Putting Broken Georgia Back Together Again

Los Angeles Times , CA
April 4 2004

Putting Broken Georgia Back Together Again

Saakashvili must navigate political minefields while reviving the

By Rajan Menon, Rajan Menon is Monroe J. Rathbone professor of
international relations at Lehigh University.

NEW YORK – Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had better savor
his party’s overwhelming victory in last Sunday’s parliamentary
elections, because his chances for similar triumphs as he tackles his
country’s serious and longstanding problems are clouded.

For openers, his government doesn’t control much of the territory
over which it has nominal jurisdiction – and hasn’t since 1992.
Abkhazia, the northwestern segment of Georgia’s Black Sea coast, is,
in effect, independent. The Abkhaz, a predominantly Muslim Caucasian
people that, with Russian help, broke away from Tbilisi more than a
decade ago, maintain a special relationship with Moscow and are
wedded to outright independence. Saakashvili is determined to regain
Abkhazia, as are most Georgians, especially the thousands who were
expelled from the region. Clashes between Abkhaz and Georgian forces
routinely puncture a tenuous cease-fire overseen by a predominantly
Russian-dominated contingent. Peace talks have been fruitless.
Abkhazia remains a flashpoint and a symbol of the precariousness of
Georgia’s political equilibrium.

Another slice of Georgia’s Black Sea coast, which includes the port
of Batumi, runs through the dissident region of Adzharia, whose
indigenous people are predominantly, albeit nominally, Muslim, a
legacy of several centuries under the Ottoman Empire. The local
strongman, Aslan Abashidze, rules with scant regard for the central
government in Tbilisi. He hasn’t sought full-fledged independence
largely because he already possesses its attributes: a constitution,
control of local revenues, a police and militia, and unchecked power.

But Adzharia is a crisis-in-waiting. Earlier this month, Abashidze
banned Saakashvili from entering his fiefdom, then relented after the
Georgian president imposed an economic blockade. The incident
highlighted the fragility of Georgian unity. Bringing Adzharia under
Tbilisi’s control won’t be easy because Abashidze has independent
economic resources, an extensive patronage network and connections to
Russia, which maintains a military base at Batumi.

A similar situation prevails in South Ossetia. The Georgia
government’s writ doesn’t hold in the region, and Russia exercises
considerable leverage there, not least because the Ossetians are a
nation divided by state boundaries: Russia’s republic of North
Ossetia holds open the dream of unification for Georgian Ossetians –
and for Georgians the nightmare of political disintegration.

Saakashvili’s most formidable challenge, then, is to reunite Georgia
– or at least prevent its fragmentation.

Another more urgent, but also more doable challenge is to revive
Georgia’s economy. Despite respectable rates of growth in the last
several years and low inflation and little foreign debt, the
country’s gross national product is still only 40% of its 1989 level.
About the same proportion of people live below the poverty line, and
pervasive corruption and persistent doubts about Georgia’s ability to
remain whole have made foreign investors leery.

But two pipelines – one carrying oil from the Azerbaijani port of
Baku to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, the other transporting
natural gas between Baku and the Turkish city of Erzurum – are under
construction, and their transit revenues will be a significant and
steady source of income, or so Georgia hopes. But political chaos
could undo both economic ventures, and not only because of Abkhazia,
Adzharia and South Ossetia.

The durability of the Saakashvili’s political alliance with Zurab
Zhvania, the prime minister, and Nino Burjanadze, the parliamentary
speaker, is uncertain. There are no strong personal or political
bonds uniting the three. In the weeks before the elections, members
of Zhvania and Burjanadze’s Democrats, which united with
Saakashvili’s National Movement for the parliamentary vote, were
unhappy that the president’s party insisted on getting most of the
spots on the party list. While Saakashvili remains immensely popular,
murmurs about an imperial presidency, his dislike of press criticism
and the inexperience of his top lieutenants have surfaced.

The bigger question concerns the political opposition. Eleven
parties, most of them tiny and chaotic, contested Sunday’s elections.
To qualify for representation in parliament, a party had to win at
least 7% of the overall votes. Some opposition parties complained
that the high threshold would freeze them out; three, including the
Citizen’s Union, the party of former President Eduard A.
Shevardnadze, boycotted the vote; and since the elections, complaints
have arisen about irregularities that put the opposition parties at a
disadvantage. The problem is that parties left outside the political
system may choose to disrupt it.

Then there is Russia, which is determined to keep Georgia within its
orbit. Ever since its independence, Georgia has battled to break
Russia’s grip, and Saakashvili will not stop that struggle. To
diminish Russia’s leverage and create stability and prosperity, he
will have to continue Shevardnadze’s policies of more trade with and
investment from the West, as well as solidifying political and
strategic ties with Europe and the U.S. The pipelines, Georgia’s
participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Partnership
for Peace and continuing American training for Georgian
border-security forces are examples of such efforts.

Russia, which views the South Caucasus, the larger region of which
Georgia is part, as its historic sphere of influence, has plenty of
strings to pull. Thousands of Georgians work in Russia, and their
remittances are vital for many Georgian families. Moscow can impose
travel and employment restrictions on Georgians, and has done so in
the past. Georgia owes Russia $157 million (for Georgia, a
considerable sum) in unpaid debts, and Moscow has used debt
rescheduling as both carrot and stick. Georgia’s economic problems
and its dependence on Russian energy have enabled Moscow to link the
resumption of gas supplies to an agreement on the debt. This is a
matter of simple economics and shrewd accounting; it is also an
object lesson to Georgia on the necessity of taking Russia seriously.

Moscow has military sources of influence as well. Russian troops
remain stationed at Batumi and Akhalkalaki, the predominantly
Armenian region in the south of Georgia and talks to negotiate a
schedule for closing the bases have stalled. Russia insists that it
needs until 2014 to complete the closures, and, despite reaping a
windfall from surging oil prices, also says that it needs help paying
for the relocation of its troops. The bases give Moscow leverage on
important issues.

Georgia wants to join NATO. Russia wants it to declare neutrality or,
preferably, to align with Moscow. The bases act as an impediment to
Georgian membership in NATO. While the possibility of Georgia
aligning with Russia seems remote, in Moscow’s eyes, Tbilisi’s
political course remains uncertain and thus changeable. Its bases in
Georgia also give Russia a bargaining chip to prevent the U.S. from
relocating some of its forces from Western Europe to NATO’s new East
European members.

Finally, the quasi-independence of Abkhazia, Adzharia and South
Ossetia gives Russia a foothold in Georgia, which controls the road
and rail links to Armenia, a key Russian ally and host to Russian
military bases. Not surprisingly, Moscow insists that Tbilisi must
agree not to forcibly annex these regions before a deal can be
reached on the bases.

The parliamentary elections significantly increased Saakashvili’s
political capital, but there are many ways in which his account could
be drawn down – and rapidly. Georgia’s seemingly intractable problems
can easily transform heroes into villains. Just ask Shevardnadze.