Georgia and Azerbaijan 10 Years After the Fall of the Soviet Union

A Rocky Adolescence?

For the 15 countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, the last decade has been one of immense upheavals. As the vast communist empire crumbled, the former Soviet republics struggled to come to terms with independence. Georgia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus fared worse than most. Both were the scenes of bitter wars in the 1990s—in the case of Georgia, the conflict continues, as Chloe Arnold reports.

KGB agent-turned-President of Georgia Eduard Schevardnaze takes a dim view of satire.

It is Sunday evening in Georgia and across the nation, people are settling down to watch television. "Dardubala," or "The Twits," became an instant favorite 10 months ago, when it first started broadcasting.

The animated cartoon cuts close to the bone in its depiction of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. The cartoon portrays him as a bumbling fool, who takes on two marijuana-smoking teenagers to be his advisers. In the cartoon, as—some would say—in life, he clearly has no idea how to run the country, which appears to have slipped into a state of anarchy.

It is a measure of how far democracy and freedom of speech have come in Georgia since the Soviet Union collapsed that cartoons like "Dardubala" can be shown on television. But it also underlines the problems that continue to plague Georgia ten years after becoming an independent state.

People here are patient about receiving seven dollars per month to survive and about the widespread and rampant corruption in the government. But this was too much.

Nick Tabatadze, general manager of Rustavi 2, the station that runs the cartoon, said Rustavi 2 has been a fearless critic of the government. He points to the station's "Sixty Minutes" current affairs program, which uses hidden cameras to show policemen taking bribes or arresting people on trumped up charges, as an example.

"We have been very critical of the activities of the Ministry of the Interior in this country because of the widespread corruption," he said.

Despite Mr. Shevardnadze's high profile in the West—the former Soviet foreign minister is credited with bringing stability to Georgia, where civil war broke out following the Soviet Union's demise—his popularity at home is slipping.

When police raided the offices of Rustavi 2 in November, alleging the station had not been paying its taxes, people took to the streets of the capital in protest.

"The raid on Rustavi 2 was the last straw in people's patience," Mr. Tabatadze said. "People here are patient about receiving seven dollars per month to survive and about the widespread and rampant corruption in the government. But this was too much."

In the wake of the demonstrations, Mr. Shevardnadze fired his government, stopping just short of stepping down himself. With renewed fighting in the breakaway province of Abkhazia, regular power cuts and relations with Russia at an all-time low, Georgia is almost back where it started 10 years ago.

East of Georgia, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan has fared rather differently over the last ten years. The reason? Oil. In 1994, the Azeri government signed what's become known as the Contract of the Century—a multi-billion dollar agreement with foreign oil companies.

The lucrative oil and gas reserves beneath the Caspian Sea off the coast of Azerbaijan have led some to tout the country as the next Kuwait. But for all the foreign money in Azerbaijan—the country has more investment from abroad per head than any other former Soviet republic—very little of it filters down to the poorest levels of society.

Azerbaijan also has to shoulder the burden of more than half a million refugees, who were forced out of their homes and into makeshift camps ten years ago during the war with neighboring Armenia.

"One of the biggest tragedies for my country is the results of the Karabakh war, in which 30,000 people lost their lives," said Bakhtiyar Mamedov, a senior lecturer in law at the State Economic University of Azerbaijan. But despite the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh—a highly sensitive subject which can reduce grown men to tears in Azerbaijan —Bakhtiyar says independence was the best thing that ever happened to Azerbaijan.

"For any nation gaining independence and being part of the international community, it is a top dream," he said. "We're a member of the United Nations and now everyone in the world can see our flag in New York."

Azerbaijan's hard-won stability, though, is under threat. Its president, Haidar Aliyev, the only man who's proved capable of holding the country's quarrelsome clans under control, is now 78 and has a heart condition.

In Georgia, too, what little stability there is could evaporate when Mr. Shevardnadze, as he has promised he will do, steps down in 2005, with no obvious successor. For both countries, the second decade of independence may prove just as important—and as messy—as the first.