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No Bed of Roses for the New Georgian President

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
January 9, 2004
Financial Times


Georgia's so-called "revolution of roses" culminated in a peaceful transfer of power this week, when Mikhail Saakashvili received an overwhelming majority in Sunday's special presidential election. The change of power alone will not, however, resolve the country's serious systemic problems. That will require the energetic participation of the international community.

In the short term, funds are needed to sustain government operations, pay police and army salaries and ensure that pensioners and other vulnerable groups do not go cold or hungry. Georgians also look to the international community for help in organising parliamentary elections in April.

While a short-term stabilisation package is essential, additional foreign aid should be conditional on Georgia's progress in fighting corruption. Mr Saakashvili should move quickly to arrest high-profile individuals linked to criminal bureaucratic networks.

At the same time, he needs to launch a long-term anti-corruption campaign, strengthen state institutions that guard accountability and involve civil society and the media. None of this will be easy. But, with the political momentum coming out of the election, there is a real chance of progress.

The same goes for the economy. During the rule of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former president, most Georgians lost faith that their government could provide even basic services.

Mr Saakashvili can build confidence by affirming standards of good governance. The aim must be to build a strong private sector and attract overseas investment. To this end, Mr Saakashvili must tackle the state's fiscal crisis by improving tax collection rates, enforcing customs duties and downsizing the bloated bureaucracy.

In the future, Georgia should also consider constitutional reforms to reduce the powers of the presidency, strengthen those of the prime minister and diffuse authority to local govern ment. If the new government gets its house in order, the international financial institutions should agree to a moratorium on Georgia's Dollars 1.7bn debt.

Regardless of Mr Saakashvili's commitment to reform, his progress will be constrained by powerful external forces. Georgia has been infiltrated by Chechen fighters and al-Qaeda members who have entered the Pankisi Valley on the Russia-Georgia border. That, and Georgia's strategic position on the Caspian energy corridor, have drawn the attention of both the US and Russia, neither of which wants to see Georgia become a failed state. Washington has given Dollars 1.3bn in recent years, making Georgia the second biggest per capita recipient of US development assistance. It is also spending Dollars 64m to establish a Georgian anti-terrorism force.

Moscow believes that control of the Caucasus is essential to projecting influence in the Caspian region and central Asia. Its strong presence in Georgia includes control of electricity and natural gas supplies, as well as military bases maintained in violation of Moscow's obligations under the treaty on conventional arms forces in Europe.

Many Georgians believe that Moscow supports separatist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and view the Commonwealth of Independent States' peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia as an occupation force. Russia's meddling has exacerbated an already unstable situation.

Mr Shevardnadze's strategy was to attempt to play Washington and Moscow off against each other. Mr Saakashvili would do better to focus on political and economic reforms so that he can negotiate with restive provinces and foreign powers from a position of strength. Ultimately a federal solution may prove to be the best way to keep the ethnically diverse country together.

Georgia should urge the United Nations to do more to advance reconciliation in Abkhazia. As a first step, it should press the Security Council to internationalise the CIS peacekeeping mission, which currently includes only Russians. If Moscow agrees to a verifiable timetable, the US should help Russia cover the costs of withdrawing from its bases in Georgia.

Last weekend's presidential election represents a victory for liberal democracy over cynicism, which is widespread in the post-Soviet space. It is in everyone's interest to support the new government so that Mr Saakashvili has a chance to realise stability, security and sovereignty in Georgia.

The writer is senior fellow and deputy director of the Centre for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations

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