Sun, Nov 23, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Georgians lament 10 lost years

AP , TBILIST, GEORGIA

Even when Rustaveli Prospekt isn't full of demonstrators, the Georgian capital's main avenue is a lesson in the country's politics.

Sleek Mercedes and battered, coughing Russian Ladas tear along the six-lane boulevard, unhampered by traffic lights or crosswalks. Pedestrians hover anxiously at the curb, scuttling across when they dare. Often they end up trapped on the narrow divider, as cars bear down on them from two directions.

The bold and the fleet eventually make it. The infirm don't even try, forced to hike a quarter-mile out of their way to one of the few underground crossings, unlighted passages flanked by beggars and famished dogs.

In the 12 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia's road from communism has been treacherous. Some clever and, in many cases, unscrupulous people have profited, while the rest of the country's 5 million citizens drifted into poverty, unemployment and discontent.

Resentment over Georgia's deterioration has erupted into weeks of protests and fears of a return to the 1991-1992 bloodshed that accompanied the ouster of Zviad Gamskhurdia, the country's first president.

Eduard Shevardnadze, who replaced Gamskhurdia, was expected by many to bring stability. They remembered his astuteness as Soviet foreign minister in 1989, when he saw that anti-communist sentiment in the Soviet satellite states couldn't be contained.

But if he was able to read the handwriting on the wall in Eastern Europe, he couldn't when it was written in his own language.

Shevardnadze had been under pressure by the US and other Western countries to hold free and fair parliamentary elections. Yet he didn't exert sufficient effort to control local officials who flagrantly stuffed ballot boxes in Nov. 2 elections, says a Western diplomat. Then, the diplomat says, the Georgian leader was surprised by the sharp criticism from the West.

Election observers say the violations weren't only on the pro-government side. Like the drivers and pedestrians on Rustaveli Prospekt, each faction in Georgia is largely out for its own gain, more interested in power than in ideology, the diplomat says.

Soso Leparidze, huddled on a chair next to the small rack of books he sells on Rustaveli Prospekt, agrees.

Gesturing at the parliament building a block away, he asserts, "Ever since 1991, it's been them and us -- the politicians are separated from the people."

It should have been different for Georgia, he says, echoing a common complaint that officials have squandered the nation's potential. "We had everything here: nature, culture, but now ..." He broke off and drew a finger across his throat.

There are many in Georgia who officially make even less, yet somehow live better. Corruption is endemic. In the watchdog group Transparency International's annual survey of how corrupt countries are believed to be, only five of 133 scored worse than Georgia.

"The police make 150 lari (US$75) a month, and drive home in German cars. How?" Leparidze asks.

For most Georgians, daily life is a grind of trying to find ways of earning a legitimate living and maintaining a little dignity.

The crowds of demonstrators along Rustaveli have changed over the past week -- from anti-Shevardnadze protesters, to others who revere Gamskhurdia, to supporters of a party run by a regional strong man. But a constant has been the old women sitting hunched in front of parliament, selling paper cones full of dried seeds, a popular snack, for a few cents.

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