Government of Georgia struggles to bring change

Post-revolution country stumbles toward democracy, prosperity

May 16, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

KISISKHEVI, Georgia -- Mule-drawn carts haul timber through this village, and cattle walk up the middle of the deeply pocked roads. The nearest airport closed years ago. Home telephone service does not exist, nor do supplies of natural gas for cooking and heating

Yet this is a good year in Kisiskhevi, in eastern Georgia. Electricity and running water are now available 24 hours a day.

Conditions here 2 1/2 years after Georgia's Rose Revolution are a reminder of the dauntingly hard work ahead for the country's more democratic government.

Soviet-era factories sit empty. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, more than double the official 12.6 percent reported in 2004. State salaries and pensions have risen and are paid on time but are so low that people find themselves in near-poverty.

"Here, the majority of people exist - not live," said Giorgi Namgaldze, a college student who grew up in this village and was visiting his grandmother. "Life is really hard in the villages."

Free elections are "only one part of democracy," Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said in an interview in Tbilisi, the capital. "The most important one - the toughest one - is to have well-functioning institutions in place. This, in reality, is democracy."

President Mikhail Saakashvili has improved Georgia's relations with the United States and the European Union, at the expense of relations with Russia. He has also talked of Georgia eventually joining NATO.

But he is increasingly the object of criticism. In one of the three major anti-government rallies in March, several thousand demonstrators called for his resignation. Critics say that despite his having spearheaded significant reforms, Saakashvili is not entirely the democrat he has portrayed himself to be.

Changes to the constitution have strengthened presidential power, and Saakashvili's critics say that some government spending remains difficult to trace and account for. They also complain that human rights abuses, including police mistreatment of detainees, still occur regularly.

"The country is ruled by President Saakashvili and a small group of others," said Paata Zakareishvili, an independent political analyst based in Tbilisi. "For me, any changes - any movement - are better than stagnation. Right now, we have a chance to become a democratic country. Under [President Eduard A.] Shevardnadze, there were no hopes at all."

Nogaideli, the prime minister, ticks off a list of reforms undertaken by the government: The largely corrupt police force was reorganized; now, he says, traffic police no longer demand bribes on every corner. As part of an education reform package, national standardized entrance exams for university applicants were introduced to ensure that merit mattered.

But there are many who say that Georgia's regions have yet to benefit much from the revolution staged in the capital. A report last year by EurasiaNet.org,, supported by the New York-based Open Society Institute, found that, in many areas, life outside Tbilisi had not changed significantly.

In Racha, a mountainous region in Georgia's north, the report found, corruption among local officials and smuggling of fuel and cigarettes remain common. Residents of villages at higher elevations are nearly cut off from the rest of the country because of poor roads and lack of phone service.

In Kakheti, Georgia's most famous wine-making region, east of the capital, the average monthly salary is about $41. But many residents don't have work at all.

Gia Gorelishvili, a father of two, owns seven acres in Telavi, Kakheti's regional center. He grows peaches, apples and watermelons, and he harvests about 10 tons of grapes each year from his vineyards.

He doesn't sell the fruit to local wineries because they don't pay what he considers a fair price. He makes his own wine and sells it to vendors. To supplement his income, he sometimes drives a cab.

At home, Gorelishvili has electricity, water and gas. He wants to send his daughter abroad when she finishes high school. His wife was going to teach at a local school until she learned that the monthly salary of about $19 would cover only the bus fare to go there.

Gorelishvili is sober-minded about the pace of change.

"The country was destroyed for so many years," he said. "It's hard to demand from him that life changes overnight."

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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