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Georgia: Saakashvili Raising Hopes That Corruption May Be Tackled In Earnest

  • Don Hill

Georgia's president-elect, Mikheil Saakashvili, says rooting out rampant corruption is his first priority. He is calling for new laws and a new cadre of anticorruption investigators and prosecutors. Weary Georgians have heard this song before. But many in Georgia are optimistic that -- this time around -- things actually may change.

Prague, 9 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The president of Georgia was displeased.

He had established by presidential decree an Anti-Corruption Council. He had called for executive reform, including stripping parliamentarians of immunity from criminal prosecution. He had established a tax fraud unit. And now he was calling for tougher laws against corruption.

The date -- March 2002. The president -- Eduard Shevardnadze.

Shevardnadze's outrage -- whether feigned or real -- failed to reverse the country's atmosphere of endemic misappropriation of government funds, bribery, and closet deals.

Last year, the international watchdog Transparency International calculated that Georgia had become one of the most corrupt nations in the world -- on a par with Tajikistan and Azerbaijan and outranked only by countries such as Myanmar, Haiti, and Paraguay.

The president-elect of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, spoke yesterday, saying "We need to introduce in the parliament very drastic anticorruption legislation that would give vast powers to a new elite, small, honest investigative unit that would really tackle high-level corruption."

It sounds like the same song. The difference this time is that the "singer" is a 36-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer who many believe has the ability to match words with deeds. In November, Saakashvili led a bloodless popular revolution that drove Shevardnadze out of office. Then, in internationally supervised and approved elections on 4 January, he put together a political coalition that brought the kind of landslide victory that ordinarily is seen only in blatantly stolen elections.

Known now across Georgia simply as "Misha," Saakashvili is set to sweep into office with a new broom and immense popular support for the cleanup he has promised.

But in a speech in early 2002, his predecessor well described some of the obstacles standing in Saakashvili's way. "So many people are involved in corruption that there are not enough cells to hold them all," Shevardnadze said. He continued: "If we fail to eradicate the impunity syndrome that has taken root throughout the country in nearly every household and in the conscience of nearly every citizen of Georgia, we will find it extremely difficult to advance, and we will fail to meet many objectives."

Shevardnadze was speaking from experience.

Alexander Lomaia is executive director in Tbilisi of George Soros's Open Society Georgia Foundation. He recounts that in 2002 his organization contributed something like $300,000 to what it hoped would be an anticorruption drive by Shevardnadze's government. Together with other NGOs, it developed a set of recommendations governing commerce, government services, political reform, and health care. Then it waited in vain for the results.

"Unfortunately, almost none of the major recommendations had been implemented by the former government," Lomaia says.

Even so, he says his organization is ready to throw its energy -- and new money -- behind Saakashvili's promised anticorruption efforts: "I think we are about to restore providing financial assistance to this program because president-elect Saakashvili has put out a rather aggressive anticorruption political program."

Lana Ghvinjilia, head of Transparency International's Tbilisi office, says her group also was driven into a state of effective impotence by the environment of corruption created under Shevardnadze's government. A group that once attempted such ambitious endeavors as monitoring the financial dealings of parliamentarians was reduced to raising the awareness of students.

Their current project is Youth Against Corruption, which she says includes "an essay contest for ninth-graders on corruption and law, or legality, issues."

Ghvinjilia, too, professes optimism that Saakashvili will succeed where Shevardnadze failed.

"So now, it is our big hope that in the near future we can implement more successfully all our plans in the field of anticorruption, as long as we see that this time we will receive [government] support."

She says that new laws, promised by both Shevardnadze and Saakashvili, are hardly the main point.

"You know, in general, we do not have very bad laws. In general, they are good laws, but the problem is the enforcement of those laws and the implementation. So now there is big hope for the implementation of those laws."

Saakashvili has pledged to protect and honor Shevardnadze. But Georgia's new leader also has promised to seek to recover for the people what has been stolen from them -- wherever that may lead, even into the homes of members of the Shevardnadze family.

The president-elect also says he wants to rebuild Georgia's gasping economy, bring its three separatist regions back into the fold, and establish warm relations with both Russia and the West.

All this from one of the world's youngest and least-experienced chief executives, who is following in office an elder statesman of immense experience.