Georgia: Problems and Prospects

By
F. Joseph Dresen

"I never found a feeling of hopelessness so pervasive as I found in Georgia when I arrived in May 2002," said Richard Miles, Executive Director, Open World Leadership Center, Washington, D.C.; Chair, Kennan Institute Advisory Council; and former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, to Bulgaria, and to Azerbaijan at a Kennan Institute lecture on 5 June 2006. During his tenure as Ambassador to Georgia, Miles witnessed the parliamentary elections of 2003, the tumult of the Rose Revolution that same year, and the mixed results of major reforms. He also served during President George Bush's visit to Georgia in May 2005, the first visit by a U.S. president to any Caucasus state.

Although many in Washington referred to Georgia as a failed state in 2002 when Miles arrived in Tbilisi, he did not find this to be the case. Miles suggested that a better description for Georgia in the year 2002 would have been a "failed government." It was clear, according to Miles, that the Shevardnadze administration had stopped governing. Revenue collections had dried up, there was no reform process in place, and the physical infrastructure of the country, from roads to schools, was in extreme disrepair. Many civil servants, teachers, and doctors had not received their wages in two years or more. Miles stated that he was given the assignment to bring a message of "tough love" to President Eduard Shevardnadze, and help make sure that U.S. assistance was being properly channeled.

One of the most serious problems that Georgia faced during this period was Chechen fighters, accused of terrorism by Russia, taking seasonal refuge in the Pankisi Gorge on the border between Georgia and Chechnya. Following 9/11, the Pankisi Gorge emerged as a prominent issue in the wider war on terrorism and a growing source of tension between Russia and Georgia. The United States sent in U.S. Special Forces and Marines to train the Georgian army to form a professional rapid reaction force. This aid helped Georgia to reassert control over the area and thereby eased a dangerous issue. According to Miles, this was a rare success by the Shevardnadze government during his ambassadorship.

When he first came to Georgia, issues of human rights and religious freedoms were growing increasingly disturbing, as "non-traditional" and evangelical Christian churches were being desecrated, their bibles burned, and their representatives attacked. Miles described the strong efforts that went into promoting better inter-confessional relations. Another issue confronting Miles was how to help an American power generation company, AES, which had invested heavily in the Georgian power grid. The company, despite support from the central government, was thwarted by local administrators for years from cutting power from non-paying customers, and finally left Georgia: "In the end, AES decided to sell out to the Russian energy company, RAO-UES.... Eventually, they ran into the exact same difficulties as AES had."

According to Miles, a tremendous amount of effort and resources had gone into democracy building in Georgia for nearly a decade. In addition to U.S. government programs, there were programs from the United Nations, the European Union, OSCE, and a number of international NGOs. An Ambassadors' Advisory Group, attended by many of the foreign ambassadors to Georgia, met periodically to coordinate efforts in order to avoid wasting taxpayer money on all the various aid programs in operation there.

The years of efforts showed results in the wake of the November 2003 parliamentary elections, which were widely criticized by international observers as fraudulent. While Miles and other international figures put pressure on the Shevardnadze government to address the flawed elections, the opposition parties took to the streets in peaceful protest, which grew into the "Rose Revolution" and the resignation of President Shevardnadze.

According to Miles, the economic reform program of newly elected President Mikheil Saakashvili has brought about many benefits for Georgia, in spite of setbacks. The new government managed to drive up tax revenues. As a result, all arrears on pensions and civil service salaries were paid. Additionally, a special fund helped provide public sector salaries and gave impetus to the new government's anti-corruption campaign. The new government helped reduce violence against religious groups as well. However, although there is still open criticism of the government in the media, Miles stated that there is still a perception of undue influence on the media by the government. Additional difficulties that Georgia faced at Miles' departure from Tbilisi include continued tension between Abkhazia and Georgia proper, danger of renewed hostilities in South Ossetia, and worsening relations with Russia.

Miles concluded that hope has been restored in Georgia, as evidenced by new businesses, GDP growth, and by the fact that people are returning and now "feel better about the country." Other positive developments include peaceful proposals on South Ossetia, which are being reviewed, and the completion of the $4 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline. "Transitions are not easy. A lot has been done and a lot remains [to be done]," stated Miles.

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