Among the republics of the Caucasus, Georgia was long considered a model of democracy. But confrontation with Russia, ethnic tensions and growing corruption have left the country’s institutions and the rule of law in crisis.
In November 2003, thousands of people took to the streets of Tbilisi to protest against electoral irregularities and call for the resignation of president Eduard Shevardnadze. This launched the “Rose Revolution” and announced the arrival of Mikheil Saakashvili, a charismatic opposition leader who became head of state.
The rise to power of this young lawyer was a turning point in the transition process of the former Soviet republic.
“Saakashvili represented the hope of a better future and a rapprochement with the West,” says journalist Eric Hoesli, who knows the region particularly well. “During the first years of his regime, he declared war on corruption and cronyism, introducing important reforms in the government bureaucracy and in the security forces. In the Caucasus, Georgia was held up as a model of democracy.”
Now the transition process, helped by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and various Swiss NGOs, seems to have bogged down. Conflict with the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have the support of Moscow, and the resulting collapse of diplomatic relations with Russia have only served to aggravate the situation.
Hoesli said that in spite of the reforms introduced, the rule of law was declining, and there was growing discontent with the regime among the people. "Corruption has gained a foothold at the highest levels, even including the justice system, and the situation is only likely to get worse with the presidential elections due in 2013,” the journalist added.
Soviet-era Georgia was considered a prosperous region, but after 1991 its economy faltered and industrial production dropped by a quarter.
“This is a country with great potential, but it is poor, and most of all it is the victim of a sort of collective depression, because of the sudden collapse after the end of the Soviet Union and the repeated conflicts,” explains Stefanie Jud, programme manager at World Vision Switzerland.
This non-governmental organisation operates in several regions of Georgia and Abkhazia, providing support for healthcare and education, and generally attempting to help improve quality of life.
“In rural areas, people live off what they produce, in very basic circumstances,” Jud points out. “We try to give young people the skills needed to work in agriculture.”
“The life of a farmer has lost its attraction, and the young dream of a different future and often choose to emigrate. In many villages, only the very old and the very young remain, and there is a shortage of manpower.”
In contrast with neighbouring Azerbaijan, Georgia is not resource rich and its domestic economy relies heavily on agriculture. According to the SDC, the sector employed 47 per cent of the workforce between 2006 and 2010, and reinforcing it is considered crucial so as to reduce poverty.
Until 2006, Georgia exported mineral water and wine in large quantities to Russia, but a Kremlin embargo led to an eighty-per-cent drop in wine production from one day to the next and forced Tbilisi to look for new trading partners, with little success.
Russia, so near and yet so far
After Saakashvili’s election, his preference for the West and notably Europe and Nato, relations with Russia began to sour.
“Saakashvili bases his legitimacy on political opposition to the Kremlin, exploiting feelings of patriotism,” says Hoesli. “The economic reality however is one of strong dependence. Russia is not only Georgia’s main supplier and customer, but it is also home to a large part of its diaspora, which is an important financial resource.”
A quarter of Georgia’s active population lives outside the country, mainly in the former Soviet Union and particularly in Russia.
This makes for a paradoxical situation, Hoesli goes on. “Georgia cannot afford to be at war with a country it depends on. It’s as if Switzerland were to break off relations with Germany.”
“It is understandable that after years of Soviet domination Georgia wants to go its own way, but right from the start Saakashvili favoured a wilful and aggressive policy, and Putin did not respond with any of the magnanimity you might expect a great power to show.”
Thanks in part to the involvement of Switzerland, which since 2009 has served as a diplomatic go-between, the situation has seen some “technical improvement”, Hoesli told swissinfo.ch.
“Swiss diplomats have shown inventiveness and originality in getting around the differences between the two countries, in particular as regards Russia’s joining the World Trade Organization.”
But according to Hoesli, the fundamental problem involves Saakashvili himself, who is considered by the Kremlin a dangerous and untrustworthy person to deal with. He is allegedly on Putin’s black list, and if he is re-elected in 2013, it is unlikely relations between the two countries will improve.
A non-existent border that is all too real
The question of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two thorns in Saakashvili’s side, remains unresolved. These strategic regions, which the international community still considers part of Georgia, are de facto under Russian control.
But even with Moscow’s financial and political support, Abkhazia, for example, is struggling.
“It’s a ghost land,” says Jud, whose World Vision is the only Swiss NGO to have projects in the whole region, in collaboration with UN organisations. “Many of the villages are deserted; buildings destroyed in the fighting have never been rebuilt, and basic services are lacking.”
In order to meet, Abkhaz and Georgian staff of the NGO have to cross into neighbouring Armenia or Azerbaijan. And they have to deal with the topic of peace in a roundabout way, because since its unilateral declaration of independence this republic is no longer willing to hear any mention of ethnic conflict.
Yet almost everyone in Abkhazia can tell of war experiences, explains Jud. “The war is still a part of their lives. It has an impact on how they cope with the present and their vision of the future.”
Over the past few years the situation seems to have reached a point of no return.
“Georgia let slip the opportunity to create a multi-ethnic republic with some autonomy for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Now it will first of all have to go through Russia to smooth over relations with the two regions, and this will take time and change at the top,” says Hoesli.
While NGOs do not expect any new conflict in the near future, they are warily anticipating the year 2014, when the two countries will have got through the presidential election and the Sochi Olympics, and territorial disagreements may well become an issue again.