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Georgia Grows Impatient With New Regime

Times Staff Writer

The old white Zhiguli fairly flew down the highway, skimming precariously over the potholes as Garri Nersesov clutched the wheel and declared victory in the war on corruption.

“There’s no police!” he proclaimed, waving a hand -- when he mustered the nerve to take it off the wheel -- toward the empty roadside. “It used to be, you had a policeman sitting under every bush. I could never drive this fast.... They would stop you and rob you!”

Score one taxi driver on the side of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s drive to end the tyranny of Georgia’s notoriously corrupt street cops. Half the nation’s police force -- nearly 15,000 officers -- was fired earlier this year. Those remaining got jaunty, American-style police uniforms, new Volkswagen Passats and salaries high enough to help resist the urge to collect on-the-spot traffic fines.

Saakashvili was elected after Georgians flooded the streets last November and ousted President Eduard A. Shevardnadze in an uprising known as the “Rose Revolution.” In less than a year, Saakashvili has succeeded in slashing the state bureaucracy by 35%, wresting back the breakaway region of Adzharia, raising pensions and nearly doubling the nation’s tax and customs revenues.

But the brash 36-year-old with the boyish, pudgy cheeks and a Columbia University law degree also has engaged in some brinkmanship with neighboring Russia. He’s finding it increasingly difficult to convince his constituents and the world that the dysfunctional Caucasian backwater he inherited can be transformed overnight into a prosperous democracy by the force of his own audacious determination.

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Disappointment fueled by impatience is on the rise. Almost daily, protesters take to the streets over low wages and the sale of state-owned factories to companies abroad. Moreover, the government -- which swept to power under the banner of democracy -- faces challenges to its human rights record.

Police have broken up at least three demonstrations since July and jailed a former state audit official who was allegedly tortured after his arrest. In the town of Gori, a respected newspaper editor who published articles critical of the Saakashvili-appointed governor was arrested. He says a packet of drugs was shoved into his pocket.

For many, disillusionment with the new Georgia is as simple as being as poor now as they were a year ago. Worse, prices have escalated sharply in the last few months, and many worry that Saakashvili’s tough talk against Russia has hurt their chances to sell goods there.

“It’s damned bad,” said Yuri Koloskov, a 57-year-old shoe repairman who was an engineer before the collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s subsequent independence. “Whatever he promised us, he delivered nothing. I’m not against being friendly with America, but we mustn’t forget that ordinary people need a market to sell their stuff, and our market is Russia. As long as we have tense relations with Russia, we’ll see nothing here.”

Gyorgy Dzhangidze, a college economics student, said he and his friends didn’t expect to find a job paying more than $400 a month. “We were fighting for him in Rustaveli Street. And it’s not that he failed us,” he said. “But we didn’t see the results we expected.”

Saakashvili’s team, many of them also young, U.S.-educated professionals, said they realized their time to turn the country around was short.

“We understand now that the honeymoon is over. We realize every single day how hard it is to run a small country in this part of the world,” said Georgia’s national security advisor, Gela Bezhuashvili. “The revolution gave people hope, but nobody talked to them about what democracy is, what independence is, how much it costs.”

After his stunning electoral victory in January with 96% of the vote, Saakashvili dismissed several ministers and other senior officials suspected of corruption and declared his intention to end the de facto secession of the pro-Russian regions of Adzharia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

By May, the young president had sent Adzharia’s feisty strongman, Aslan Abashidze, packing to Moscow; in the process, he regained access to the busy Black Sea port at Batumi and its millions of dollars in revenues.

Next, Saakashvili set his sights on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, virtually independent since conflicts frozen in the early 1990s. There, he hit a brick wall -- entrenched Russian support and a population viscerally opposed to union with Georgia quickly ignited new conflict.

Seventeen Georgian soldiers died in clashes in South Ossetia after Saakashvili closed down a booming $20-million annual trade in Russian goods smuggled through the lawless region. In Abkhazia, where thousands of Russian tourists spend their summers at low-budget Black Sea resorts, Saakashvili threatened to sink Russian tour boats.

Russia has been doing its own share of blustering. After the terrorist seizure of a school at Beslan, Moscow declared that it was prepared to launch preemptive strikes against terrorist refuges. In view of Russia’s frequent complaints that Georgia shields Chechen rebels in the remote Pankisi Gorge, most took the declaration as a thinly veiled threat to bomb Georgia.

The newly assertive Georgian president clearly has Moscow worried.

“He is extremely popular, and while he is popular, he fancies himself invincible. He destabilizes the situation with his simplistic moves, scoring again and again,” Gleb Pavlovsky, an analyst close to the Kremlin, told the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “It means that Russia will have to stop this man sooner or later.”

The prospect of a new war in the Caucasus also would have provoked unease in the U.S., which last year spent $20 million on democracy-building programs in Georgia and is Saakashvili’s biggest international booster.

At home, Saakashvili still enjoys a confidence rating of more than 80%, according to a poll two months ago by the GORBI Sociological Survey, and many Georgians say they are proud of their tough new president.

“Of course we support him. One hundred and fifty percent,” said Lasha Chechua, an unemployed gas industry engineer.

“If he needs to go to war in South Ossetia, people must understand that this is Georgia’s territory, and this whole conflict was created by a third party, Russia.”

“We’re up to our ears in debt,” his wife, Tsetsino, said.

“But that’s not Saakashvili’s fault. Everything was destroyed when he came to power. There was nothing. Now, we need time. He needs time.”

Yet how much time is required to turn around a nation with 17% unemployment, falling living standards and an industrial output barely a quarter of what it was in 1991?

“Take me as an example,” said a mathematician at the Academy of Sciences, who declined to give her name because she feared losing her job.

“The average salary is 30 to 40 lari [$17 to $22] a month. I earn 45 lari [$25]. I pay about 25 lari for electricity, 2.43 for water. Gas is 15 lari. So how can you survive? And prices for all products are going up catastrophically? It was bad under Shevardnadze, but it’s getting to be worse.”

For some of those who stood with Saakashvili last November demanding a more accountable government, there is a sense of urgency -- the new government, they say, must be held to its commitment to democracy, before the authoritarian habits that are so entrenched in most post-Soviet republics are allowed to slip in.

A Tbilisi organization, Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights, has compiled 72 cases of beatings of prisoners and other police abuses since the beginning of the year.

“The right to freely express yourself no longer exists. People have been thrown into prisons for participating in mass rallies,” said Nana Kakabadze, head of the prisoners group.

“I think we are on the right road. We want to build a good, strong, free, democratic state,” said the deputy speaker of parliament, Mikheil Machavariani. “Our partners are helping us with this, and our neighbors in Russia are very jealous of this relationship with the United States, probably because they love us so much.

“But they love us as a little brother, and we are not little brothers. We want to be equal partners in a big family.”

For his part, Nersesov, the taxi driver, would be happy just to have a job. Ideally, he would like to work again as a water treatment engineer, as he did before the government stopped paying state salaries several years ago.

For now, Nersesov is still pointing the Zhiguli down Georgian highways, and the highways, he points out, still have potholes.


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