Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 2

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili delivered his New Year’s address to Georgia from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where he had flown to congratulate Viktor Yushchenko on his victory in the presidential elections. This step emphasizes the importance Saakashvili gives to warm relations with a Yushchenko-governed Ukraine.

Before his departure for Kyiv, Saakashvili convened a news conference on December 29 to evaluate his government’s performance for 2004. He called the year “the most successful in independent Georgia’s history.”

As expected, Saakashvili named the restoration of control over the Ajarian Autonomous Republic as the year’s most important achievement. The president also enthusiastically spoke about increased budgetary revenues and expenditures, adoption of a more liberal tax code, the new tax law, and the program for financial amnesty.

Saakashvili declared that continued efforts to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity would top his agenda for 2005. He said that Georgia soon would submit new peace initiatives to settle the frozen conflicts with the other breakaway regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Two weeks earlier, Saakashvili had instructed leading Georgian NGOs and think tanks to elaborate a new plan for resolving the conflicts.

During his press conference, Saakashvili admitted that his initial promises to resolve the country’s basic problems, including territorial integrity, have become unrealistic, at least in the short term. “Things cannot be settled so quickly, within five months. I also thought so, but it is impossible,” he said. Saakashvili further declared that under his governance Georgia has become a stronger state.

Saakashvili is known to loath criticism and told reporters that he “would not like to focus” on failures. He also slammed opposition forces for criticizing him and his government for economic and political underperformance.

Meanwhile the opposition, represented by political parties in and out of parliament and several NGOs, has prepared a long list of mistakes made by Saakashvili and his team during the past year. Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the Labor Party, raised the issue of Saakashvili’s mixed record during his three-week trip to the United States in December. Reports that the U.S. Department of State invited one of Saakashvili’s staunchest opponents to visit the United States — simultaneously with Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania’s U.S. trip — were evidently unpalatable to the ruling party.

The Georgian opposition charges that the constitutional amendments made shortly after the Rose Revolution have completely destroyed the notion of separation of powers. This assertion contains a grain of truth. Georgia essentially has a one-party system and a “pocket” parliament dominated by the ruling party majority. During the last 2004 plenary session, parliament passed more than hundred bills, including tax and financial amnesty without proper scrutiny or outside comment. The opposition also claims that the current Electoral Code makes fair elections impossible. Several NGOs are ringing alarming bells about declining media freedom and judicial independence, illegal arrests, state extortion of private firms, and the reappearance of political prisoners.

Saakashvili is also criticized for flip-flopping on Abkhazia and South Ossetia and particularly for the failed military campaign against South Ossetia last August, which the government still tries to hush up. Moreover, the “power ministers” responsible for that failure remain in the government.

Saakashvili’s personnel policy, namely rotating the same faces among different posts, has disappointed even his followers. Despite the government’s bombastic rhetoric, scandals still undermine the Georgian army. On December 20, 70 soldiers based in Mukhrovani (eastern Georgia) abandoned their barracks, which they said were unfit for human habitation.

The recent reshuffle of the cabinet, conflict in the Tbilisi government, parliamentary chairwoman Nino Burjanadze’s refusal to join the ruling party, conflicts in regional branches, and division within the ruling party’s parliamentary faction do not bode well for future party unity. Even Saakashvili’s supporters have publicly noted setbacks in conflict settlement, freedom of speech, local democracy, and governance.

The government is trying to win the hearts and minds of the population through a variety of popular measures. The government announces it will raise pensions but remains tight-lipped about the lari’s decreasing purchasing power and the significant increase in the cost of living.

The coming year appears to be critical for Saakashvili and his team because the people’s euphoria from the Rose Revolution has run its course. Now the government will be judged by its deeds. According to a nationwide poll commissioned by the GORBI sociological agency on the anniversary of the Rose Revolution, the number of citizens who believe that Georgia is heading in the wrong direction has doubled over the last year.

(Akhali Taoba, December 29; 7 Dge, December 30; Week’s Palette, December 26; Resonance, December 27; TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, December 29).