A Hero to the West, A Villain at Home

By Peter Baker, Washington Post, Saturday 14 April 2001; Page A12

Shevardnadze Leads Georgians to Hardship

TBILISI, Georgia—Every day, Khatuna Alaverdashvili can be found at the bazaar, hunched over a table selling lettuce and onions. Most days she takes in just two or three laris—about $1 to $1.50. She barely gets by, and she knows whom to blame: President Eduard Shevardnadze.

“What did he do?” she says with disgust. “Only Shevardnadze and his friends are eating. We are not eating.”

It is a common feeling at the bazaar, which is filled with unemployed engineers, teachers and actresses who have turned to hawking produce to survive. As Alaverdashvili, 50, works herself into a rage, others gather around, nodding in agreement, egging her on. She's waving a knife menacingly in the air. Fortunately, it's a butter knife. But the anger is razor sharp.

“If I had a gun,” she declares, “I would shoot him.”

She does not really mean it, not literally, but Shevardnadze is no stranger to such sentiments, having survived two assassination attempts during his nine years as Georgia's head of state. A hero in Washington from his days as the charismatic Soviet foreign minister who helped bring down the Berlin Wall and end the Cold War, Shevardnadze has become a villain to many at home.

He was supposed to be the visionary who in a coda to his role in world history would return to his homeland and transform this strategically located former Soviet republic into a model of democratic market reforms, a tiny piece of the West right here in the Caucasus Mountains. Instead, just after the 10th anniversary of its declaration of independence, Georgia seems a forlorn place, mired in misery, dismembered by civil war, sucked dry by corruption—a “failing state,” in the words of Western analysts.

None of this is a secret to Shevardnadze, who readily acknowledges the broad public pessimism. “I know that many in Georgia hate me,” he said in an interview in the presidential offices. “But when it comes to trust, when it comes to confidence, they trust me. They trust Shevardnadze.”

Shevardnadze, 73, no longer cuts quite the same suave figure he did as the silver-haired diplomat during the last days of the Soviet Union. He has put on some weight and lost some hair. But he still has a sharp, penetrating gaze, an easy sense of humor and a disarmingly candid manner.

“Reform is not a revolution. Reform takes time,” he counseled in grandfatherly tones. “It requires a change in mentality or mind-set. And it requires faith. And faith in what you are doing ultimately prevails. Otherwise, there are revolutions.”

Perhaps, he mused, his stature fueled grand expectations he could never meet. “There are periods in the history of different nations,” he said, “when too much is put on the shoulders of one person.”

Shevardnadze offered Georgia his broad shoulders in 1992 when he returned to where he had been the Soviet-era Communist Party boss, this time as a democratic reformer. He inherited a mess, with gangsters in charge in Tbilisi, the capital, and separatist rebels in charge in the pro-Russian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Over the years, he succeeded in taming some of the wilder elements, and an uncomfortable peace has taken hold. But the country has been severed and 300,000 refugees remain displaced. Decrepit hotels and apartment buildings in Tbilisi still overflow with people who fled their homes in Abkhazia eight years ago.

Shevardnadze's attempts to introduce reforms earned admiration in the West, which rewarded him with ample financial aid. The West has long harbored special feelings for this country of 5 million, considering it a reliable friend in a volatile region, a bulwark against Russian imperialism and a safe conduit for oil from Central Asia.

However, Shevardnadze's push for change made him the target of two attempts on his life, in 1995 and 1998. The United States, anxious to protect a key ally, dispatched the CIA to train security for Shevardnadze, who now likes to say he is “one of the best-protected presidents” in the world.

Insecurity, though, is still the order of the day for many of his people. Pensions average $7 a month and often are not paid for months. Work is hard to find. Many buildings shelled in Tbilisi during the civil war that followed independence remain crumbled or abandoned. And electricity shortages have taken on crisis proportions, especially during winter when the heat was out for long stretches.

