Uphill Task for Next Georgian President

Mikael Saakashvili can count on popular goodwill and western aid, but from the moment he is elected president he will face huge problems.

Uphill Task for Next Georgian President

Mikael Saakashvili can count on popular goodwill and western aid, but from the moment he is elected president he will face huge problems.

Tired of poverty, corruption and collapsing infrastructure, Georgians are almost certain to elect Mikael Saakashvili as their president when they go to the polls in less than two weeks' time.

Saakashvili, who has just turned 36, led the "rose revolution" that swept the former president Eduard Shevardnadze from power last month. After a decade that has seen civil war, ethnic conflict, the near-collapse of the economy, and plunging living standards, most people seem to be placing their hopes in the young reformer in the January 4 poll.

"Shevardnadze wanted to hang on till death, but the people didn't let him. Now I dream that bringing in a new person will change our situation," said Gurami Bethlehemishvili, a 45-year-old farmer in the northern mountain village of Kveshi, where there is no running water, no gas supply and no easy access to a doctor.

Referring to his high popularity ratings, Saakashvili recently told journalists that it was "scary, because it says something about the high expectations people have in me".

The American-trained lawyer headed the crowd that on November 23rd capped a two-week protest against vote-rigging in a general election by occupying the parliament building and forcing Shevardnadze to step down.

The results of the November 2 parliamentary election were annulled, and a new vote is to take place early next year, though a date has yet to be set.

In the short term, all eyes are on Saakashvili, who faces five other candidates in the presidential poll, but no serious opposition. Nino Burjanadze, now acting as interim president, is expected to stand for speaker of the new parliament, while the third leader of the revolution, Zurab Zhvania, is almost certain to be named state minister, the equivalent of prime minister.

Following the debacle of the November election, the pressure is on to ensure a free and fair poll for Georgia's 2.6 million voters.

The period for registration - a major problem in November, when many people found their names were not on the lists - has been extended from December 21 to 25. So far about 900,000 people have registered, according to the Central Electoral Commission.

About four million euro in election aid is being provided by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which will also be observing on polling day.

But there are already numerous problems overshadowing Georgia's hopes for a new start.

Aslan Abashidze, leader of the province of Ajaria in southwestern Georgia on the Black Sea, continues to defy the interim government in Tbilisi, and has repeatedly insisted that new elections will not be allowed on his territory.

Zhvania, Burjanadze and foreign representatives, including the United States ambassador Richard Miles have made several visits to the region recently in an attempt to talk Abashidze out of the stand-off.

But if no deal is reached, Ajaria will immediately present Saakashvili with a major problem, in a country where the central authorities are already weak and two ethnic regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, seceded a decade ago.

The row may also trigger a crisis within Ajaria, where an IWPR correspondent reported signs of a growing rift within the ruling elite. For several days now there have been student protests in the regional capital Batumi against the decision to boycott the new elections. These protests are small-scale, but are significant in this tightly controlled region where open dissent is almost unheard of.

Another worry is that Saakashvili's "rose revolution" could yet end in violence. Recently the interior minister, Giorgi Baramidze, spoke of unidentified forces planning "a military coup", adding that "the situation is much more serious than we might think".

There have been numerous minor incidents in Tbilisi over the last month, ranging from a small explosion outside a television studio to attacks on politicians opposed to Saakashvili.

And however the election turns out, the next president will immediately face huge problems.

Georgia's economy was hit particularly hard by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in the years since independence it has been bled dry by corruption, tax evasion and the government's inability to pay for basic infrastructure. Burjanadze recently said that Georgia was "on the verge of economic collapse".

Although Georgia's economy grew by 5.6 per cent last year - partly thanks to foreign investment in a new trans-Caucasus pipeline carrying Caspian Sea oil to Turkey and western markets - wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite, while most Georgians live at subsistence levels.

Pensions are about seven US dollars a month, as are average state salaries, while the American charity World Vision says that more than half the population lives on less than one dollar a day.

The government is hugely reliant on foreign aid even for the most basic services. This week, Washington announced an aid package of seven million dollars to ensure that the country's chronically unreliable power supply can supply heat to the most vulnerable sections of the population. A further 14 million dollars were promised to cover pensions and salary payments.

The International Monetary Fund, IMF, has indicated it is prepared to revoke a decision made during the closing days of Shevardnadze's rule to end loans to Georgia. But it remains to be seen whether the IMF will be satisfied with Saakashvili's economic policies - which so far, he has barely articulated.

Most statements from the leaders-in-waiting appear to be aimed at the angry, impoverished bulk of the population. On December 22, Zhvania announced plans for a new tax targeting those who own luxury homes and cars, saying that 90 per cent of the country's wealth was in their hands. Saakashvili, meanwhile, has suggested scrapping a tax on land to alleviate the burden on the country's many small farmers, and has promised to end further rises in the price of bread.

Georgia's new leaders will also find themselves facing the delicate task of managing relations with Russia and America. US interest in the country has grown greatly as the trans-Caucasus pipeline project has made progress, while Russia's government under Vladimir Putin has been seeking to restore some of its waning influence in former Soviet republics like Georgia.

Margarita Akhvlediani is IWPR's Caucasus regional coordinator, based in Tbilisi. Sebastian Smith is Caucasus editor/trainer with IWPR in Tbilisi.

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