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Georgia: Shevardnadze Interview -- 'Eradicating Corruption Is Not Enough To Sustain A Country'

By Andrei Babitsky Prague, 23 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Yielding to foreign and domestic pressure, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned last November amid a political crisis sparked by disputed parliamentary polls earlier that month.

Since then, the veteran Southern Caucasus leader has been living in the Krtsanisi government compound in Tbilisi. His office is just a few dozen meters away from that of President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili, the man who led the street protests that helped put an end to Shevardnadze's 11-year rule. RFE/RL met the ousted leader in Tbilisi recently. Shevardnadze spoke of his decision to step down and shared his views on Georgia's future.

RFE/RL: Do you consider the fact that you were forced to resign as a personal tragedy?

Eduard Shevardnadze: A tragedy? No. I believe politicians should always remain realistic. I think my resignation was the only way to avoid bloodshed. You know that I assessed the storming of parliament and the State Chancellery [by opposition supporters] as a coup attempt, and that I decreed a state of emergency. You know what a state of emergency is -- troops, armored vehicles, tanks, etc. Naturally, should we have put all these forces into action, we would have dispersed the crowd within 20 or 30 minutes.
"But what will happen tomorrow? They will have to pay salaries and pensions. The army is demanding money, a great deal of money. They will have to sustain the state administration.... As a result, the new appointees will turn out to be much worse than their predecessors."

But on second thought, after I decreed the state of emergency, I came to the conclusion that that was impossible to achieve without bloodshed because the street protesters were full of anger and nearly out of control. This is why I thought we needed to find another way out.

I thought it over all night and came to the conclusion that the only hope left was for the president to resign. I couldn't stand the idea of bloodshed, casualties. That's why I told representatives of the opposition I had decided to resign. I cannot say they were particularly joyful, enthusiastic. Obviously, they did not expect I would make such a decision. They started thinking it over, considering what their next step should be.

They then announced my decision to the crowd. How many people were in the streets then? Twenty, thirty thousand? Forty thousand, maybe? I could, of course, have turned to supporters in Tbilisi and other parts of Georgia, and maybe I would have garnered 100,000 or 150,000 people. But that would have sparked civil confrontation, civil war. I thought we mustn't let that happen after what we had endured in the past 10 years, the civil war and the bloody [separatist] conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

I understood that mustn't happen again and made the only possible decision. I'm sure that was the right step, even though, formally speaking, it may seem disadvantageous for a president to resign. But, looking into what is happening today and what is going to happen in the future, I think history will show I made the right decision.

RFE/RL: What do you expect from Georgia's new leaders, many of whom are former allies of yours? Do you think they will succeed in reviving Georgia's economy?

Shevardnadze: I believe that with the help of foreign countries -- and under that condition only, because they have no other source of financing -- the new government may temporarily extricate Georgia from the current situation. I know exactly what the country's financial resources are. It is absolutely impossible to settle the debts to pensioners, teachers, and others. The country hasn't got enough money to do so.

The Americans have promised to help us. U.S. President [George W.] Bush wrote me to say they will do their utmost to complete the reforms I had started. But the Americans have no extra money. They have their own problems. They can provide financial assistance for two, three, four, or six months at most. But on the whole, we're in a very difficult situation. Some [economic] projects should start bringing profits by the next year and a half or two years. I'm thinking of [the] Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan [oil pipeline]. I'm also thinking of the [Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum] natural gas pipeline, whose planning stage is near completion.

These projects are Georgia's biggest achievements. They represent our safety. But they will not be profitable before some time -- two or three years at the earliest. The situation is not as simple as [Georgia's new leaders] may think. You know, to address crowds and make promises does not require very much brains. I myself miscalculated in the past. Unfortunately, I [once] told the Georgian people I would ensure that 1 million new jobs are created. But I could not keep my promise. We were able to create only half a million or 600,000 new jobs. We didn't receive enough investment to create the remaining 400,000.

I am comparatively more experienced than [Georgia's new leaders] and more careful than they are. I don't blame them because they need popular support. They think that after one or two months in power they will get new financial resources. That's one thing, if the Americans take it upon themselves to help Georgia. But I don't believe this is going to happen.

True, other countries are helping us. Germany is determined to provide substantial help. So are the Netherlands and other states. But a day will come when we have to count on our own resources.

