Shevardnadze watches nation crumble

June 03, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

TBILISI, Georgia -- Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who helped keep the world from exploding as he negotiated the end of the Cold War, somehow has been unable to do the same in his own small, forgotten homeland.

Mr. Shevardnadze, the last Soviet foreign minister, the diplomat who was the toast of the world as he oversaw the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the growth of the Soviet Union's friendship with the United States, now spends his days surrounded by bodyguards, increasingly disregarded and even reviled as Georgia destroys itself.

Mr. Shevardnadze returned to his newly independent nation in March 1992 to rescue it from civil war. He was quickly elected chairman of the Parliament by a grateful citizenry who saw him as a savior. Now, instead of leading a hero's life, he is

suffering the bitter harvest of the new world order he helped create.

"The demise of the empire was unmanageable," he said in a late-evening interview. "I favored the idea of a transition period, but somehow the coup in August 1991 hastened this process and it all happened in an unmanageable way.

"Then the Georgian government took a wrong turn, which led the country to isolation and confrontation. Now we are bearing the fruit of that confrontation."

Georgia began to fall apart when the terrifying power that had silenced ethnic desires and rivalries for so many years lost its grip.

Its first leader after independence, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was ousted in a coup in January 1992 after behaving erratically. He fled the country, but he returned to launch an offensive against the government last fall.

At the same time, separatists from the Abkhazia region along the Black Sea took up arms in earnest. Mr. Shevardnadze flew to the regional capital of Sukhumi to rally his troops and vowed to defend the city to the end.

But his troops were routed, and he barely escaped with his life. About 250,000 Georgians were driven out of their homes by the (( minority Abkhaz ethnic group, and many now are living a bleak existence in Tbilisi hotels.

Another ethnic battle is being waged in South Ossetia. Between the two regions, Georgia has lost control over about one-fifth of its territory.

"Georgia is in the worst trouble economically of all the former republics," Mr. Shevardnadze said, speaking quietly, almost sadly in his large, spartan office after having spent the day arguing with his fractious Parliament.

War and political uncertainty have very nearly destroyed the economy. The average wage in the country is 50 cents a month, down from $1 a month last fall.

Georgia issued its own currency, called the coupon, a year ago because it couldn't get enough rubles from Russia. The coupon, which was introduced at parity to the ruble, now sells for a million to the dollar, while the ruble trades for about 1,800 to the dollar.

Currency's demise

The demise of the currency has nearly destroyed the older generation. The pension of Tsiala Mchedlishvili, 64, is now worth 9 cents a month.

"I worked all my life in construction," she said as she walked along Leselidze street. "I had to haul cement and drag blocks.

"Now," she said, throwing her arms out, "nothing."

"My whole month's pension will only buy half a cup of yogurt," she said. "I can't afford meat, or even one egg. Look at these shoes."

Mrs. Mchedlishvili was ashamed to be seen wearing a frayed and faded red and blue wrap. She felt humiliated that she could no longer afford to go to the public baths or the dentist or the hairdresser.

NB Like other Georgians, Mrs. Mchedlishvili spent the winter with

intermittent electricity and without heat or hot water. Georgia can no longer afford to buy much fuel from Russia, another consequence of the breakup of the Soviet Union and one that prevents most factories from operating.

The heady rush of expectation that came with independence is long forgotten. "I can only hope for the young," she said, leaning back and folding her arms across her chest. "For me, nothing is going to happen. It's better to die than live like this."

While people suffer, the politicians hurl accusations at each other. Mr. Shevardnadze's nationalist critics accuse him of humiliating Georgia by crawling to Russia for help. Many Georgians loathe Russia, certain that it intends to rebuild its empire.

"They don't expect us to be their friends," said Tariel Dudouri, who works on Parliament's National Security Committee. "They expect us to be their slaves."

Russians are accused of fighting on the Abkhazian side -- an assertion diplomats here support -- to weaken Georgia so it would seek Russian protection and to sabotage Mr. Shevardnadze, who, paradoxically, is blamed by Russians, especially in the military, for destroying the Soviet Union.

In fact, as soon as Mr. Shevardnadze agreed to join the Commonwealth of Independent States and promised military bases to Russia, Russia intervened and put a stop to the fighting in Abkhazia.

A cease-fire was signed in Moscow May 14, but clashes still have been reported.

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