Georgia's president appears to be enlisting precisely the wrong kind of support to help him implement a new drive against government corruption.


Georgia's president appears to be enlisting precisely the wrong kind of support to help him implement a new drive against government corruption.

In his traditional monthly radio address last week, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze once again focused on the country's notorious claim to international fame - corruption. The president warned his listeners, "Should we fail to overcome this plague, Georgia has no future as an independent state or a civilised nation".

But the ordinary Georgian has heard it all before.

Shevardnadze first launched all-out war against corruption in May 1973 while serving as Georgia's Communist Party first secretary. Labelling it as a "struggle against negative occurrences", the campaign allegedly targeted corruption, bribery, careerism, bureaucracy, egoism, parasitic existence and extortion.

In the midst of his anti-corruption efforts, jokes flourished in Georgia at his expense: A plane is flying over Tbilisi and one passenger asks another: "Why is it so dark in Tbilisi?" The answer comes back: "Shevardnadze is developing the negatives."

Jokes were the only form of protest against the harsh realities of life in Soviet Georgia. However, not many were in a jovial mood as several Party bosses were sacked, dismissed from the Party, jailed and even executed.

Initially some people welcomed the severe measures hoping the campaign would yield positive results. In fact matters got worse, compounded by a proliferation of absurd cases such as one defendant who was accused of bribery for giving an extra 56 kopecks to a hairdresser. Such "criminals" were punished "according to the law".

In 1985, Shevardnadze left the republic to take up his new role as Soviet foreign minister. His successor in Georgia, Jumber Patiashvili, immediately jailed Shevardnadze's closest associate, Soliko Khabeishvili. Georgia's Supreme Court sentenced Khabeishvili to 15 years' imprisonment on February 9, 1987, following his conviction for bribery.

Shevardnadze subsequently secured Khabeishvili's release and he is now chairman of the Shevardnadze Foundation. The Supreme Court annulled his conviction in 1995. Khabeishvili's prosecution and subsequent rehabilitation were, it is widely believed, based on political concerns rather than legal ones. It remains unclear whether there was any truth to the original allegations. The Soviet Union was a "kleptocratic" state populated by government officials hardly able to avoid corruption. And little has changed since then. Many believe that Georgia's current government shares the same mentality.

The 1990s version of the "struggle against negative occurrences" took a slightly gentler form with suspect officials being simply dismissed from office. Many in fact secured new jobs as presidential advisors or entered business, investing earnings gleaned from corruption.

But only at the end of 1996 did corruption surface as the country's main problem. Nineteen ninety-seven was declared the "year of the struggle against corruption". Having partially succeeded in countering problems connected with the civil war, criminality, budget plundering and hyperinflation, the issue of corruption came to the fore as Shevardnadze struggled to fulfill some bold election promises.

On the eve of the 1995 elections, he promised voters there would be no poverty in Georgia within three to five years. But data from the country's own department of statistics puts the number of people below the poverty line at a staggering 90 per cent. Georgia's budget deficit for 1999 climbed to over $250 million.

Shevardnadze has admitted his more recent efforts to counter corruption have been rather too soft handed. "Pleading and appealing to patriotism didn't help," he said before promising his methods in 2000 will become increasingly severe. "I know many will be disturbed by this announcement," Shevardnadze added.

In his radio address last week, Shevardnadze said the Security Council spent more than six hours discussing a new strategy against corruption. Council members include representatives from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Public Prosecutor's Office. Both these bodies are meant to institute measures against corruption. But if public opinion is any guide, these very ministries are the most corrupt within the government.

It is therefore not clear who will be "disturbed" by Shevardnadze's announcement if some of the very officials charged with rooting out corruption are the worst offenders.

The creation of a parliamentary anti-corruption committee was considered to be the first phase in the struggle against corruption. Giorgi Baramidze, one of the leaders of the Citizen's Union faction, provided active leadership but Shevardnadze refused to grant the committee any real leverage.

The creation of an Incomes Ministry at the end of 1999 was just another panacea for overcoming corruption. Mikhail Saakashvili, chairman of the Citizen's Union, applied for the new ministerial post, determined to launch an aggressive anti-corruption drive. But Shevardnadze appointed Giorgi Baramidze instead.

In December 1999, Baramidze presented his proposals to parliament stating, "Radical measures must be taken. The country is in deep trouble and both tax and customs services are immersed in a swamp of corruption". Baramidze asked parliament to make legislative and constitutional changes to facilitate the fight against corruption. But parliament dismissed his suggestions and appointed the less radical Mikhail Machavariani in his stead. Machavariani will probably avoid attacking corruption head on but will adopt a more conciliatory approach, balancing the real needs for increased budget revenues against the interests of the corrupt clans.

Shevardnadze plans to create an anti-corruption service and introduce special legislation but it remains to be seen whether the next parliament, which will come into being in April 2000, will approve tough legislation against corruption.

Some argue that Shevardnadze needs corruption to manipulate his hold on power. But after the next round or presidential elections, scheduled for April 9, 2000, such fears that the president is beholden to corrupt officials will hold no ground. There is little doubt Shevardnadze will win the election and there are good reasons for believing Georgia will change during his next term of office. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline agreement opens the door to considerable inward investment into Georgia, a transit point for the project.

Shevardnadze is the founder of the new Georgian state and it matters a great deal to him what kind of state he has founded. His reputation will be greatly damaged should his administration fail to defeat corruption.

The strong pressure coming from the international community cannot be ignored. Following the parliamentary elections in October 1999, US President Bill Clinton sent Shevardnadze a congratulatory message, taking the opportunity to remind him that the USA "supports the plan for the struggle against corruption".

Sozar Subeliani is the editor of Georgia's Kavkasioni newspaper.

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