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True, everything was not really so rosy within the Zhvania team: for example, Patarkatsishvili’s relationship with Erosi Kitsmarishvili (the owner of TV company Rustavi 2) was far from ideal, and the business interests of a number of Zhvania’s “friends” were continuously clashing with one another. The Prime Minister had to endlessly broker between domestic and foreign business partners, at the same time that Saakashvili, having command over the power ministries, could freely provide his people with control over business sectors that had previously belonged to “enemies of the revolution."
Under these conditions, the first person in the government after the president became, of course, not the prime minister, but the chief prosecutor, the minister of state security or the minister of internal affairs. It was no coincidence that Saakashvili used the most effective managers in his team for these roles, such as Irakli Okruashvili, Zurab Adeishvili and Vano Merabishvili.
One way or another, the country was in a precarious state of equilibrium when tragedy struck. On a cold March morning in 2005, Georgia was shaken by news of the death of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. His body was discovered in an apartment on Saburtalo Street, Tbiliis and the official explanation was that the death had been caused by gas poisoning. The deputy governor of the Kvemo-Kartli region, Raul Yusupov, died together with him. Naturally nobody believed the official explanation.
I don’t want to get into speculation, and I say honestly that I don’t know who killed Zhvania, but for a number of indirect reasons I will risk maintaining that Saakashvili had nothing to do with this death. The main reason for this is the statements of former (among other things) interior minister Irakli Okruashvili.
This person hates Saakashvili as much as any person can hate another who has taken everything from him. He is in relative safety, with political asylum in France. As the result of the positions he has held he cannot help but know the whole truth about the death of Zhvania. And nevertheless, at that moment when it would have been extremely beneficial for him to accuse Saakashvili of murdering the Prime Minister, he restricted himself to talking about how Mikheil Saakashvili knows that Zhvania did not die a natural death.
There was nothing new in this statement, since all of Georgia could guess that Zhvania did not die a natural death. The Georgian authorities of that time could be accused only of concealing the fact of Zhvania’s murder. But then who could commit this crime? Who was so powerful that even the top leadership of the country decided not to make a case?
Of all of the theories that I’ve heard, the most convincing for me would seem to be that the murder was arranged by one of the large international corporations. The motive was the transfer to competitors of a business project that had particular political significance.
Too many members of the Georgian political elite, including friends of the Prime Minister, shake their heads when thinking about his death, saying that the poor fellow got caught up in his own intrigues, and he was killed over big money. But it is very hard to say anything concrete. This is only one theory, and in reality I don’t think that the public will ever know the whole truth about the tragedy on Saburtalo Street.
After Zhvania’s death the political configuration in the country could not but change. Despite many people’s expectations, Zhvania’s team members did not fade away into political obscurity, but instead flowed entirely organically into a new team, comprising a backbone of reformers.
Much has been written about the reforms of Mikheil Saakashvili: the reducing of the bureaucratic apparatus, the reform of the system in the ministry of internal affairs, the military reforms, and so forth. Here the new authorities were able to reduce corruption at the lower and middle levels to a minimum and to create comfortable conditions for the citizenry. The bureaucratic feeding trough was mercilessly annihilated. Did bureaucrats of that time still take bribes and participate in corrupt schemes? Naturally, but to the same degree as in practically all other countries.
What was new was that the level of bribe- taking was severely reduced because the bribe-takers were completely terrified. Practically no bureaucrats willing to take bribes at their own risk remained, and those who did this under the protection of a higher patron became with enviable regularity tools in the political game. Thus it became so dangerous to take bribes that today this is done by only the most desperate bureaucrats of the middle rank. As concerns corrupt schemes, participation in these is possible only for political leaders of the highest status.
An interesting detail is that the reforms in Georgia were linked exclusively to personalities. For example, it is hard to imagine the reforms of the Interior Ministry system without the name of Vano Merabishvili, the most talented manager in Saakashvili’s team. In precisely the same way, the complete eradication of corruption in such a sphere as higher education would have been absolutely impossible without the ferocious energy and staggering work ethic of Alexander Lomaia. The reform of the Georgian military is undoubtedly linked with the name of Irakli Okruashvili. And the economic successes would be impossible to imagine without Kakha Bendukidze. Unfortunately, the selection of talented managers in Saakashvili’s team was limited. This was precisely the reason for the endless “personnel carousels” that the president manipulated with predictable regularity.
