Georgian Leader Brought Down by Corruption, Chances of Success for New Leaders Seen as Uncertain

November 24, 2003

Following is the transcript of an interview with Strobe Talbott conducted by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for The interview is reprinted with permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution in Washington and deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, says that Eduard Shevardnadze could have done a lot for Georgia, but he allowed corruption to run rampant and mismanaged the economy. On November 23, Shevardnadze resigned as president of the former Soviet republic in the face of protests against legislative elections that were widely considered to have been rigged.

Talbott, a long-time Russia specialist, was in a delegation that met with Shevardnadze in early October to urge him to allow free elections, but he says the group received only empty promises. Discussing Georgia’s principal opposition leaders, Talbott finds them an attractive group of “three musketeers” and says their success depends on their working together and refraining from making pledges they are unable to keep.

Those of us who have watched Russia over the years thought that, with Eduard Shevardnadze returning to Georgia after serving as President Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign minister, events were probably on a solid path forward. But obviously something happened to lead to his downfall in disgrace. What caused events to go so bad in Georgia?

Shevardnadze was unquestionably one of the most positive figures of the late 20th century. He was a heroic figure. He was instrumental in the peaceful demise of the Soviet system and the Soviet Union. He then had an opportunity for “a second act” in the 21st century, which was to be the founding father of a modern, democratic Georgia. It looked in the beginning of the 1990s as if he might succeed in that respect as well.

Before Shevardnadze moved to Moscow as foreign minister, was he a big figure in the Communist Party of Georgia?

He was the boss [first secretary], and he was pulled to Moscow as foreign minister in 1985 for a number of reasons. I think one was because Gorbachev wanted to be his own foreign minister and therefore wanted somebody who wouldn’t overshadow him. I think it is no accident that Shevardnadze doesn’t speak English, and has to work through an interpreter. But it turned out that another reason he was brought to Moscow was that he had a reputation for being anti-corruption, having cracked down in Soviet Georgia on what was arguably the most notoriously corrupt of all of the Soviet republics. In any event, the rest is history: it was the end of the Soviet Union, the end of the cold war and all that, and Shevardnadze was hugely important to it all. Then he goes back to Georgia. He inherited a god-awful mess in Georgia. It was a divided country. There was this maniacal, autocratic ultra-nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia who was in charge and who was basically driven out in 1992 in a kind of bloody version of what has happened now.

And Shevardnadze assumed power in 1992, was elected in 1995 and re-elected in 2000, and had lots and lots of difficulties. For the first several years, it looked like he might make it, but in the end, several things, I think, basically led to his downfall. One is, he never got control over corruption. I think that while he personally may have been relatively clean, there is no doubt that members of his family and certainly his cronies—people who both propped him up and depended on him—were corrupt. He never got the economy under control.

Corrupt in the sense of taking big kickbacks from businesses?

Absolutely. In every respect you can imagine. It was corruption to the point of criminalization. On top of that, he had a lot of problems for which he was not responsible. Georgia is only the size of West Virginia. It has fewer than 5 million people. But there are three big hunks of Georgia—South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Ajara—which aren’t even under the control of Tbilisi. That’s largely a condition that Russia helped bring about. Georgia is sort of Stalin’s “revenge” on the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet era. He was Georgian. He was minister of nationalities in the Soviet government. He had a lot to do with carving up the Caucuses and other parts of the Soviet Union on a kind of divide-and-conquer basis, and we’re living with the consequences of that. And the Russian Army is still there, very much against the will of Tbilisi, particularly in Abkhazia but also in Ajara.

Are the Russians there because of Chechnya?

No, the Russians were there before Chechnya exploded. The Russians are there because they wanted, when the Soviet Union collapsed, to maintain a high degree of influence over that former republic. One way to do that is to have troops there. That’s an issue for which Shevardnadze can’t be blamed. It was a huge millstone around his neck. What became apparent in the late 1990s was that Shevardnadze was increasingly “yesterday’s man.” He was seen to be that by a lot of Georgians. He wasn’t delivering. He wasn’t getting the country shaped up, truly integrated into the West. He wasn’t making tough decisions on the economy, on bringing his basic fiscal policy under control. He wasn’t really dealing effectively with the problem of corruption. But there was this huge reservoir of goodwill for him because of the role he had played before. The first Bush administration, the Clinton administration, and the current administration all cut him a lot of slack. But they also all administered quite a bit of “tough love.” One of his greatest failings was that he seemed unable and unwilling to preside over genuine, modern, free, and fair elections.

