Ruckus in the Caucasus Saakashvili's Firm Grip in Georgia

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili rules his country with a heavy hand. Long the darling of the West, concerns are growing about human rights violations and threats of war against his country's breakaway regions.

Georgia's leader is a big man bursting with energy. He takes of big steps and shows broad smiles. Mikhail Saakashvili enthusiastically greets foreign guests in his government conference room with open arms, as if he were about to embrace everyone in the room at once.

Saakashvili, 38, is Europe's youngest president, and he isn't exactly lacking in self-confidence. He runs "one of Europe's least corrupt states," he claims in perfect English. He also maintains that Georgia is the "most democratic country in the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)," and that he has "wonderful peace plans" for the many smoldering conflicts in the Caucasus region.

It all sounds a bit flashy, coming from a man who runs such a small country. Although its snow-capped peaks and sunny Black Sea coast make Georgia a paradise for nature lovers, politically speaking it's little more than a pawn for larger powers.

Saakashvili, returning from a visit to the provincial capital Kutaissi, has just experienced this sensation of being a small nation among more powerful neighbors. A look at his mobile phone was enough to spoil his mood. "Right in the middle of Georgia, a Russian telecom provider's logo suddenly appeared on my screen," the president complains to his guests.

The mobile phone reminds Saakashvili of his biggest political problem: Georgia doesn't control all of its territory. Since the early 1990s, separatist rebels have controlled just under one-fifth of Georgian territory, in mountainous South Ossetia and in Abkhazia, a former seaside resort region. The rebels represent two ethic groups that are refusing to yield to Georgian authority.

Russia's influence

The two de facto states, which are not recognized internationally, have Russian weapons, Russian money, a Russian mobile phone network and Moscow's support. Although the Russians have sent peacekeeping troops to both regions, the troops' real purpose is more likely the assertion of Russia's own claims to power along its southern borders. And none of this seems likely to change soon, despite Saakashvili's plans to discuss his problems this week with his counterpart in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Already in the middle of a five-year term in office, Georgia's president is running out of time. "Reunification" with the separatist provinces was one of his central campaign promises -- part of the reason an overwhelming majority (96.2 percent) of Georgians voted him into office in January 2004, following that country's peaceful "Rose Revolution."

Following the bloodless overthrow of old-guard patriarch and former President Eduard Shevardnadze, the new administration in Tbilisi inherited a highly corrupt political system. Under Shevardnadze, a former Georgian party leader and then foreign minister in the Soviet era, corruption was ubiquitous, with Georgians paying bribes for everything from high-school diplomas to exams to government employment contracts. Highwaymen in worn uniforms lurked in the streets -- traffic cops augmenting their modest salaries with mandatory bribes.

When Saakashvili came into office he promptly signed an executive order firing the entire lot. Since then, traffic policemen dressed neatly in dark jackets and blue shirts have patrolled the streets of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, driving new Volkswagen police cars. With their eight-cornered hats and star-shaped insignias, the city's police officers look almost as snappy as their counterparts in New York.

American connections are part of Saakashvili's political doctrine. Indeed, the president himself worked in a New York law firm in 1994 and 1995. A joint appearance with US President George W. Bush on Freedom Square in Tbilisi on May 10, 2005 has been the high point of Saakashvili's rapid rise to power. At the time, 100,000 enthusiastic Georgians were on hand to applaud their president and his mentor from abroad.

But very few of them knew that the Washington administration had forced the hot-blooded Caucasian to abandon a dangerous adventure just a few months earlier. According to official figures, 25 people, including 17 Georgian soldiers, were killed during Saakashvili's attempt to regain control over the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali in August 2004.

Although then Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili, 33, was partly responsible for the bloody disaster, it didn't hurt his career. Only four months after the attack, the president made Okruashvili his defense minister, and last year Saakashvili increased the country's military budget from the $35 million to $220 million.

Okruashvili is considered the administration's second-in-command in Tbilisi, just behind Saakashvili. In addition to being commander of a newly refurbished military, he also manages shady sources of funding, including a dubious army foundation. Insiders say Okruashvili is the only man who has the ear of a president who has been otherwise resistant to outside advice. As defense minister, Okruashvili's job is to prepare Georgia for NATO membership as quickly as possible. It's an almost impossible task, as long as the government lacks full control over the territory it claims.

