GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S POPULARITY PLUNGES
By HENRY MEYER, Associated Press Writer Tue Jul 4, 1:59 PM ET
TBILISI, Georgia - Tall
and bursting with energy, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is in a hurry to integrate his small and impoverished ex-Soviet
nation with the West and throw off Russian attempts at domination.
Saakashvili, 38, came to
power in the November 2003 "Rose Revolution," which promised to restore the country's territorial integrity, fight corruption
and reform the economy. However, he has seen his popularity plunge halfway through his five-year term and is accused of rolling
back democratic freedoms.
Washington, which is competing with Russia
for influence in the region and values the South Caucasus nation as a transit route for Caspian
oil to the West, firmly supports the Georgian leader. He meets President
Bush at the White House on Wednesday.
But some western European
governments are concerned about his democratic record, casting doubt on Georgia's goal of joining NATO in 2008, according to a Western diplomat in Tbilisi who spoke on condition
of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In March, the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe's envoy to Georgia expressed concern about media freedoms, due process and independence of the judiciary.
Under former President Eduard
Shevardnadze, the government was riddled with graft and Georgia
suffered from energy blackouts, crime and rampant unemployment.
Saakashvili pledged to attack
all of Georgia's ills. He began by sacking
the entire traffic police, notorious for extorting bribes from motorists, and replacing them with a new force. With a decent
salary of $300-350 a month, they no longer demand bribes and respond quickly to calls, Georgians say.
The U.S.-educated lawyer
next targeted what he insisted were corrupt judges: nearly half of Georgia's
330 judges have been forced off the bench. But critics say Saakashvili is appointing inexperienced replacements to make the
"They want totally loyal
judges who will issue rulings according to the prosecutors' orders," said Nino Gvenetadze, 42, a Supreme Court judge who is
Amy Denman, head of the
American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia,
said: "It's virtually impossible to win a case against the government here."
Journalists say television
has largely become a mouthpiece for the government. Editors and journalists exercise self-censorship for fear of losing their
jobs, and owners get phone calls with instructions from officials, says Ramaz Rekiashvili, head of the Georgia Helsinki Committee
The 2005 World Press Freedom
Index by the Reporters Without Borders media watchdog ranked Georgia
as 99 out of 167. That was down from 94 in 2004 and 73 in 2003.
Lyuba Eliashvili, who was
head of news at Iberia TV, said the network was shut down in 2004 after government pressure. She said a talk show she presented
during the last three months of operation was pulled off the air after it was accused of siding with the opposition.
critical of authorities complain of reprisals. The Human Rights Information and Documentation
Center said it has suffered official threats and harassment.
Georgy Bokeriya, 34, Saakashvili's
closest adviser, insisted Georgia was
"moving quite quickly compared to other countries toward becoming an established liberal democracy."
But life has worsened for
ordinary people because the large shadow economy has shrunk due to government measures to boost tax collection and enforce
Unemployment has risen to
nearly 14 percent from 11.5 percent in 2003 because of public sector cuts, official statistics show. More than half the country's
5 million people live below the poverty line.
Dozens of men stand around
the Iliava Bridge in Tbilisi every day hoping for work. Mirab Sepiashvili, 45, says he sometimes spends up to
a week waiting there.
"Unfortunately, I voted
for Saakashvili. We thought things would get better but they got worse," he said.
Tensions also have flared
over Saakashvili's drive to restore control over two Russian-backed separatist regions, South Ossetia
Washington, which has U.S.
military trainers in Georgia and this year approved a nearly $300 million, five-year aid package for Georgia, says the leadership
is on the right track even if democratic reforms are incomplete.
"We're glad they're doing
what they're doing and we want them to keep going," U.S. Ambassador John Tefft said.
Apart from the atrocity in Iraq,
Mr. Putin is still engaged in a war with independence-seeking insurgents in Russia's
southern territory of Chechnya
and has accused neighboring countries of harboring Chechen terrorists.
Gunmen attacked a Russian military convoy in the region yesterday, killing at least
five troops and wounding as many as 25 others, officials said. Pro-rebel Web sites said that more than 20 Russian soldiers
Moscow threatened to send warplanes to bomb terrorist bases worldwide
after Chechen rebels took 1,300 hostages in a school in the town of Beslan
in 2004. About 330 people -- half of them children -- died after a three-day siege.
At the time, Russia did not say which countries it accused of harboring militants
-- and no air strikes were forthcoming -- but it had accused Georgia of doing too little to stop Chechen guerrillas from crossing
Russia also has 500 troops deployed in support of separatists
in two breakaway regions of Georgia. Georgia has angered the Kremlin by seeking closer
ties with the West since President Mikhail Saakashvili rose to power in that country's Rose Revolution.
Mr. Putin met with Mr. Saakashvili last month, but diplomats said the talks failed
to defuse the tension.
Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst, told The Washington
Times afterward that the countries appeared to be laying the groundwork for an armed conflict.
"What we've been seeing is an exchange of prewar statements," he said. "We could
see military action in the coming weeks and months."
The Russia parliament unanimously
passed a resolution last week blaming the United States for the deaths
of the diplomats in Iraq and demanding
better security for foreign envoys there.
"The tragedy that occurred recently in Iraq was only possible because of the growing crisis in the country as the occupying
powers increasingly lose control of the situation," read the statement. "All the responsibility for the situation in Iraq, including the security of its citizens and of foreign
workers, lies with the occupying powers."