GEORGIA: US-Georgian relations improving rapidly
Karin Palmquist

In November of last year, Georgia's long-time president, Eduard Shevardnadze, was ousted in what has been called the Rose Revolution, and in January this year the leader of the opposition to Shevardnadze, 36-year-old Michael Saakashvili, swept into power with 96 percent of the popular vote.

Saakashvili did not inherit an easy task. The country he took over was plagued by corruption and unsettled by three breakaway republics.

"There had been criticism, from the US administration and from think tanks, of corruption and bad governance," Levan Mikeladze, Georgia's ambassador to Washington, told DiplomaticTraffic.com. "The IMF and the World Bank suspended some programs because of bad governance."

Bad government, "was the main reason for the revolution in November. The revolution was instigated because of the massive fraud associated with the election," the ambassador said.

"The main focus of the new government is to fight corruption," the ambassador continued. "We have seen real improvement in the past few months and we are now in the process of restoring these programs. Since the revolution we have seen achievements in the democratic field. We have seen an upswing in US aid."

The aid is vital for Georgia. The United States supports the country with donated wheat, which is then sold and the revenues used for social, education and health programs, based on certain guidelines. And the country received $20 million from Washington to train and equip its anti-terrorist unit, GTEP, which is now the backbone of the Georgian army. Georgia is also in the first group of 16 countries that qualified for Millennium Challenge funding.

"The United States has given us crucial economic help," the ambassador said. "Over the last ten years we have received $1.5 billion in aid, which makes us one of the largest recipients of US aid per capita. The United States helped Georgia to survive, economically and politically. The United States helped build Georgia's national army, and helped strengthen the Georgian border guards."

No wonder, then, that Georgia tries to stay on the United States' good side.

"We are a democratically oriented, US-oriented country. We are a model of a real friendship between big and small nations. Our president is very enthusiastic, and very well liked here in the United States. He has spent a lot of time here, at George Washington University and Columbia University. The United States is very supportive of him and had very high praise for his handling of the situation in Adjaria," the ambassador said.

The president is very well liked at home as well as he has put a young government in place and is actively attacking the corruption that ruined Georgia under Shevardnadze.

"It is a very reform-oriented government," the ambassador explained. "They are fighting vigorously against corruption. They recently arrested one of their own, an activist from their own party, for attempting to get a bribe. Impunity was one of the major problems with the previous government. If you don't punish corruption, it flourishes."

Fighting corruption and bad governance might turn out to be the easy part, compared to the daunting task of uniting the fractured Georgian state, plagued by separatist conflicts since its independence from the Soviet Union.

A five-month standoff between President Saakashvili and the leader of the feudal state of Adjaria, Aslan Abashidze, came to a head in early May. After days of popular protests in the Adjarian capital Batumi, Abashidze, who had been running the state as his personal fiefdom for 13 years, and a small entourage fled to Moscow.

"It was a case of feudal disobedience," the ambassador said. "Abashidze acted like a baron over a Soviet-style enclave. He controlled the ports, the revenues and the taxes. All the revenues went to his own budget and to his own armed forces. He cracked down on the media and on demonstrators."

Abashidze also received support from Russia, which maintains a military base in Adjaria.

"Everyone was afraid Adjaria would involve Russian troops," Ambassador Mikeladze said. "But we were able to solve the situation by peaceful means. The strategy was designed wisely without any external involvement. We avoided some major confrontation."

The situation in Adjaria remains calm and elections for a local leader are scheduled for June 20.

Adjaria is not the only troublesome region. The separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have both expressed a desire to join the Russian Federation and both deny any authority of Tbilisi over their internal affairs. Abkhazia has a Russian military base and Russian peacekeepers patrol the state line between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. There is also a UN observer mission (UNIMOG) on the ground there.

"South Ossetia should be much easier to solve," the ambassador said. "There is no hostility between the people of Ossetia and Georgia. Ossetia is part of Georgia and it will stay that way. The area should be given certain rights, certain autonomy. In Ossetia, 50 percent of the families are mixed [ethnically, with Georgians]. They meet, socialize and trade with Georgians. It shouldn't be a problem."

