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Georgia: Corruption Seen As The 'Norm'

Like several other former Soviet states, Georgia has been sucked dry by corruption and state criminality. In a radio address last week, President Eduard Shevardnadze reiterated that he is committed to tackling the problem. But few in Georgia believe that the former Soviet politburo member is genuinely interested in eradicating, or even reducing, corruption.

Tbilisi, 10 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When he took power nine years ago with the active support of the West, former Soviet Communist Party official and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was seen as the providential man who would bring prosperity to Georgia.

But the 73-year-old president is now facing growing criticism both at home and abroad for his failure to turn his country into anything close to a model of democratic and market reforms.

Despite massive financial aid from multilateral organizations and individual countries, the tiny Caucasus state of Georgia can only provide its 5-million-strong population an average monthly income of less than $20. The minimum subsistence wage is estimated at between $50 and $60.

Pensions and salaries are paid sporadically, refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia are struggling to survive with their $7 monthly allocation, and the Georgian capital Tbilisi is regularly plunged into cold and darkness by seasonal energy shortages.

Some 100,000 Georgians are officially registered as unemployed. But independent experts believe that up to one-fourth of the country's active population is on forced unpaid leave.

Many Georgians no longer have faith in their leader and say it is now time for him and his associates to step down in favor of a new team. They see Shevardnadze as only interested in retaining power and lacking the political will to make basic changes.

Rampant corruption, partly inherited from the Soviet Union, is generally considered the main impediment to economic growth and political reform in the country.

Few Georgians believe that Shevardnadze himself is corrupt. They complain, however, that he has ignored the country's large-scale corruption and allowed a handful of close relatives and cronies to profit from the privatization of state assets.

In Tbilisi, corruption is the talk of the town. "All my friends are corrupt," is a common phrase heard in the capital.

Last year, Shevardnadze asked a group of seven experts to draw up a program to help stem the spread of corruption.

Among the two independent analysts included in the group was Ghia Nodia, the chairman of the non-governmental Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development.

In an interview with our correspondent, Nodia said the authors of the program singled out six areas that they believed should be given priority in combating corruption. They were: liberalization of the economy, better budget management, reform of law-enforcement agencies, more effective management of state institutions, stemming political corruption while developing a pluralist democracy, and educational reform.

Nodia described the program as an "a kind of initiative from below."

"The general philosophy of this document is that corruption is not merely a violation of the law, is not an anomaly. On the contrary, in this country corruption is the norm. Corruption is the foundation on which public management and economic relations are built. The 'initiative from below' consisted of saying that the fight against corruption should be based on a whole set of measures and not, say, on show trials against this or that corrupt civil servant."

Implementation of the program will be monitored by a 12-member coordination council that Shevardnadze, following the recommendation of its authors, set up two weeks ago (April 26).

The coordination council is only an advisory body, without executive authority. But the experts who drafted the program nonetheless see it as an essential organ in the fight against corruption Georgian authorities say they are willing to launch.

Nodia says that the council should have the power to issue additional recommendations on how to fight corruption. He sees it as a link between state and society, and between the government and international organizations.

Last month (April 13), Shevardnadze appointed 28-year-old lawyer Mirian Gogiashvili, a former World Bank official, to run the coordination council. Other council members include ministers, deputies, academics, journalists, and representatives of non-governmental organizations. The council will be assisted by a group of about 30 people, who will report daily on how the anti-corruption program is implemented.

Gogiashvili told RFE/RL that the goal of the program is to reduce corruption substantially within the next two years:

"Our idea of the [anti-corruption] program is that we need to achieve a degree of transparency, to reduce the influence of state organs in the economy and to raise citizens' awareness. These are the principles that we will follow in order to reduce corruption. In addition, we envisage a kind of chain reaction that will provide for a reduction of the number of civil servants, ministries, controlling bodies and, of course, a raise in salaries and a greater sense of responsibility on the part of state structures."

Yet few believe that Shevardnadze and his government are really committed to fighting corruption or, if they are, that they will succeed in achieving their goal.

Levan Berzdenishvili is the head of Georgia's National Library and also heads a non-governmental organization known as the Civic Development International Center. In an interview, Berdzenishvili said he doubts that the members of the coordination council -- whom he described as "people beyond reproach" -- will be able to improve the situation:

"[Shevardnadze] acted in a very clever and very shrewd way. For the moment, no one can say that he does not want to fight against corruption because he didn't appoint the right persons. But what are these people going to do? Nobody knows. We have not seen a single serious document that says what their functions will be. And what will be their rights?"

As in many other former Soviet republics, the Georgians have lost confidence in the state. Many believe that all politicians, all civil servants are corrupt. As for anti-corruption campaigns, they tend to see them as a useful tool for political leaders tempted to eliminate more popular rivals.

One of the main tasks Shevardnadze will have to face in the near future is to restore the population's confidence in the state. Asked how the government should proceed to achieve this, Nodia said:

"I don't think there is a theoretical answer to this question. But if the government shows enough courage to take difficult but necessary steps to strengthen state institutions, if it is not afraid of weakening what we call the 'corrupt clans' or of institutions such as the Interior Ministry that are involved in state racketeering -- I think that a significant part of the society will believe in it. It is becoming more difficult to cheat people."

Gogiashvili said he is aware of the pessimism that prevails in Georgian society. But he told our correspondent that he believes the government will be able to regain the people's confidence.

"For us it is important that the people feel that corruption is being reduced in this country, that we are really fighting against corruption, that it will not remain empty words and will not turn into a political struggle against [rival] clans."

But Ivane Merabishvili, the reformist chairman of Georgian parliament's Economic Affairs Committee," argues that Shevardnadze's public commitment to quell corruption is just a way "to keep the West supporting him." In comments published last month (April 14) in "The Washington Post," he wrote: "Shevardnadze cannot objectively fight against corruption, since it could lead to accusations against himself or his close entourage."

Other experts argue that political instability is likely to prevent the president from taking any decisive step against corruption in the near future.

As for Georgian civil society, Nodia says it is not yet organized enough to influence the fight against corruption. He believes that there is an urgent need to launch an overall debate on corruption within the society.

"The implementation of anti-corruption measures depends on the government," Nodia says. "But the creation of an environment in which these measures will make sense depends on the society."