Georgians go to polls in midst of national crisis

Shevardnadze fails to end corruption, recession

November 02, 2003|By David Holley | David Holley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GORI, Georgia - 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 and 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 to a nuclear-armed superpower and beat back Nazi Germany along the way, however many millions of people 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 thought. "Shevardnadze is a liar, and Stalin was a man of principle."

For Shevardnadze, 75, facing a popularity contest with Stalin might 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 was once 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 voter list preparation, opening the door to possible fraud and disputes over the results.

Many analysts think 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 winter of 1991-1992, 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.

The United States is spending $64 million to train 2,000 Georgian soldiers for a rapid-reaction force meant to block international terrorists from basing themselves in this country's rugged border areas. The troops could also 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.

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

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.

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

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.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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