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Georgians Blame Shevardnadze for Country's Problems - 2002-02-21

Eduard Shevardnadze earned praise as Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister, during the waning years of the Soviet Union. In 1992, he returned to lead his home country of Georgia. But while many people credit him with stabilizing the country in the early '90s, his critics say he has not capitalized on those successes.

Larissa Mchedlishvili, 65, works at a stationery store making copies. At her age, she should be retired, but her pension of about sevendollars a month is not enough to live on.

As far as she is concerned Georgia has gained nothing from independence. It is hard to argue with her. Sixty percent of Georgians live below the poverty line, most buildings are not heated, and the electricity shuts down for hours at a time. The traffic lights in the center of town stopped working long ago.

Ms. Mchedlishvili puts the blame for this squarely on Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. "Degradation. We can say in one word what the country has undergone. He has failed to meet all of his promises and hopefully his political career will come to an end sooner or later," she said.

These criticisms are not news to President Shevardnadze. During an interview with VOA, he frankly acknowledged that he is not popular with Georgian citizens right now, but points out that they still re-elected him two years ago.

"In a country where the head of state faces so many problems, the head of state cannot be a popular person. So I know that I am not very popular here with people. But at the same time, I must add that the majority of them do not see another viable option right now, so they support me because they know I can lead the country," President Shevardnadze says.

When Mr. Shevardnadze first came to power, he was seen as a reformer who was going to pull the country out of the mess it was in, and it was a mess.

Secessionist movements in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were tearing Georgia apart. Other parts of the country were controlled more by bandits than by the government. Twice, Mr. Shevardnadze survived assassination attempts.

Though Abkhazia and South Ossetia are far from under control, Mr. Shevardnadze says Georgia is much better off now than it was when he arrived.

"We must not forget where Georgia was at the beginning of the '90s, because we began to resemble a state only at the end of '95, '96. Until then we experienced more than our share of bloody conflicts," the Georgian president said.

But the president's critics say there are still a host of problems, including tense relations with neighboring Russia and regaining control of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

They say President Shevardnadze's biggest shortcoming is his failure to tackle the corruption that has all but stopped economic development. For example, most of the oil in the country is smuggled in, depriving the government of considerable tax revenue.

One of the president's harshest critics is former justice minister Mikhail Saakashvili. He quit last September, after becoming disillusioned with Mr. Shevardnadze. He points out that many in the government live in palatial houses that they could not possibly afford on their small salaries.

"The problem with Shevardnadze was that there were initially high expectations connected with his name. And he certainly is a brave man with a big international name, but what happened was that he turned out to be extremely tolerant toward corruption. For instance, the richest people in society were his government ministers, and everybody knew it," the former justice minister says.

The Georgian president acknowledges that corruption is a problem, but denies he is tolerant of it. He says he will spend his remaining three years in office ridding the country of corruption.

But Mr. Saakashvili and other critics say the country is in such a horrible state, it needs new leadership now. Mr. Saakashvili is trying to organize a referendum to call for early parliamentary and presidential elections.

If there were elections today, Ms. Mchedlisvili says she does not know who she would vote for. But she definitely knows it would not be Eduard Shevardnadze.