Georgia: Marching into the Unknown

The former Soviet republic will be a test case of the new U.S. policy to shore up strategic but failing states

Abandoned Soviet tanks litter the periphery of the Krtsanisi Training Base in central Georgia, a former Soviet republic and frontline outpost during the Soviet Union's long standoff against NATO. Now, on the parade grounds deep inside the base, two flags are displayed: the red, black, and white banner of the independent state of Georgia and the American stars and stripes. A squadron of Georgian troops, smartly outfitted in U.S.-issued fatigues and boots, marches by. Inside a makeshift classroom, a U.S. Green Beret instructor, aided by a translator, is lecturing a group of soldiers on the rules of warfare. "Do not torture or kill any enemy prisoners," he says.

There's small chance of Georgians getting any prisoners at all, critics scoff. Georgia's poorly paid and ill-fed conscripts have a reputation for turning tail in the heat of battle. But the Green Berets--Special Forces units who arrived in May--vow to forge a new fighting force. "We're going to raise their potential exponentially," says Major David Grasso, 42, a New Hampshire native who runs the two-year, $64 million Pentagon program to help Georgia combat terrorism and other threats.

Georgia is a test case in Washington's new policy of shoring up strategically significant basket cases. "America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones," the Bush Administration declared in its new national security strategy document, released on Sept. 20. So, in a risky undertaking that is part power projection, part economic rescue, and part nation-building, the U.S. is involved in a treacherous land few Americans have ever seen. And the engagement promises to be deeper and longer-lasting than anyone in Washington ever imagined.

If any country qualifies as a failing state, it's Georgia. This small nation of 5 million is blessed with fertile land and spectacular mountain scenery, and is noted for its spicy cuisine and robust wine. But Georgia was plunged into a nightmare of economic misery, corruption, and lawlessness when it won independence after the Soviet collapse in 1991. Eleven years later, rogue paramilitary groups control much of the countryside, and President Eduard Shevardnadze can barely keep order in the capital of Tbilisi, which is plagued by blackouts and 30% unemployment. The city's residents hustle odd jobs and steal electricity through spliced-on cables that siphon off the juice for free. On the Black Sea coast, separatists control the province of Abkhazia. The Pankisi Gorge on the northern border with Russia's breakaway Chechen republic offers sanctuary for drug traffickers, kidnappers, Chechen rebels--and at least a handful of Arab fighters, possibly linked to al Qaeda. "If not for the United States of America, there is no way for us to survive," says Shevardnadze's national security adviser, Tedo Japaridze, formerly Georgia's ambassador to Washington.

For Washington, this potential quagmire is deemed worth entering for several reasons. First, U.S. policymakers want to make sure Georgia doesn't become another camp for terrorists. Second, the instability in Georgia threatens the West's attempt to make the Caspian Sea region a major source of non-OPEC oil. Construction has begun on a $3 billion pipeline running directly through Georgia. And third, Washington aims to keep Moscow from reasserting any imperial designs on a country so long under the thumb of czars and Soviet dictators.

Enhanced Russian leverage could conceivably jeopardize the Western-backed energy development in the Caspian Sea region. Moscow has yet to shutter Soviet-era bases housing 10,000 Russian troops and 1,000 armored units on Georgian soil. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is threatening a unilateral attack on Chechen rebel hideouts in Georgia if Shevardnadze quails at tough action. The situation is tense: With U.S. leaders urging cooperation, Putin and Shevardnadze on Oct. 6 agreed to joint patrols on the Georgian-Chechen border.

But such pledges, given mutual Russian-Georgian distrust, may not endure. That's why the U.S. engagement looks to be for the long haul. The training-and-equipment program is just one facet of the commitment. To help reduce Georgia's dependence on Russian gas supplies, the U.S. is promoting a new Caspian gas pipeline. Some $100 million in annual U.S. aid is paying for a winter heating program. And through the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Americans are supervising the bar exam for aspiring lawyers and schooling the Parliament in how to conduct oversight hearings.

This exercise in nation-building will live and die by America's ability to create stability. There's a long way to go. Even Shevardnadze concedes that "corruption is a big state problem." The Pankisi Gorge, says policeman Tamaz Chkhetiani, is a drug bazaar with heroin traffickers paying off officials. Chkhetiani himself recently was kidnapped--by drug dealers, he believes--then later released unharmed.

A disciplined army could tackle these problems. But the Georgian army is a microcosm of the nation's infirmities. Corruption runs to the top, with generals accused of lining their pockets by brokering weapons deals for Chechen rebels. That's one reason U.S. trainers are shifting authority to young soldiers. In charge of the battalion of 558 Georgian troops now being schooled at Krtsanisi is Lieutenant Lasha Beridze. The lanky 24-year-old is fluent in English, has trained at Fort Benning, Ga., and is about to get his own Green Berets patch. "We're the future of the Georgian army," he says. Participants in the U.S. training program are paid well, too--$200 a month for a volunteer private, compared with just $20 for a conscript in the regular army.

Anarchic enclaves, such as the Pankisi Gorge, are only one of many problems that will test the army. Georgia must also defend the oil pipeline that will traverse its soil for 155 miles. Undertaken by a consortium led by BP PLC, it will ship up to 1 million barrels of oil a day from Baku on the Caspian to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Bolstering Georgia's economy may prove even more difficult than overhauling its army. Most large industrial enterprises remain in the hands of "red directors" from Soviet times. Foreign investment is a paltry $30 million a year. The largest foreign investor, AES Corp., the Arlington (Va.)-based utility, may pull out because of rampant theft. The oil pipeline is expected to pump some $250 million in contracts into the economy. But that's well short of the grandiose hopes Georgia's leaders seem to possess. "BP will meet a number of these expectations, but we can't possibly meet all of them," says Andrew Baines, director of BP's operations in Georgia.

Then there's the political system. Shevardnadze, who helped bring about the Soviet Union's downfall as Mikhail Gorbachev's Foreign Minister, still has backing in Washington. But he is being deserted by reformers who condemn his inability to tackle corruption and improve the economy. "We feel like a plane taken over by hijackers," says Mikhail Saakashvili, 34, the ex-Justice Minister and now a leading opposition politician. Shevardnadze's second term--which must be his last, according to Georgia's constitution--is not up until 2005, but would-be successors, including Saakashvili, are currying favor with Washington. Moscow, which has its own moles in Georgia, is watching this mating ritual with extreme wariness.

One bright spot is that Georgians are fed up with the whole mess. "This country can transform itself--and it's doing so in the middle of the most dangerous neighborhood on the planet," says an American expat, Mark Mullen, director of the National Democratic Institute's office in Tbilisi. That statement seems to rest more on faith than proof, but it would be marvelous if it came true--for the sake not only of Georgia but also of America and, yes, Russia.

By Paul Starobin in Tbilisi and the Pankisi Gorge

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