"The situation is Abkhazia is different. One hundred percent of the Georgian population was kicked out of Abkhazia. Between 50,000 and 60,000 Georgians have been allowed to return to the Gali region of Abkhazia, but two-thirds of Abkhazian Georgians still remain in Georgia. So far, 300,000 people of Georgian, Greek, Jewish, Russian, Ukrainian, Estonian and Azeri background have been forced to leave Abkhazia. It is nothing less than a genocide and ethnic cleansing."

Elections for local president for the two regions are scheduled for October.

Only when the situation in the regions is stabilized can Georgia turn its full attention to developing the different sectors of its economy.

"Georgia has enormous water resources. Hydropower projects were started and abandoned in Soviet times. We want to restore and finish those projects," the ambassador said.

One of the major projects in the region is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which will carry up to 1 million barrels of crude oil per day from Caspian oilfields in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, roughly the same distance as from New York to Miami.

The first oil is expected to flow through the pipeline in 2005. BTC's shareholders, who include BP, Eni, Itochu, Unocal, Statoil, ConocoPhillips and Total, will cover roughly one third of the $3.6 billion cost of the project.

In November of last year, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, approved a $250 million loan for the construction of the pipeline. IFC approved a loan up to $125 million for its own account and a loan of up to $125 million in commercial syndication.

The new pipeline will complement two existing pipelines -- the Northern Route pipeline to Novorossiyk in Russia, and the Western Route pipeline, which ends in Supsa in Georgia.

A gas pipeline, expected to be completed by 2006, will run almost parallel to the oil pipeline. The gas pipeline, called Shah Deniz after the Azerbaijani field where it originates, will stretch to the eastern Turkish city of Erzurum.

The pipeline will have a potential to transport up to 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually, and will cost around $3.2 billion to build. The project's shareholders include: operator of the project BP, with a 25.5% share, Norway's Statoil with 25.5%, LUKAgip with 10%, France's TotalFinaElf with 10%, Azerbaijan's SOCAR with 10%, OIEC with 10% and Turkey's TPAO with a 9% share.

The gas line is of great importance for the Georgians, who are dependent on Russia for gas. In the past, Russia has used its gas as a political instrument, turning it on and off. The new pipeline will help Georgia diversify its gas resources.

The Russians might have been able to twist Georgia's arm by squeezing the supply of gas, but there is a line they won't cross.

"When it comes to security, there is what is called the 'Red Line' concept. There is no specific agreement, but it is a concept that has been developed in bilateral talks between Russia and the USA. Russia will not cross the 'Red Line,"' the ambassador says.

In 1999, Russia's then president, Boris Yeltsin, demanded from Georgia's President, Shevardnadze, that Russia be allowed to stage an invasion into Chechnya from Georgian territory. Shevardnadze said no and the United States signaled to Russia that it should not cross the 'Red Line' of the Georgian border. Two years later, in October 2001, Shevardnadze agreed to let the United States deploy some 200 troops in Georgia.

"Russia has been critical of Georgia for sheltering Chechnyans," the ambassador says. "Russia wanted to use Georgian territory; they wanted to copy US actions in Iraq. But the US was very helpful."

Curriculum Vitae of H.E. Levan Mikeladze

Education

1994
Fullbright Scholar, Center for International Security and Arms Control, Stanford University

1983 - 1986
Institute of Geography, Moscow, USSR Academy of Science, Ph. D. in Economic and Social Geography, 1987

1973 - 1978
Tbilisi State University, Republic of Georgia, B.A. and M.A. in Economic and Social Geography, 1978

Employment History

03.2002
Ambassador of Georgia to the United States of America,Mexico and Canada

12/01 - 03/02
Head of the Permanent Mission of Georgia to the OSCE and the International Organizations in Vienna.

1996 - 2000
Ambassador of Georgia to Austria, Head of the Permanent Mission of Georgia to the OSCE and the International Organizations in Vienna.

1995 - 1996
Counselor, Political Affairs Embassy of Georgia to the United States of America, Mexico and Canada

1992 - 1995
State Adviser, Staff of the Head of State of the Republic of Georgia

1992
Head of the European Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Georgia

1989 - 1992
Scientific Secretary, Presidium of the Academy of Science, Republic of Georgia

1978 - 1989
Researcher, Institute of Geography, Academy of Science of the Republic of Georgia

Languages: Georgian (Native), English, Russian, Persian

Married with two daughters.