For this reason, the defense minister is using close ties to the Bush administration to help it qualify for NATO membership. Indeed, Georgia has received almost $139 million in aid from Washington this year alone. For the Americans the Caucasus nation, the site of an important segment of a new pipeline running from the Azerbaijani capital Baku to the Turkish city of Ceyhan, represents a key to oil and natural gas fields in the Caspian Sea.

With an acute understanding of these geopolitical interests, Okruashvili already sees his country "in a war between the civilized and the uncivilized world," and he pugnaciously asserts that he'll "celebrate New Year's Eve in Tskhinvali" -- the South Ossetian rebel stronghold.

But Okruashvili is truly in his element when he opens a new military base, for example, as he recently did in the western Georgian town of Senaki, near the border with Abkhazia. At the opening ceremony, sparks flew to the sound of clashing swords in a performance by Georgia's national ballet, as tanks rolled onto the 100-acre site. Against this warlike backdrop, the defense minister announced, to his people and to the world, that Georgia's army, partly trained by US officers, is "stronger than ever before" and "ready to tackle any task."

In a country with an official unemployment rate of 18 percent (with real unemployment ranging from 30 to 50 percent), young Georgians are in fact joining the military in droves. For Viktoria Mikawa, military growth translates into a steady flow of business at her Tbilisi soup kitchen. Mikawa, the director of a women's charity organization, offers free meals daily in a courtyard on Leonidze Street. The president's party, the National Movement - Democrats, provides the funding for her small soup kitchen. Leila Petrossjan, 52, one of the regulars, routinely shows up for a bowl of "Chartcho" soup, a spicy Georgian dish. Petrossjan, a former secretary in the city government, became unemployed six years ago. She voted for Saakashvili in 2004, but she says she wouldn't do it again. Now, her hair prematurely gray, she complains that "life has gotten worse."

Spreading disappointment

Disappointment is rife all across the heartland of the Caucasus, a region Soviet novelist Isaak Babel once described as being as "seething as cheap wine." But the government has nothing better to do than keep a tight rein on the media. Editors are terrified of receiving calls from officials in the president's administration. In an open letter issued last August, 76 journalists for the first time accused the government of "aggressive interference" in their work.

Two of the journalists, Shalva Ramishvili and David Kochreidse of privately owned TV broadcaster "202," were detained. Indeed, arrests have become commonplace under Saakashvili's clean-up operations. Some 9,000 Georgians, out of a total population of more than four million, are currently filling the country's prisons beyond their capacity, with two-thirds of these prisoners in detention awaiting trial.

Officially, two people died in March when security forces suppressed a prison rebellion in Tbilisi. Some of the methods preferred by prison interrogators include beatings, electroshocks and hanging prisoners by their extremities. The organization Human Rights Watch said it was "disappointed" that despite new laws Saakashvili is apparently unable to put a stop to this abuse of power. But these issues are taboo on the programs broadcast by the state-owned radio station. "We are afraid of losing our jobs," admits news editor Chatuna Mekvabishvili. Under its new management, the station now only issues one-month contracts to employees.

Diplomats reporting recently from Tbilisi have also voiced concerns about the government's increasingly authoritarian tendencies and a heightening of tensions in its conflicts with the South Ossetians and Abkhazis, groups Saakashvili occasionally refers to as "barbarians" in his speeches.

Salome Zourabichvili, the foreign minister Saakashvili dismissed last October, is now issuing public warnings about the president. Zourabichvili, the granddaughter of a Georgian politician who emigrated to the West in 1921 to escape the Bolsheviks and France's former ambassador in Tbilisi, is seen as a guarantee of the country's choosing a pro-European course. Last May she managed to negotiate an agreement with Moscow over the closing of Russia's military bases in Georgia.

She now receives visitors in her tastefully decorated apartment in an older building in downtown Tbilisi. She says that Saakashvili, like his adversaries in Moscow, derives his support from the security forces. According to Zourabichvili, the military buildup makes "no sense politically," with the president merely provoking Russia and frittering away the public's trust from the days of the Rose Revolution.

Ms. Zourabichvili and the opposition party she heads, "Way of Georgia," now plan to run in November's communal elections. She says that even more important than her own success in these elections is the need for Europeans to "apply pressure so that we will continue to have free elections here in the future."

Translated from German by Christopher Sultan

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