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Shevardnadze Hounds Corrupt Ministers

Experts have estimated that corruption costs the Georgian government more than $500 million a year in lost revenue
By Tina Tskhovrebashvili

Georgia's minister for state property, Mikhail Ukleba, has become the first victim in a sweeping anti-corruption drive launched by President Eduard Shevardnadze.


The campaign -- which the president has described as his "priority task" for 2001 -- enjoys considerable financial and technical backing from the United States.


But opposition MPs claim the initiative is little more than a showpiece aimed at boosting Georgia's credibility abroad and encouraging foreign investment.


When announcing Ukleba's dismissal this month, Shevardnadze said the former deputy foreign minister had failed to unmask the "predators of privatisation" within his own department.


Ukleba should have tendered his own resignation, said the president, but "lacked the courage" to do so. Shevardnadze added, "In his report on anti-corruption measures, Ukleba painted such a [rosy] picture that I got the impression I was living in a different country."


Both Sulkhan Molashvili, chairman of the Chamber of Controls, and prosecutor general Georgy Menarishvili told a recent session of parliament that Ukleba's immediate deputies -- Merab Gabunia and Shot Kvedishvili -- were among those guilty of breaking privatisation laws.


However, opposition leaders have greeted the news with caution. Pikria Chikhradze, deputy chairman of the New Faction party, said, "The government's entire economic team should take responsibility for the current situation, not just Mikhail Ukleba."


She called for the dismissal of finance minister Zurab Nogaideli and tax minister Mikhail Machavarani who, she claimed, were equally responsible for the economic crisis. "The dismissal of Mikhail Ukleba changes nothing," added Chikhradze. "This is just another cosmetic change in the political line-up."


And Beso Dzhugeli, former industry minister and now chairman of the Liberal-Economic Party, described the latest initiatives as "ephemeral" explaining that "these plans are doomed to failure because there are no executive powers in this country and the government lacks any political will."


Plans for the anti-corruption drive were first unveiled in the summer of last year when the scale of the problem became public knowledge.


Ivane Chkhartishvili, minister for economics, industry and trade, said that the average Georgian businessman pays 233 lari ($115) in bribes every month - a total of around 10 million lari across the country.


Chkhartishvili said that corrupt officials took around half the monthly profits of an average Georgian business - effectively robbing the state budget of more than one billion lari a year.


Last autumn, President Shevardnadze appointed a seven-strong working committee headed by Vladimir Chanturia, head of the Supreme Court, to develop a National Anti-Corruption Programme. The committee's findings are currently being examined by a panel of international experts.


In the meantime, the Georgian leadership has unveiled a package of "preliminary measures". These include plans for a modern tax collection system - to be introduced by January 2002 - and new controls over the state customs office.


Furthermore, the justice minister, Mikhal Saakashvili, has been asked to present the government with radical reforms to the Criminal Code aimed at fighting corruption in line with Georgia's international obligations.


And Irakly Menagarishvili, head of the interior ministry, has been charged with developing anti-corruption recommendations in the framework of a Council of Europe initiative.


All government institutions have been told to publish detailed reports of their expenditure in 2000 while ministries, state departments and local administrations are obliged to submit a detailed breakdown of trading licenses issued over the past year.


Officials affected by the latest presidential decree are to hold regular press conferences reporting on their progress and to encourage the work of civil monitoring groups comprising members of the public.


On May 1, the Minister of State, Georgy Arsenishvili, will present President Shevardnadze with a list of officials who have failed to comply with the demands of the presidential decree.


Arsenishvili has announced that he will postpone a planned visit to the United States in order to give the anti-corruption drive his full attention.


The campaign enjoys enthusiastic support from the American financier George Soros, who is backing the launch of a coordinating council in Georgia. President Shevardnadze told Georgian National Radio last month that the Soros Foundation had developed a new strategy aimed at combating corruption and at creating a "middle class" of businessmen in the former Soviet republic.


The American government is also taking an active part in the anti-corruption programme. A recent visit to Tbilisi by Louis Freeh, director of the FBI, has prompted speculation that the Georgian authorities are planning to form a special task force focusing on investigating corrupt officials.


Parliamentary chairman Zurab Zhvania said the Georgian prosecutor general's office would work closely with FBI advisors. He added, "Louis Freeh has given his seal of approval to the anti-corruption programme developed by our head of state."


Prior to his visit to Georgia, Freeh met with Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, the president's national security advisor - an indication of the US government's high level of commitment to the anti-corruption drive.


Tina Tskhovrebashvili is a correspondent for the Moscow newspaper Vremya Novostei in Tbilisi