The United States has announced it will cut its financial assistance to Georgia, dealing a sharp blow to President Eduard Shevardnadze's administration just over a month before parliamentary elections. News of the cutback came amid campaign-related violence involving opposition activists and pro-government supporters.
After meeting with Shevardnadze and other top government officials on September 24, a US State Department official responsible for aid-related issues in the former Soviet Union, Thomas Adams, announced that Washington's assistance to Tbilisi would decline in 2004 from the roughly $100 million that Georgia is receiving this year. A precise aid figure for 2004 remains to be determined, according to various media reports.
The only detail provided by Adams was that Washington is suspending $34 million in assistance to refurbish hydroelectric stations and other energy sector-related projects, Kavkasia Press reported September 25. Adams indicated that Washington's felt the cutbacks were warranted because of the government's lack of commitment to reforms, and its inability to curtail corruption.
Some observers, however, believe there may be a punitive component to Washington's action. They point out that Georgia recently made a deal with the Russian electricity giant RAO Unified Energy Systems, under which Tbilisi ceded control of approximately 50 percent of Georgia's power infrastructure. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. By suspending power-sector assistance, the United States could be signaling its displeasure over the Shevardnadze administration's recent dealings with Russian companies.
Shevardnadze and other Georgian government officials sought to put the best spin on developments, suggesting that the US decision on an aid cutback was not final. "I convinced them that they were wrong in some cases, and that some of their conclusions were premature," Shevardnadze told Imedi TV on September 25, commenting on his discussions with US officials. "This is not a final decision."
US frustration with Georgia has grown in recent months. For several years, Georgia enjoyed the status of Washington's second largest per capita aid recipient, following only Israel. The US provided Georgia with about $778 million in aid between 1992 and 2000, roughly five times more than US aid to neighboring Azerbaijan.
The return for such an aid outlay has been meager, however. Tbilisi's reform efforts have consistently come up short. Last July, for example, the former US secretary of state, James Baker, acting as a special Bush Administration envoy, brokered a plan designed to decrease the chances of fraud marring the election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Subsequently, the Georgian government backed away from the so-called Baker plan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Perhaps the largest single factor in Washington's aid calculus may be the desire to promote a free and fair parliamentary vote, political analysts say. Both Georgian and international civil society activists generally lauded the US move, saying that it helps keep up the pressure on the Georgian government to conduct a clean election. "I think this is a very unusual election, and a very important election for Georgia," said Mark Mullen, the Georgia representative of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.
"The United States is going to know exactly what happens. There will be no mistakes in interpreting the fairness of this election," Mullen continued. "The US commitment to Georgia will depend greatly on the US evaluation of this election."
In Georgia, domestic tension is building ahead of the November 2 vote. Pro-Shevardnadze forces are struggling to overcome low public approval ratings in their effort to retain control of the legislature. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The parliamentary election campaign took a violent turn on September 26, when supporters of the opposition National Movement clashed with loyalists of the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia bloc in the southeastern Kvemo Kartli region. National Movement activists also fought with local police during the incident.
The National Movement, led by former justice minister Mikheil Saakashvili, has been arguably the Shevardnadze administration's most ardent critic during the campaign. Following the incident, Saakashvili denounced Shevardnadze, saying the president was purposely inciting violence in an attempt to retain power. "You intend to finally destroy and blow up what is left [of the country] in order to keep you office," Saakashvili said in comments broadcast by Imedi TV, referring to the president. "I call on your common sense and the remaining logic that you have; say that your office is not worth [upsetting] public peace in Georgia."
For a New Georgia leaders countered that National Movement activists were using intimidating behavior in an attempt to sway citizens' votes. "Criminal action is the style of the National Movement," said Irakli Gogava, a For a New Georgia leader.
Other opposition leaders, including Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze, came to the defense of the National Movement, suggesting the government was attempting to create a pretext for postponing, or canceling the election. "Authorities, knowing they do not have any chance to win the vote, are ready to do everything in order not to hold the election at all," Burjanadze said.
A US delegation -- including John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the US military's joint chiefs of staff, along with Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state during the Clinton administration is expected to arrive in Georgia in the coming days. The delegation will monitor the implementation of the Baker plan and attempt to defuse the confrontational mood enveloping domestic politics, local political observers say.
Natalia Antelava is a freelance journalist based in Georgia.