Saturday, November 20, 2004

TBILISI, Georgia — A year after the peaceful Rose Revolution transformed this small South Caucasus country, the symbolism of President Mikhail Saakashvili’s bandaged right hand is almost too perfect.

Sheepish and amused at the same time, the president — at 36, he is Europe’s youngest national leader — explained that he hurt his hand when he crashed his bicycle while talking on a cell phone.

“I broke the hand,” he said with a huge laugh, “but I saved the phone.”

It’s a safe bet that no one ever photographed former President Eduard Shevardnadze, former foreign minister of the Soviet Union, riding a bicycle.

For many Georgians, the 12 months since popular disgust with rigged parliamentary elections forced Mr. Shevardnadze from power have been a little bit like that bike ride — exhilarating and exhausting, combining a real sense of moving ahead with a nagging fear that the rambunctious new president might be headed for a tumble.

The bloom is not off the Rose Revolution, but Mr. Saakashvili said he agrees with increasingly vocal critics that his government must transform last year’s euphoria into the tedious and often unpopular business of overhauling the country’s stagnant economy.

“The worst day of the past year for us was the day after the presidential election,” said Mr. Saakashvili, who won the hastily organized presidential election on Jan. 4 with 96 percent of the vote.

“That was a disaster — the best margin to win by is 51 percent, because then you don’t disappoint so many people. Managing expectations has been a constant challenge for us, but I think so far we have been able to stay on the positive side.”

The president remains very popular, but an increasingly vocal chorus of critics, many of whom sang the praises of the Rose Revolution a year ago, has taken him to task for falling short on policy and for what they see as a tendency to amass power and short-circuit legal niceties to accomplish his ends.

An open letter signed Oct. 18 by 14 prominent civil activist groups slammed what commentator Jaba Devdariani called the president’s “smash-mouth governing style,” citing selective prosecution of political opponents, continuing reports of police abuse, manipulation of the press and the president’s “intolerance toward people with different opinions.”

In one high-profile case, Sulkhan Molashvili, a chief auditor in the Shevardnadze government, has been held in pretrial detention since April, prompting expressions of concern from human rights groups and the Council of Europe.

Prosecutors say Mr. Molashvili profited from corruption under the old regime, but critics say his treatment is part of an old feud with Mr. Saakashvili, who served as justice minister under Mr. Shevardnadze for a time.

“Attempts to establish an intellectual dictatorship and mono-opinion will not lead the country to rapid reforms, but to authoritarian rule and stagnation,” the open letter said.

Sergei Arutiunov, head of the Department of Caucasus Studies at Moscow’s Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, said Georgia’s new leader inspires both admiration and wariness across the region.

“On the one hand, he’s a clever, educated, progressive guy who’s made Georgia an interesting country again,” he said. “On the other hand, he’s very young, politically inexperienced and has a tendency to make foolish statements that he can’t fulfill and nobody can forget.”

In the still-difficult relations between the two neighboring states, “Russia has always acted the bear, and Georgia has always been the cock. Saakashvili fits perfectly into that pattern,” Mr. Arutiunov said.

David Darchiashvili, executive director of the Open Society-Georgia Foundation, said the first year of the new government after a revolution inevitably presents a mixed bag. Mr. Darchiashvili, who declined to sign the Oct. 18 open letter, agreed that the government has overreached in several areas, but said the change in attitudes brought about by the Rose Revolution remains an overwhelming advance for the country.

“If not for the new government, we would be stuck in a totally corrupt Soviet mentality, where nothing was happening and nobody thought anything could be done about it,” he said. “They’ve made some real mistakes, but now at least there is real hope for democracy and a real civil society.”

In the interview, conducted in English at Mr. Saakashvili’s office in the State Chancellery Building, the president conceded that his government has overreached at times, but insisted that his willingness to take risks has been justified time and again, confounding skeptics who predicted disaster.

“If you take a step back, for all the criticism we get, I can say that none of the worst fears were justified and the most optimistic outcomes have come true,” he said. “In this part of the world, the idea that democracy can take hold, that elections can be free, that corruption can be fought, that things can work — nobody believed that could be true.”

With a Dutch wife, a command of English and three other languages and law degrees from Columbia and George Washington universities, Mr. Saakashvili personifies the sharp break with Georgia’s lingering Soviet legacy that Mr. Shevardnadze never managed.

Listing the government’s main accomplishments, he said state revenues tripled and overdue pensions were paid despite a deep cut in tax rates, the fruits of a vastly more efficient and transparent tax and customs system. Parliament is considering a drastic overhaul of the entire tax code.

Corruption has by no means disappeared, but the government has made fighting graft a priority and has opened a string of high-profile cases. The army, thanks in large part to a U.S. military aid and training program begun under the previous government, is more professional and better-equipped.

