiency now threaten to overwhelm this Caucasus nation.

A country that once was expected to be among the most successful post-Soviet states risks further decline amid corruption and cronyism, despite its gregarious people, the tourist potential of its mountain scenery and centuries-old Orthodox churches, and a deep desire to be associated with Europe and the United States.

Parliamentary elections today are expected to strengthen the hand of opposition politicians, possibly thrusting some of the more capable ones toward greater national leadership. But foreign observers say the electoral process has been deeply flawed, particularly in the preparation of voter lists, opening the door to possible fraud and disputes over the results.

Many analysts think that Shevardnadze, who is not eligible to run again when his term ends in 2005, will lose control of parliament in today's balloting.

Military leaders invited Shevardnadze to take power after a two-week civil war in the 1991-92 winter, in a move his opponents viewed more as a coup. Since then, the United States has poured more than $1 billion in aid into this country of 4.9 million, giving Georgia one of the highest per capita rates of U.S. aid in the world.

Washington is spending $64 million to train 2,000 Georgian soldiers for a rapid reaction force meant to block terrorists from establishing bases in this country's rugged border areas. The troops also could help protect a $3-billion U.S.-backed oil pipeline being built from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, which is expected to greatly increase the flow of Caspian Sea oil to world markets.

The pipeline helps tie Western oil companies and their governments to long-term commitments in this region and, together with the contingent of better-trained troops, is seen as helping to guarantee Georgia's independence against any reassertion of Moscow's influence.

A Russian firm bought significant ownership in Georgia's electric power industry this year, and those who favor closer ties to the West fear that the deal, in addition to Moscow's unpopular military bases here, has given Russia unwelcome leverage over the country's economic affairs.

If Georgia is drawn back into Moscow's orbit, the chances of building a real democracy and cleaning up corruption will be slim, said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in the capital, Tbilisi.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and Georgia became independent in 1991, many here and in the West expected this nation to stretch its wings and fly, adapting naturally to new capitalist opportunities.

Decades of Communist repression had failed to erase from this irrepressible people's soul a wily anti-authoritarian streak and an appreciation for good things: song, dance, wine. During the Soviet years, street-smart Georgian mini-capitalists sold the region's fruit in Russian cities for exorbitant profits, exploiting failures in the rigid economic system.

But with independence, Georgia fell into civil war and economic collapse.

Troubles continued to mount after Shevardnadze came to power, with Georgia losing control of the breakaway region of Abkhazia in 1993. It and South Ossetia, which also broke away, now exercise de facto independence and are oriented toward Russia, which they border.

Still, things began to look up in the mid-1990s, as Shevardnadze eventually brought the country an uneasy peace and the appearance of stability.

But critics say he has failed to tackle corruption, and many accuse him of favoring relatives and friends. "Unfortunately, from the late 1990s until today, stagnation, corruption, mismanagement -- and, as a result, frustration of the population -- are reigning in this country," said Rondeli, the think tank president.

Nukri Beriashvili, 42, a farmer near the town of Kaspi, about 30 miles northwest of Tbilisi, is among those who blame Shevardnadze for their troubles.

In Soviet times, Beriashvili and his father used to do good business driving truckloads of apples to Russian cities. Now, with an international border to cross, new taxes and the danger of robbery along the highway in Russia's unruly border regions, such trade has dropped drastically and the local market is flooded with apples, he said.

"Right now there's a lot of fruit. I'd like to have refrigerators and keep it until winter, when there's high demand and prices are higher," Beriashvili said. "But I don't have the money, and I can't get it from the bank because unless you're connected to the Shevardnadze family, you can't get low-interest loans. Today in Georgia, the people who are successful businessmen are all backed by the government, by the Shevardnadze family. If I wanted to start up a business with a foreign investor, they would take steps to block it."

Despite his liberal image in the West, Shevardnadze has built a nationwide patronage system rather than a real democracy, Rondeli said.

"The patronage system is a pyramid of power in which people go up not because of their merits but because of their loyalty," he said. "Mayors of the cities are not elected -- they are assigned by the president.... Everything is done by one man in this country."

Shevardnadze does have his fans. Manana Bibilashvili, 55, the principal of a Gori high school, described him as the only person capable of raising the country's living standards.

Peter Nasmyth, a British journalist who has written on Georgia and is co-owner of Prospero's bookshop in Tbilisi, said that everything -- from Georgians' entrepreneurial, black-market dealings in Soviet days to the current complaints of corruption -- should be viewed in a broader context of the country's social structure and history.

"Yes, there was a big strong Georgian mafia in Moscow, but it was not what you'd call a typical European mafia. It was sort of a family network," he said. "Throughout all the changes that have happened in Georgia, this very strong family system of nepotism and patronage has survived virtually intact. I think this is quite a fundamental aspect of Georgian culture."

Many foreigners "are tiring a little bit of Shevardnadze because they don't really feel he's doing much about it," Nasmyth said. "So what you have here in Georgia is an increasingly strong European-American veneer ... but Georgia hasn't changed a great deal."

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