There was a series of elections that were highly disappointing, to put it mildly, and not only to international monitors but also to the Georgian people themselves. And to make a long story short, what happened is that disappointment and frustration simply erupted because he did it again. He allowed people, who depended on him for their positions of power, to manipulate and largely steal this most recent election held on November 2.

Obviously, everyone knew this election was likely to be corrupt. And you, as a former deputy secretary of state, and General John M. Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Senator John McCain of Arizona were in Georgia in early October. What were you urging? And what kind of response did you get?

There were quite a number of us on the delegation sponsored by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Senator McCain was there independently of our delegation. Our delegation included myself, General Shalikashvili, Sam Gejdenson, former member of the House of Representatives from Connecticut, and my wife, Brooke Shearer, a member of the board of the International Center for Research on Women and a former U.S. Interior Department senior adviser, who had spent a lot of time in Georgia helping [Georgians] develop their natural and cultural resources in the Clinton administration. And former Secretary of State James Baker made a trip of his own there in July.

All of us were conveying a single, bipartisan message: You have one more chance. If you can run a good, clean election this time, it will be seen as such, welcomed as such, endorsed as such by the international community. It will be accepted by the Georgian people, and you will put in place a peaceful, proper transition to a post-Shevardnadze leadership [his term was to expire in 2005 and he was barred from re-election]. And we also counseled the opposition figures to play by the rules, to avoid violence, and so forth. Shevardnadze made all the right noises. He accepted a plan that Baker put forward. He said reassuring things to our delegation. But we all came away with the feeling that he was telling us what we wanted to hear, but didn’t intend to act that way. He was not going to practice what he was promising.

What happened was that when Election Day came, the abuse of the electoral process was so flagrant, that not only did the international community universally say—”You get a failing mark for this”—but the Georgian people were outraged.

What were the problems?

It was essentially two things: voter lists and candidate lists. They phonied up a lot of the voter lists so that people who did not exist, or shouldn’t have been eligible to vote, or who were duplicates, were registered as voters and [were counted] as having voted for the pro-government bloc. And they disqualified a lot of opposition candidates. One of the last straws was that Shevardnadze cut a deal with Aslan Abashidze, the autocrat, the warlord who runs Ajara. He delivered 97 percent or so of the votes in Ajara for the pro-government bloc.

Any final thoughts on Shevardnadze?

What’s the line in Macbeth? “Nothing became him in life so much as the leaving of it.” He really made a step toward redeeming himself by stepping down. His public statement, “I’m going home now,” and his explanation that he was stepping down because he didn’t want to do anything that would cause bloodshed is admirable and should be recognized as such. You know, I’m struck by an eerie parallel between the end of the Shevardnadze presidency and the end of the Gorbachev presidency, when he allowed Boris Yeltsin to become the president. Gorbachev in the final analysis was a hugely positive figure in world history because he believed that the system over which he presided could no longer rely on the big lie and brute force. And while Gorbachev did spill blood and bears responsibility for spilling blood in Georgia in 1989 and 1990 and in the Baltics in 1991, he didn’t go all the way. He wasn’t willing to do what other previous Soviet leaders would have done—just crush everybody in his way.

Let alone, allow East Germany and the rest of the Soviet bloc to break away.

Right. And that’s what makes Gorbachev as hugely positive as he is. And Shevardnadze also gets credit for having said, “I have the right to stay in office,” which arguably he didn’t; “I certainly have the power to stay in office,” which arguably he did; “but I won’t use that power if it means shedding Georgian blood. Therefore, I am out of here because people want me gone.” Hooray for him. I don’t know if he will stay in Georgia or take a fellowship at the [James A.] Baker III Institute [for Public Policy] or what. He has a range of options, but the initial indications are he will stay in Georgia.

Talk about the young people who have led the opposition.

There are three main leaders of the opposition. Nino Burdzhanadze, Mikhail (Misha) Saakashvili, and Zurab Zhvania. Nino is the interim president. She, I think rightfully, has assumed that role because she was the speaker of the parliament. She was also the leading figure in a coalition with Zhvania that was one of the major opposition forces. Zhvania was Burdzhanadze’s predecessor as speaker of parliament. He is a Green [environmentalist]. Saakashvili is bright, articulate, Columbia University Law School-educated, smart as a whip, charismatic, and a real populist. They are all young, sophisticated, English-speaking, Western-oriented reformers, democrats. They are about as good as one could hope for as the new leadership of that country.

One huge question is: Will they hang together? They committed the fallacy of hanging separately up until now. They were all united in their view that Shevardnadze had to go, but they were not united in their view of how to organize the opposition. Nino and Zurab joined, but Misha stayed out. They spent a lot of time and wasted a lot of otherwise positive energy fighting among themselves in the walkup to this election. Now they are together again. I come back to the main question: Can they remain the “three musketeers” or [will] they split up in some fashion? I think the chances of this thing having a happy ending or happy next chapter depend on that.