An aggressive privatization program under Economy Minister Kakha Bendukidze is working through a list of 372 state enterprises to be sold, from hotels and hydroelectric dams to the national mint.

Perhaps the single most politically potent reform was dismantling the hated traffic police — an underpaid, overstaffed force whose members augmented their salaries with routine shakedowns of motorists for petty or imagined offenses. Mr. Saakashvili said the country passed a major test when Georgia’s raucous drivers survived two months of virtual roadway anarchy until a better-trained, higher-paid replacement force could be recruited.

Ghia Nodia, director of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi, said: “The traffic police were the big symbol of government corruption. No other reform has meant so much to ordinary Georgians.”

Georgia has held clean national, regional and local elections since the Rose Revolution, but signs that the reforms have improved its economy or the quality of life are harder to see.

There are anecdotal signs of progress, including a steady stream of Georgian expatriates returning.

British Airways this month began twice-weekly direct service from London to Tbilisi. A group of Georgian soccer players based in Germany is investing in a showcase sales and servicing office for German carmaker Audi on the outskirts of the capital.

Backers announced plans this month for Georgia’s first golf course, located virtually a pitch and a putt from one of the country’s oldest and most famous Orthodox churches in the cathedral town of Mtskheta.

But the anecdotes still do not add up to broad-based economic progress, and Mr. Saakashvili is characteristically impatient to move on further reforms, drawing on his ample stock of political capital while it’s still there.

“Our time span is actually quite limited,” he said. “We can’t expect to triple the budget every year. If we don’t take some of these steps now on reform and privatization, it will be a huge burden for us five or 10 years from now.”

One of the president’s biggest victories — the consolidation of central control over the breakaway southwest province of Ajaria, where Russia has a military base in the capital Batumi — has inspired fears that Mr. Saakashvili will be tempted to risk even more.

Ignoring rumblings from Moscow and open doubts even in Washington, Mr. Saakashvili successfully faced down the Ajaria’s pro-Moscow political boss, forcing him to flee and establishing Tbilisi’s effective control there.

But the president said fears that he might take the same confrontational approach to South Ossetia and Abkhazia — two other breakaway ethnic enclaves that enjoy even stronger support from Russia — are unfounded.

“Ajaria we had to deal with, because otherwise our own domestic reforms could not succeed,” he said. “Without shutting down the smuggling, without shutting down what was in effect another government on Georgian soil, our own efforts on corruption, on taxes and customs would have been useless.

“That is not the case with Abkhazia, for example. Solving that situation is contingent on our own economic success. If we have a solid economy, solid investment here, we can turn around and ask the people of those regions, ‘What is your choice?’ ”

Clearly trying to ease fears that Ajaria is a model for Georgia’s other “frozen conflicts,” he said, “We need not be in such a hurry with these regions. The 15 percent [not under central control] can wait for the 85 percent to be successful.”

On foreign policy, Mr. Saakashvili has extended and enlarged Tbilisi’s close alliance with Washington, while enduring often prickly relations with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

The United States is genuinely popular here — seen as a guarantor of Georgia’s independence in the chaotic days of the collapsing Soviet Union — and a source of aid and strategic counterweight in the endless tug of war with Russia.

Mr. Saakashvili said he made a snap decision to offer more Georgian troops to guard U.N. personnel in Iraq after hearing Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry decry the lack of international help for the U.S.-led mission there. Georgia’s contingent in Iraq will quintuple to about 850 in the coming weeks, making it the largest contributor to the multinational force in Iraq on a per capita basis.

“We owe a lot to the Americans,” he said simply.

“If the United States fails in Iraq, it will be a disaster for the wider Middle East, and it will have direct repercussions on our part of the world,” he said. “It is a risky mission, and we have been open with our own people about that. But the United States has helped us, and we see our participation and relationship with America as an investment in our own future security.”

Alex Rondeli, president of the Georgia Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, said Georgia’s tense relationship with Russia reflects Moscow’s inability to accept the breakup of the Soviet Union in general and the decline of its sphere of influence in the south Caucasus in particular.

“For many countries in the post-Soviet space, Georgia with the Rose Revolution has suddenly become a role model,” Mr. Rondeli said. “I think the reason Russia is trying so hard now to punish Georgia is not so much military or strategic, but because we have become a bacilli in their bloodstream. We are now a threat simply because of who we are.”

Yet a year after heading an improbable revolution that swept a new generation to power, Mr. Saakashvili denies having any ambition to export the Rose Revolution.

“Yes, Russia is a big country with global interests, and we are a small country. But even a small country has the right to choose. Our revolution, our relationship with Washington, our hopes to join NATO — they make a lot of people in Russia nervous, and I can understand why.

“Some in our region, not just in Russia, were frankly disturbed by the Rose Revolution. It puts a lot of pressure on them. But we make no claim to export our revolution to anyone. We are happy just to serve as a role model, but we demand the right to be successful on our own terms.”

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