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Georgian President’s Popularity Plunges

July 4, 2006

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) _ 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 judiciary pliant.

``They want totally loyal judges who will issue rulings according to the prosecutors’ orders,″ said Nino Gvenetadze, 42, a Supreme Court judge who is fighting dismissal.

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 rights group.

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.

Non-governmental organizations 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 customs dues.

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 and Abkhazia.

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.

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