The plan is for new elections soon?

In 45 days, elections will be held for a new parliament and for a new president.

Misha will definitely be a candidate for the presidency. A lot of bettors would put money on him because he’s very popular. But Nino will probably run as well. The question is: If she runs, can she and Misha preserve a degree of amity between them and be prepared to work together whatever the outcome of the election?

One of the other reasons for some concern about the future is that if you look at the policy programs of people like Misha Saakashvili, they raise a lot of questions. They are very populist in that they suggest a kind of chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, but don’t begin to explain how to pay for them. And the Georgian economy is a total mess. How are they going to pay for all the things they are promising the Georgian people? If they can’t pay for them, then the Georgian people sooner or later are going to feel disillusioned in this leadership, just as they felt disillusioned with Shevardnadze.

When I was a correspondent in Moscow in the early 1970s, Georgia was seen as the pearl of the Soviet economy. It was felt that if communism ended, that area, with its agricultural bounties, could stand by itself. What happened to make the economy so rotten?

Corruption was a huge part of it. The absence of any real economic reform, total and complete disdain for the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank and all their efforts. The Georgians literally, in some cases, drove Western investors out of the country. American Energy Systems was a classic example of a very fine and public-spirited American company that went into Georgia to try to make sense of their energy system. It essentially gave up after vast losses and pulled out and basically turned the market over to Russian companies. Georgians do not have much in the way of natural resources. You can only go so far on red and white wine and flowers.

What about the oil pipeline?

The pipeline is very important. It would run from Baku [in Azerbaijan] through Tbilisi to Turkey’s Black Sea coast. It is not Georgian oil. The Georgians benefit from being a transit point.

What has been the Russian attitude?

With the Russians, you have to look at the situation in three parts: past, present, and future. In the past, the Russian record is abysmal. They have been asserting sovereignty in one form or the other for some 150 years over Georgia. During the Soviet period, the Russians brutalized the place. At the end of the Soviet period, the Soviet army shed a lot of blood in the main square of Tbilisi, and then when Georgia was trying to lurch toward some kind of independence, the Russians established a foothold in Abkhazia, an important Russian strategic outpost on the Black Sea, and allowed it to become a breakaway region inside of Georgia. Over the course of the 1990s, they have backed the breakaway regions in South Ossetia and Ajara. The Russians have pursued a policy of divide and bully over Georgia for a long time.

Chechnya has been an aggravating factor. Chechnya borders Georgia. And with some justification, the Russians accused Georgia of harboring Chechen terrorists, but the Russians, without justification, actually went in and conducted strafing and bombing runs over Georgia. It’s generally true that key people in Moscow had regarded Shevardnadze with disdain if not something stronger than that.

At present, all superficial indications are that Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov played a constructive role there. He seems to deserve credit for brokering a peaceful solution to this whole problem. But what we don’t know is what kind of deals might have been cut in the back room with the past leadership—Shevardnadze and his cronies—and what kind of influence Russia will have with the new leadership. This is something the United States should pay a lot of attention to.

What about the Bush administration? Does it get passing grades in Georgia?

Yes. I think absolutely. They haven’t paid a lot of attention to Georgia, and many other people haven’t for a long time. But they have sent the right kind of signals of late. The ambassador, Richard Miles, has done a superb job, including issuing very tough and timely statements, so that Shevardnadze was never under any illusion that he could do whatever he wanted.

And briefly, what’s the situation in Georgia’s neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan?

I’m glad you asked that. It is important to note that Georgia has to be looked at in context. And in context, this is a neighborhood where democracy has had a really lousy decade. Armenia has had terribly flawed elections, marked by bloodshed, and the politics have been like a Mafia movie, including the slaughter of the prime minister and a whole bunch of people in the parliament. [On October 27, 1999, Armenia’s prime minister, Vazgen Sarkissian, and eight others were assassinated inside the parliament building]. In Azerbaijan, shortly before the Georgian elections, there was a completely phony election that did nothing but ratify the dying old man’s passing of dynastic succession to his son. [In October, Ilham Aliev, son of current President Heidar Aliev, was elected the new president, in a vote most international election observers called fraudulent].

The pattern in that whole area is that you have Soviet-era politicians who reinvent themselves as nationalists, claim to be reformers and democrats, and continue to act as Soviet-era politicians. Shevardnadze was heading in that direction and the Georgian people said, “No. We don’t want to be part of that; we don’t want you to be part of that. Goodbye.” And he said goodbye.