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Desperate Measures

The soldiers' protest over pay and conditions is symptomatic of a growing malaise in Georgian society
By Jaba Devdariani

The sensational crisis at Mukhrovani had all the hallmarks of a Hollywood blockbuster.


Veteran commanders mutiny to protest against the state's indifference to their past heroism. They seize an interior ministry base and are joined by sympathetic comrades.


The army and the police are swiftly mobilised. The politicians make weighty statements and negotiations commence. In the final scene, the mutineers only agree to abandon their protest after the president himself has personally intervened.


But behind the melodramatic headlines, there is a tragic story of undernourished soldiers with no uniforms, living in appalling conditions and rarely having the strength or resources for basic military training.


In hindsight, it is hard to discern whether Saturday's mutiny was an attempted coup or simply an act of despair. In either case, the crisis - which overshadowed Georgian Independence Day -- should present the Tbilisi government with some disconcerting questions.


The first decade of Georgian independence has been both stormy and bloody. Between 1991 and 1993, the former Soviet republic was ravaged by civil and secessionist wars when the mutiny of a heavily armed battalion would have had far-reaching political consequences.


Unsurprisingly, the troops who seized the Mukhrovani base came from the ranks of the National Guard - the militia force which played a major role in ousting President Zviad Gamsakhurdia from December 1991 to January 1992.


On numerous occasions, President Eduard Shevardnadze has argued that political stability is one of his foremost achievements since 1995 but Saturday's events proved that this statement is far-fetched.


Certainly, the population seems unwilling to make the same mistake twice by offering political support to dubious military escapades. But as political adventurism loses its popular appeal, social protest is growing into an omnipresent threat for the government in Tbilisi.


The first serious warnings came in December 2000, when Tbilisi residents blockaded major roads in protest over power cuts. Although electricity shortages have been an occupational hazard since 1993, the population at large felt that the government could no longer evade responsibility for mismanaging the energy sector.


Top officials issued cryptic statements in December stating that "forces at home and abroad" were attempting to destabilise society by staging popular protests.


Saturday's mutiny has also been dubbed a social protest. And while the politicians still attempt to point the finger at "foreign and domestic enemies", the vast majority of people greet this statement with an ironic smile.


If Georgia's leaders are to preclude the possibility of any such "unexpected" crises in the future, they will have to shoulder the burden of responsibility and take positive steps to alleviate social and economic collapse.


Despite promises of phenomenal growth, the Georgian economy remains sluggish. The politicians can claim even less success in tackling poverty and reforming the social support system. Corruption, smuggling and the inability to mobilise tax revenues have reached epidemic proportions.


In April, the IMF suspended any dealings with Georgia until such a time as the government is able to demonstrate improvements in tax collection and financial administration. As a result, the Georgian budget has been starved of a vital source of revenue.


Government officials and politicians still manage to conceal these harsh economic truths behind a smokescreen of partisan manoeuvres and open confrontation. But it is clearly high time for someone to carry the weight of popular discontent.


A serious political reshuffle is planned for this autumn when a prime minister will be appointed and the Cabinet of Ministers re-established. Already the politicians are manoeuvring to pass the buck of responsibility on to the economic branches of the government.


Although the prime minister's job is undoubtedly lucrative, the rival candidates are eager to manipulate the legislation in such a way as to share the responsibility for economic performance with Eduard Shevardnadze. The president's heavyweight status is seen as certain insurance against political "sudden death".


Shevardnadze, on the other hand, is attempting to maintain stability by monopolising the "power ministries" (internal affairs, security and defence). However, it is likely that the virus of social unrest has infected these agencies as well.


On the eve of Independence Day, Georgia came to realise that it had failed to build sustainable institutions of state which enjoyed widespread popular support. Although it has succeeded in containing political extremism and has reached a certain degree of political stability, the fragile balance still hinges on the personalities of a few politicians.


Saturday's events show that the task of responding to social challenges is becoming the agenda of the day. These challenges will severely test all the weakest institutions of state. In addressing social concerns, the Georgian state will also be obliged to question the insulated, clan-based system of governance that generates stability by balancing rival interest groups.


If managed adequately, the reorientation of the state towards the needs of its citizens can restore the lost connection between the government and the people.


It remains to be seen whether the current leadership will be able to survive this test but there is still hope that the country will.


Jaba Devdariani is the founder of the United Nations Association of Georgia and a fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA


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