RFE/RL: Critics say the new leadership will not stay in power very long, that they have no program. Do you think these accusations are well grounded?

Shevardnadze: You know, there may be some truth here. One has to keep in mind that they were not prepared to accede to power so quickly and so easily. Ask any one of them where does he see [Georgia] in the coming years, he would not be able to answer. They say what is needed is to fight corruption, that they will imprison all corrupt officials, etc.

Basically, they're right. In principle, this is possible. But eradicating corruption is not enough to sustain a country. Corruption has its own motivations, and one has to thoroughly study that phenomenon and eliminate the foundations that allow corruption to exist. As for the rest, I don't now. I very seldom meet them. Of course, I would be interested to learn [from them] how they plan to revive the country, what do they think the primary tasks should be.

True, they have already attained a few successes. They have freed a banker who had been kidnapped and whom I know very well. They're making a great fuss about that, but there is nothing so extraordinary here. They're making a song and dance because that serves their immediate interests. But what will happen tomorrow? They will have to pay salaries and pensions. The army is demanding money, a great deal of money. They will have to sustain the state administration. Even if they appoint their men to replace government ministers, they will have to pay them anyway. They will remain patient for one month, two months, three months, but eventually they will start shouting and making demands. As a result, the new appointees will turn out to be much worse than their predecessors.

I don't want to make pessimistic predictions, but really the situation is difficult. It is even more difficult than before I resigned.

RFE/RL: Do you think Georgia's foreign policy will undergo substantial changes under the new leadership?

Shevardnadze: In the field of foreign policy, I think [Georgia's] new leaders have no other solution than to follow in our footsteps. To sum up, what has been our policy? We looked for and found friends all throughout the world.

When I came back to power [in 1992], Georgia was completely isolated on the international stage. Now, the entire world community recognizes Georgia. We are members of the United Nations and the Council of Europe. Everything is being prepared so that we will soon enter the European Union. That will be a great step forward, even though that may require some time -- maybe a year and a half or two years. We also have a real opportunity to join NATO. Prospects of normalizing our relations with Russia look good. Our relations with the U.S. are good. The external world is committed to helping Georgia settle its problems. [Foreign] countries have helped us, spending billions [of dollars] for the reconstruction of Georgia, They are ready to continue to help our country.

But we cannot rely on foreign help indefinitely. The situation is difficult. I am not saying it is hopeless. As far as I can judge, [the new leadership] is putting the emphasis on corruption, on the eradication of corruption. This is a good thing. However, if you calculate to what extent the state budget could profit from this, this is not very much. You can always arrest such-or-such corrupt official, but you won't be able to draw up a national budget this way.

RFE/RL:Relations between the leadership of the autonomous republic of Adjaria and Georgia's new leadership have deteriorated in recent weeks. Do you think the current standoff will have any consequences in Adjaria?

Shevardnadze: This is an important issue. Before the [November] events, I went to Adjaria to meet [regional leader Aslan] Abashidze. Then, there was this specially organized and surprising demonstration at Batumi stadium, when tens of thousands of people came to say they were for a united Georgia, for Adjaria within Georgia. We then finalized a few documents, and I thought all issues were settled. What happened after that, I don't know. Was everything carefully planned or were subsequent developments prompted by other factors?

Ahead of the [4 January early presidential] polls, Adjaria was the stage of a few election-related events that sparked public outcry among regional leaders. The current situation is delicate, but I have confidence in Abashidze, who is not a stupid man. He is a workaholic who has done a lot for the welfare of Batumi and other parts [of Adjaria].

I don't think he will secede from Georgia, as he used to say before I resigned. What could that possibly bring him? He would have to face even more serious problems. Most food products that are imported into Adjaria today enter from the east [from Georgia]. An estimated 15 to 16 million tons of oil transit through [Batumi] each year, and this oil comes mainly from Georgia. Should Adjaria secede, the situation would look different.

Aslan [Abashidze] is a man who watches the bottom line. He is a realist and he intends to remain a realist. I don't think he will take any radical steps. [Georgia] would not profit from such developments either. Some people hope to put together a protest movement against Abashidze. In theory, this is possible. But I don't think this will really happen. [Abashidze] is an influential man. He enjoys popular support. We'll see what will result from this standoff.