But perhaps the hardest task in that period was to change people’s behavior. One can replace the fat traffic cops with shiny new patrol cars, create a modern contract army or a new system of education, reduce taxes and perfect a state administration system. It is much harder to force people to abandon old stereotypes, not to pay off beseeching bureaucrats and to obey the law. For this a change in mentality was required, but more about that later.
It is simple to carry out reforms in a given country. You eliminate the corrupt system of governance, purchase new cars and uniforms for the police, fix up schools and hospitals, put bribe-takers in jail, and take property away from the bad and give it to the good. All of this has been done many times over in many different places, sometimes successfully, other times not so successfully. As a rule, correct reforms lead to economic miracles, and incorrect ones to the emergence of awful regimes. But in this case we are interested in one concrete country.
The main enemy of Georgian reforms was not the corrupt bureaucrats, nor the criminal element that felt itself king of the roost in Georgia, nor even the persistent external threat, the constant small and large indignities and the fact that nearly a third of the country’s territory was outside the control of the central government. The main threat to reform was homo sovieticus, that is, practically every citizen of Georgia, even those who consciously supported the reforms. One can write endlessly about the mentality of Soviet peoples.
Despite all of our ethnic particularities, we all have the same birthmarks of socialism. More than one generation grew up for whom “natural rights” was an empty concept. What is more, the disdainful attitude towards the rights of others was oddly combined with an infantile belief that society, personified by the state, was obligated to provide for its citizens. At the same time the state was seen as an absolute evil from which nothing good could be expected, and which should be swindled by every possible means. Add in that decades of the artificial and false politics of proletarian internationalism brought out the most sinister demons of cave-dwelling ethnonationalism and the total taboo on religion that instilled in many a religious ecstasy akin to fanaticism, and we get the phantasmagorical picture of a serious sly ill society.
The period of Eduard Shevardnadze’ s rule did not enable healing, and instead the disease became chronic. No doctor would dare to give a positive prognosis under such a diagnosis.
The disease of homo sovieticus in Georgia afflicted absolutely everybody without exception. Notice that we’re not talking just about the opponents of reform, those who suffered as a result of losing their jobs or who were arrested for banal bribe taking. The reformers themselves grew up in the Soviet system and had once been exemplary
Pioneers and even successful Komsomol members. Most of them were from families of the Soviet nomenklatura elite, who by will of fate, the education they received, or for some other reason realized the necessity of reform for their country. But it is a well known fact that it’s one thing to understand the need for reform, and another thing entirely to carry it out, breaking society and themselves.
If anybody thinks that the change in mentality taking place in Georgia is any less painful than the one that took place decades earlier, this is an illusion arising from the absence now of the cannibalistic methods of the last great change. Naturally, the difference is that this process, in essence, is a return to people’s natural state. But imagine a bear that is released from a zoo. I think the process of return to free will is no less painful than the process of becoming accustomed to the cage, if not more so. Let us try to illustrate this with several examples.
One of Mikheil Saakashvili’s first initiatives back when he was chairman of the Tbilisi Sakrebulo was to repair the roofs on large apartment buildings from the city budget. Elevators and basements were repaired at the same time. When he came to power this project was extended to other cities of Georgia. Naturally it was a brilliant move that immediately brought the young politician enormous popularity.
But all things have both a positive side and a negative side. We’re not talking here about the fact that the property of individual citizens was being repaired at the expense of taxpayers’ money. The main problem was that in that period there were not enough budget resources or even workers to go around.
Dilapidated roofs became a real nightmare for municipalities, and they were flooded with petitions from affected citizens. The creation of waiting lists didn’t help, and receiving citizens turned into an endless tragicomedy called “help me first!" City bureaucrats simply had to find some solution to this situation. Everybody dealt with it as well as they could, and I personally, working in a Mayor’s office, thought up a rather effective means of forcing citizens to wait their turn. Upon hearing about the necessity of repairing a citizen’s roof right away, I proposed bringing in an investor to build a penthouse, and the problem of the roof would be resolved once and for all.
It’s funny that not a single petitioner agreed with this, always giving the same answer: “No! The roof is mine!" Then wait your turn or repair the roof out of your own pocket.
On the whole this example reflects perfectly society’s expectations from the new government. After the revolution the majority of the population entirely seriously thought that the new authorities would fix all of the bad things that remained from the previous government, while at the same time leaving alone the “good things," not understanding, and sometimes not wanting to understand, that this is impossible.
It’s impossible to have good roads, high state pensions, quality state education, and a healthcare system without high taxes. In fairness it should be mentioned that the authorities themselves encouraged this attitude, at the same time promising social wellbeing like in Switzerland and a tax system like in Singapore.
The president, bursting forth
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