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Once-Prosperous Georgians See a Shocking Slide into Poverty, Chaos

February 9, 1995

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) _ School No. 53 should be bustling with hundreds of students. But on this day, only 7-year-old Marika Onashvili and her 10 classmates are gathered in one cold, unlit classroom.

They are the lucky ones. Their classroom has a kerosene stove, which is smelly but offers at least a little heat. Still, Marika is bundled in a wool cap and scarf indoors.

``It is a bit cold here,″ she concedes, her eyes twinkling as she shows off her English.

Hobbled by a severe energy shortage, the Georgian government can no longer heat homes or schools, run factories or subways, or light its streets. The shortage is just one symptom of Georgia’s shocking slide into poverty three years after the Soviet collapse.

With one of the highest living standards in the country, Georgians were the envy of the Soviet Union. Now their monthly salaries _ when paid at all _ average about $2.

``If my husband knew about this, he’d kill me,″ said Eteri Vatsadze, a 50-year-old teacher, who instead of teaching was gathering fallen branches for tinder with cracked, calloused fingers.

``We built all of this with our own hands. Now we’re cutting it all down with our own hands,″ she said, tying up her bundle of wood in the winter sunshine in Tbilisi’s Vake Park.

Two civil wars and two separatist conflicts have taken their toll on the economy, political life and the streets of the capital. On Tbilisi’s showcase thoroughfare, Rustaveli Prospect, the Hotel Tbilisi and surrounding buildings remain gutted after battles in 1991.

Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, who hobnobbed with world leaders as Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign minister, now tries just to stay on his feet in a homeland where violence and turbulence are growing day by day.

``This difficult process is going to continue for a long time,″ he told The Associated Press in an interview.

Shevardnadze has recently focussed on cutting crime _ an ambitious task in a country rife with warlords and guns. Georgia is a major international crossroads for arms and heroin smugglers.

``We’re going to establish order in the country,″ Shevardnadze vowed.

The former, nightly rat-a-tat of small-arms fire has ceased in the capital. But the lack of street lighting and the young drug addicts lurking in dark doorways still rule out evening strolls for the faint of heart.

Interior Ministry troops sometimes patrol Tbilisi in light tanks. Officially deployed against the ``narkomani,″ or drug traffickers, the bored soldiers lolling next to piles of riot shields are little more than a desperate show of strength.

The population despaired long ago of ever seeing law and order return to Georgia.

Violence plays a major role in Georgia’s political life, too. In December, the country’s leading liberal politician _ the man many Georgians saw as the only alternative to Shevardnadze _ was gunned down by unknown assailants.

In January, powerful warlord and former Defense Minister Tengiz Kitovani was arrested after leading armed followers on a march toward Abkhazia, a region that broke away from Georgia in 1993. His move was seen as a challenge to Shevardnadze.

Later in January, in what appeared to be a contract hit, gunmen attacked two Georgian generals studying at a Moscow military academy. Georgy Karkarashvili, the former defense minister, was badly wounded, and his former deputy, Paatu Datuashvili, was killed.

Of the many hardships Georgians must endure, the energy shortage is most painful. This fertile country used to trade tea and wine for natural gas from its neighbors. Now its processing plants are idle.

``The situation is very serious,″ said Deputy Energy Minister Gogi Makashvili. ``We only have enough energy to provide constant power to hospitals, bread factories and other important institutions.″

That leaves little or nothing for Georgian schools, which have been closed for two months because of the lack of gas and electricity, said Tamaz Tatishvili, Georgia’s deputy education minister.

The only students attending classes these days, like Marika, are those whose parents can afford to pay tuition. Her parents spend about $40 a month _ a fortune by local standards.

Lali Vashakidze, the 41-year-old head of Marika’s private school and a respected Education Ministry consultant, believes Georgia has little choice.

``Without private education, we couldn’t survive,″ she said. ``If families don’t teach their children at home, a whole generation of Georgians will grow up without proper schooling.″

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