President Eduard Shevardnadze won a wide following in the West when, as the Soviet Union’s foreign minister, he presided over the unraveling of the Warsaw pact and the Soviet empire. He is presiding now less willingly over an unraveling of Georgian sovereignty. All his diplomatic and political skills may not be enough to stop the rot.
Separatists in Abkhazia, who with Russian support expelled some 200,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes in the Gali district in 1993, raided a village occupied largely by Georgian refugees on January 15, killing one and “arresting” others as “terrorists.” Russian troops, in the region as peacekeepers under a mandate that expired at the end of last year, stood by and did nothing.
The Georgian refugees are almost as great a challenge to Shevardnadze as the Abkhaz separatists. The central government in Tbilisi is powerless to secure their return to Gali on its own, and Moscow’s UN veto power dooms Shevardnadze’s efforts to win support for an international peacekeeping force to replace the unwanted (and pro-Abkhaz) Russians. Armed opponents of Shevardnadze’s government, many clan-based, mix with the refugees, whose political demonstrations have become more intense in recent weeks.
Georgian sovereignty is under attack as well in the Pankisi Gorge, on Georgia’s border with Chechnya. Russian aircraft periodically bomb and strafe the gorge, which Russia claims is a Chechen rebel staging area. Shevardnadze, who acknowledges the region’s lawlessness but denies the Russian charge, ordered troops into the gorge to break the grip of Chechen-dominated bands who live by kidnapping and the drug trade.
Corruption, lawlessness and Russian mischief are destroying the economy. Income per capita is under $600, compared to about $1,800 in Russia. Energy supplies are erratic. Taxes go unpaid. State assets offered for sale find few bidders. The country has a budget deficit, a trade deficit, and almost no foreign-exchange reserves. Only support from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank keeps the government from financial crisis. That too is a drain on Georgian sovereignty.