Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 5

By Zaal Anjaparidze

[Editor’s Note: Last fall Georgia fell into a political crisis triggered by economic failures against a background of separatist movements and Russian pressure. On November 1, 2001, President Eduard Shevardnadze dismissed his cabinet, and parliamentary chairman (speaker) Zurab Zhvania, once a Shevardnadze supporter, resigned his post. The divisions revealed in that crisis have yet to be resolved. The following report from Georgia describes how the continuing struggle for political control has undermined efforts to reduce official corruption.]

TBILISI–The Georgian government’s willingness to crack down on rampant corruption is in serious doubt once again. While Georgians watch, the anticorruption struggle is being transformed into a political sideshow. George Soros, the financier whose philanthropy helped to finance the anticorruption program, has publicly expressed his dismay.

It was Soros and other international donors whose financial support led the ruling party, President Eduard Shevardnadze’s Citizens’ Union of Georgia (CUG), to launch the anticorruption program in 2000. The CUG diligently tried to present corruption to the public as “the icon of the enemy.” This “enemy,” however, was mostly personalized as politicians from the opposition camp and high-ranking officials whom the CUG found politically or economically undesirable.

From its earliest stages, the Georgian anticorruption program has been little more than a form of political in-fighting, another field of contention in the permanent clash of rival groups with competing political and financial-economic interests. Under the banner of restoration of justice and fairness, these groups dexterously use charges of corruption to square political accounts with each other.

In a recent interview with Dilis Gazeti [Morning Newspaper], Kakha Ugulava, the newly appointed secretary of the National Anticorruption Bureau, said that he has a lot of sensitive information about corrupt politicians. “Sometimes it’s very difficult for me to restrain myself when I hear one corrupt official, without any pangs of conscience, charging another with illegal enterprise,” he added.

When factional fighting split the CUG and created dissension within the government, efforts to sink political opponents through poorly grounded charges of abuse of power, embezzlement of public funds, illegal enrichment and other illicit activities, were in full display.

In 2001, then Minister of Justice Mikheil Saakashvili undermined the government at a televised cabinet meeting with strictly worded charges against his fellow ministers, which he backed up by flourishing photos of the luxurious chateaus belonging to the minister of state security, the minister of economics, the chief of police of Tbilisi, and other officials from the rival political camp. Saakashvili charged these people with corruption and demanded that they explain the source of their incomes. Millions of citizens could watch Saakashvili’s “heroic” battle against corruption. The accusations became Saakashvili’s trump card in the standoff with political opponents, though his charges were poorly backed and lacked the hard evidence necessary to bring the cases to court.

Saakashvili and his team later on hammered out a bill on confiscation of property illegally acquired by officials. But “strangely” the bill covered only top officials of the executive branch, even though a number of press reports exposed questionable dealing by many parliamentarians who were living the high life on a monthly salary of US$150. The bill was so clearly politically motivated and contained so many controversial points about mechanisms of confiscation that the legislature did not dare to approve it. It was discredited and shelved.

Saakashvili’s rival camp was diligent as well. The Journalists’ Anticorruption Investigatory Group, said to be under the influence of the Shevardnadze-led State Chancellery, dug up information that some of the members of Saakashvili’s political group, National Movement, also own swank chateaus and can’t produce persuasive explanations about the legality of their incomes. The journalists’ group alleged various financial machinations and abuses of power by Saakashvili himself, even while serving as minister of justice. The group revealed, for example, that Saakashvili spent some US$7,000 of official ministry funds on the publication of his widely distributed book “Crucial Battle for Georgia.”

Two of the most recent actions of the national Anticorruption Bureau also show signs of political infighting and palace intrigue. This March, Mirian Gogiashvili, then secretary of the National Anticorruption Bureau, recommended that the government and the president fire Koba Buchukuri, presidential envoy to the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region (the presidential envoy is a post roughly equivalent to governor). The bureau found out that Buchukuri had not included his shares in two local commercial energy companies in his official income declaration. Shevardnadze fired Buchukuri at a government meeting. But few people doubted that Buchukuri’s hidden cooperation with Zhvania-Saakashvili team, then in opposition to Shevardnadze, was the real reason for his firing. Parliamentary chairwoman Nino Burjanadze in an interview with the daily “Resonance” said that the Georgian government has too many people far more corrupt than Buchukuri.

Sources say that Buchukuri’s downfall was the work of Badri Khatidze, director of the state chancellery’s department for regional management and regional policy and one of Shevardnadze’s closest henchmen. And Buchukuri’s allies did not wait long to retaliate. Givi Targamadze, a member of the bureau reportedly close to the Zhvania-Saakashvili team, released compromising materials against Khatidze implicating him in financial abuse. Khatidze apparently did not list a US$50,000 loan in his income declaration.

This blow from the Zhvania-Saakashvili’s faction against Shevardnadze’s camp was carefully timed to coincide with the run-up to local elections, in which Khatidze, as the president’s man for regional affairs, would play a crucial role. Besides, President Shevardnadze intended to appoint Khatidze minister of state (roughly equivalent to prime minister). Instead Khatidze was forced to resign, and as soon as he did so the enthusiasm of the anticorruption crusaders subsided. No one investigated the origin of the mysterious $50,000, a sum very difficult to amass legally on the salary of an ordinary administrative official. The humiliation, however, did not keep Khatidze from winning a seat in parliament in by-elections in Mtskheta this summer. His closest competitor in that race was… who do you think? The “corrupted” Koba Buchukuri.

Tbilisi Mayor Vano Zodelava two years ago called publicly for constitutional changes to extend President Shevardnadze’s term for five more years. But lately Zodelava has fallen out of favor with the State Chancellery. Sources say that the current minister of state, Avtandil Jorbenadze, wants to replace Zodelava with his own protégé, and that Zodelava is allegedly flirting with the Zhvania-Saakashvili camp.

The amount of money that Zodelava has misappropriated has long been the talk of Tbilisi, and investigative journalists have turned up some evidence to back up the rumors. But only now has Zodelava become a target of vicious and highly personalized attacks from the political forces close to the State Chancellery. The “New Rightists” political party charges Zodelava with taking bribes and corrupt dealing with certain Tbilisi businesses. The current Minister of State, Avtandil Jorbenadze, accuses Zodelava of responsibility for corrupt abuses in the Tbilisi Gas Company, which led to a cut-off of Russian gas supplies to the city because of unpaid debts. It seems that now that Zodelava has become an inconvenient political figure, the president’s supporters have raised their voices in a cry for justice.

One result of this perversion of the anti-corruption struggle is public frustration and the spread of corruption across wider strata of Georgian society. In June Georgian Opinion Research and Business International (GORBI) published results of a nationwide survey that shows that 70 percent of those polled are ready to give up some basic moral values and either take or give bribes to resolve their problems.

It is very difficult to see how Shevardnadze plans to fight corruption, or whether he wants to do so at all. It is likely that the government will continue with its mock anticorruption battle and use it to remove its opponents and a few excessively odious figures from the political stage.

As long as Georgian state interests are largely made to conform to the political and economic interests of Shevardnadze and his large “family,” the fight against corruption is not likely to cross these interests. Anticorruption measures will simply be a device for maintaining a domestic political balance of power favorable to Shevardnadze. And Shevardnadze’s political students have learned well the lessons of their guru. They will continue to twist the noble idea of honest government into a purely political tool for achieving supreme power.

Zaal Anjaparidze is a freelance writer in Georgia.