TBILISI, Georgia—A year ago, democracy finally began to take root in Georgia. A brash young president was in charge, a new Parliament was being elected and the Rose Revolution appeared to be in full bloom.
Georgia's riveting populist revolt—"We were live on CNN for four and a half hours without a commercial," bragged President Mikhail Saakashvili—became the template for the recent pro-democracy uprising in Ukraine. And it's likely to inspire similar Westward-ho movements elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
It's been a year of achievements for Georgia, a former Soviet republic of 4.5 million people that borders the Black Sea. The national budget has quadrupled. The despised and thieving traffic police were disbanded. Chechen terrorists were run off. Crooked politicians were fined and jailed. Some taxes even got collected.
But it hasn't all been Georgian wine and roses for the 37-year-old Saakashvili and his new government. The country they inherited was corrupt, broken and bankrupt, and the economy seemed to be living out a grim joke from its communist past: The workers pretended to work and the state pretended to pay them.
"We're basically founding a whole new state," the president said recently in a wide-ranging interview in Tbilisi.
While the economy grew at a robust 8.5 percent last year, many Georgians grumble about the new government's failure to provide reliable electricity, water and road repairs.
Nostalgia lingers for the Soviet era, when basic services were more predictable—and seemingly free. Saakashvili said weaning Georgians from this nostalgia was his biggest miscalculation of the past year: He expected them to adapt more readily to the rough and tumble of the free market.
"We thought the change in mentality would be much faster," he said.
"But if you're a professor of physics and you're driving a taxi, you don't consider yourself employed. Unfortunately, we don't need that many professors of physics anymore. So it's been painful."
Saakashvili's state minister for economic reforms, a former Russian tycoon named Kakha Bendukidze, said the economy was improving, but predicted that it would take 75 years for Georgia to reach a Western European standard of living.
"And that's if we don't make any mistakes," he said.
One of Saakashvili's first trips as president was to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He came back with pledges from financier George Soros, the International Monetary Fund and several Western governments.
The new government in Tbilisi had already started to purge the corrupt, old-school security services, and some of the Soros seed money was used to recruit new police officers and pay them enough to make them bribe-resistant.
A crop of new young prosecutors also came on board, and went ferociously after government ministers on the take. The railways minister was fined $7 million in ill-gotten wealth; the money was used to renovate 15 railroad stations. The road minister paid back $5 million.
The son-in-law of disgraced former President Eduard Shevardnadze had built a media and mobile-phone empire through fraud and political favors. His fine was $15.5 million, enough to pay three months' worth of overdue pensions for Georgia's elderly.
"All of the ministers were happy to pay," a grinning Saakashvili said. "All together, a couple dozen people paid back $200 million to the state budget."
"I can now say with a clear conscience that Georgia has the cleanest government" in the former Soviet Union, he said. "This is a miracle."
There's no mistaking the cordial relations between Georgia and the West. The flag of the European Union adorns every government building and ceremonial hall—and Georgia is still years from gaining EU membership.
Throughout Tbilisi, whether in the streets or in ministerial offices, the pro-American sentiment can almost be cloying.
"We're independent because of America, and no one should be fooled about that," said Alexander Rondeli, a former Georgian diplomat who heads a policy-research institute in Tbilisi. "We have a great affection for America. They helped us politically, morally, financially, militarily."
While overall bilateral relations could hardly be better, there are still some wrinkles.
The State Department said in its annual survey that Georgia's human rights record "remained poor" in 2004. Government forces violently broke up peaceful opposition rallies, the U.S. report said, and "law enforcement officials continue to torture, beat and abuse detainees."
Saakashvili, a graduate of the Columbia University law school in New York, was a frequent guest in Washington before the revolution, and he has well-placed friends at the White House and the National Security Council.
Three years ago, the U.S. military began training new recruits as Georgia struggled to build its first modern army. The original Georgia Train and Equip Program has run its course, but its graduates have been effective in routing terrorists and criminal gangs from the notorious Pankisi Gorge in northern Georgia.
A new $60 million military-training operation is under way, courtesy of Washington. And earlier this month, Georgia added 550 soldiers to its infantry contingent in Iraq.
Meanwhile, relations with Moscow could hardly be worse, even though neighboring Russia is Georgia's leading trading partner, providing nearly every kilowatt of its electricity and every cubic meter of its natural gas.
Tbilisi is increasingly nervous about "gas imperialism." Government insiders say Gazprom, Russia's state-owned energy goliath, will never win control of Georgia's distribution network, even if it's the highest bidder in an upcoming sale.
"There's no trust between Georgia and Russia," said Salome Zourabishvili, the Georgian foreign minister. "I had hoped it would be time for Russia to turn a new page in its relations with its neighbors, but I don't know if they have the political will to compromise. It's an uncertain time."
Saakashvili conceded that a big mistake of his freshman year was misjudging Russian President Vladimir Putin. "I thought we would be able to do things together much more easily," he said.
Russia stubbornly controls two swaths of Georgian territory: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It also maintains two military bases on Georgian soil despite a long-standing pledge to remove its troops.
Georgia is now allowing NATO troops to come and go through its territory. And Georgian diplomats are trying to sell Ukraine and other regional neighbors on a new security framework as a bulwark against Moscow's might.
Saakashvili outmaneuvered Russia in one of his first serious challenges as president.
He knew that a key to jump-starting the Georgian economy was regaining federal control of the breakaway region of Adjaria and its vital Black Sea port at Batumi. At the time, Adjaria was controlled by Aslan Abashidze, a wealthy, Moscow-backed tyrant with his own private army.
Abashidze blew up the bridges linking Adjaria with the rest of Georgia, but Saakashvili used public bluster, quiet statecraft and a naval blockade to force him out. Abashidze eventually fled to Moscow, where he bought a stake in a candy factory.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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