Even now, the lights in the city's nicest hotels blink on and off, and government officials find their way around the pitch-black halls of a ministry building with flashlights. Traffic signals often do not work, inviting utter chaos at some of the busiest intersections while police officers chat idly.

“Things were good when he started,” Nudar Dzhamaspishvili, a 42-year-old cab driver, said of Shevardnadze. “Now we see no results of his work—only promises and promises. When he came to power, we hoped that everything would be okay. We expected that we would have pensions and wages paid on time, that there would be jobs, that things would work. And nothing's working.”

Marina Abesadze, 43, was trained as a mineral engineer, but now none of the mines in her small town is operating, so she came to Tbilisi to look for work. These days she buys odds and ends in the store—shoe polish, detergent, air freshener—and tries to resell them door to door.

“You will not find a person in Georgia who will praise Shevardnadze,” she said. “I know the West thinks he's a hero, but for us he's nothing.”

Outside the railway station, Anya Olganezova and Natela Badzaguya sell bread for a profit of just 2.5 cents a loaf. Olganezova, 80, said she cannot live on her pension alone. “We’re like paupers,” she said. “We sit here and cry.”

Most of the former republics of the Soviet Union have suffered similar problems during the transition from a planned economy, but Georgia's are even worse than Russia's. While 40 percent of Russians live below the poverty line, 60 percent of Georgians do; the per capita gross domestic product is nearly twice as high in Russia. The double-digit economic growth Georgia enjoyed in the mid-1990s slowed to an anemic 1.9 percent last year.

“The Russians, the Poles, the Czechs, they’ve adapted,” said Jean-Michel Lacombe, ambassador from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “But here, 10 years after, you don’t see any change, except for decay.”

And onetime hopes for oil riches no longer look realistic. While the United States supports a pipeline route that would cross Georgian territory on its way from Azerbaijan to Turkey, it remains years away from possible construction. Moreover, analysts say the $70 million to $100 million in annual transit fees would not be enough to save the Georgian economy.

Complicating the situation is what even Shevardnadze admits is “very large-scale and rampant corruption,” from the streets to the corridors of power. As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, drivers are forced to pay bribes to obtain licenses, students pay bribes to get into universities, police officers pay bribes to get their jobs—and then shake down drivers for bribes to pay the debts incurred in bribing their supervisors.

Even more so than in Russia, a handful of powerful oligarchs controls much of the economic resources in Georgia and has profited handsomely from privatization of state assets. Many of those accused of corruption are Shevardnadze's relatives or advisers.

“It's impossible to do serious business in Georgia if you don’t have a relation of the president,” said Ivane Merabishvili, the reformist chairman of the economic committee in parliament.

While Shevardnadze has not been accused directly of corruption, critics insist he is guilty of looking the other way. “He's tired now,” said Merabishvili. “He doesn’t even want to hear the word reform now. If he says he's fighting corruption and wants reform, it's only to keep the West supporting him. As a member of his party, I feel he doesn’t have the political will to change anything.”

Shevardnadze strongly denies that either his energy or his commitment to reform have flagged, but he does not dispute that corruption has found its way into his inner circle. He compared his inability to control relatives to the various scandals involving the brothers of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. However, he vowed not to protect anyone from an anti-corruption campaign he has launched.

“Everyone should be held accountable,” he said. “This fight against corruption will perhaps be the most difficult because some close friends may be involved, even some relatives may be involved. But we must be uncompromising.”

Shevardnadze has held on to power in part because of a reelection that both domestic critics and Western observers say was rigged. The OSCE reported that the April 2000 vote granting him another five-year term was marked by ballot-box stuffing and other irregularities.

At the same time, many here say they worry that Shevardnadze's departure would undercut Georgia's support in the West. As Revaz Adamia, parliamentary leader of the president's party, put it, “Maybe he's rather old already—people are speaking about how he's old and that maybe it's time for him to go—but as a factor of stability he is very important still, not only internally but externally.”