A Georgian pleads for help


January 07, 2004

Mikhail Saakashvili, the new president of Georgia, calls it the "Rose Revolution." Saakashvili and his democratic allies led thousands of Georgians in days of protests in November, demonstrating against corruption and vote-rigging, weary of their nation's poverty. Eventually, they forced Eduard A. Shevardnadze out of the presidency.

When presidential elections were held Sunday, Saakashvili won in a landslide.

The revolution began after elections for parliament were held Nov. 2. Exit polls gave the lead to the National Movement party, led by Saakashvili, but election officials declared that the winner was a party that supported Shevardnadze, and the protests began.

The youthful, Western-oriented Saakashvili - he is 36 and graduated from Columbia University Law School in New York - was elected to parliament in 1995 and elected head of the Tbilisi city council in 2002.

Official results from the presidential election are expected to be released today, but a preliminary count of ballots from 54 of the country's 75 electoral districts showed Saakashvili with nearly 98 percent of the vote.

He takes office Jan. 25.

In an interview with the Associated Press, he promised not to repeat Shevardnadze's mistakes and to continue an anti-corruption campaign, including an examination of Shevardnadze family assets.

"It would be really incredible to do the same bad things, or worse," Saakashvili said. "I never promised Shevardnadze we would not take assets he misappropriated. I promised him his physical security."

Many of Georgia's 5.5 million people live in desperate poverty, and even those with decent incomes are beset by power failures and water cutoffs.

Georgia, a former republic of the Soviet Union, is of intense interest to other countries. The United States has been promoting a project to build an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, through Georgia.

Russia considers Georgia part of its natural area of influence, and relations between the two countries have been troubled. Shevardnadze accused shadowy forces from Russia of being involved in attempts to kill him. And Moscow has cultivated the leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Georgian regions that have assumed de-facto independence since separatist wars in the 1990s.

Many Georgians remain deeply suspicious of Russia, and wonder how their small country will navigate the difficult terrain of the Caucasus under a new generation of leaders.

The following are excerpts from an open letter to the United States and Russia from Temuri Avaliani, a member of the organizing committee of the peace organization Caucasus Without War. It was published in the Georgian Times, an English-language daily:

Those who are interested in the destiny of Georgia, this small and ancient country with a turbulent, not always fortunate past, and with deep-seated cultural traditions, have not been left unaffected by the latest developments within its borders. Currently, the peaceful and stable development of not only Georgia, but of the entire southern Caucasus is under threat.

The unhappiness expressed by the citizens of Georgia, with the results of Mr. Shevardnadze's 11-year rule, is both understandable and justified. A prominent, and often successful politician in the past, Eduard Shevardnadze, after becoming the president of Georgia, flung the country into a severe crisis. A destroyed economy, massive unemployment, poverty within the population, corruption, terror, coercion and the kidnapping of people. ... Unenviable results indeed!

Georgia is considered today one of the ten most corrupted countries in the world, and is at the same time one of its poorest states. With the unchecked growth of a shadow economy, the state's budget is in constant deficit. For years, miserly salaries and pensions have not been paid. ...

The situation had become so grave that Mr. Shevardnadze, along with his government, should have resigned long ago, as is done in civilized democratic countries. The patience of the people was pushed past the limit by the last parliamentary election. Despite insistent requests by the United States of America and other countries of the world community, transparency of the elections was not provided, and the results were falsified.

The people said NO to the incessant infringement upon democracy, and Mr. Shevardnadze was forced to resign. There were no violations of the Constitution, no victims, and not a shot was heard. The president was forced to look the truth in the face. ...

The era of Shevardnadze is passing. However, its aftermath is grave. Georgia faces new [parliamentary] elections. It is likely that a new generation will come into power, a generation of young, qualified, and democratically thinking people. They will be unlike the communist leaders, inherited from a fleeting communist dictatorship.

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