Friday, September 26, 2008

The kids are running the show

TBILISI -- The kids are running the show in this ancient city that has outlasted the Byzantines, Persians, Mongols, Ottomans and Soviets. The government is dominated by Western-educated politicians under 50 years old. President Mikheil Saakashvili is only 40 years old.

It is not only the ruling government that is dominated by youth, but the opposition and Georgia's nascent civil society as well. Their age lends them an earnest not found in many of America's executive directors.

The older generations are not gone completely, but they are not at the helm, as in most countries. Most of the Georgia's elders have either not been able to transition from communism to a democratic government with a market economy, lacked the education of the younger elites or were fired when the state swept out former Pres. Eduard Shevardnadze and his corrupt crew.

Sitting in the Tbilisi Marriott's cafe I had a chance to witness the strengths and liabilities of the youth movement. I was talking with a European adviser to the government, PW, when he got a call from one of the country's youngest members of parliament, Giorgi Kandelaki, just a few years out of Tbilisi State University.

Kandelaki needed help preparing for a debate the next day, Thursday, at the London School of Economics, where he'd be going up against five others, including a Russian diplomat and Britain's Lord Skidelsky -- a member of the House of Lords, ardent Keynesian and vocal supporter of Russia, or as the European adviser put it, a British fifth columnist. In other words, fresh-faced Kandelaki was going to get torn apart.

PW went through the better part of a pack of Parliaments while trying to impart his experience in Oxford's debating society to Kid Kandelaki -- who happily soaked up every bit of advice offered. A former US arms control negotiator who was also at the table chimed in as well.

"Don't focus on details," PW told Kandelaki. "It's a trick in debate: don't focus on details and deliver a ringing sentence."

The young MP's natural inclination was to deliver carefully crafted logical constructions spanning from A to B to C to D.

"It's not about going from A to B to C to D. Go from A to D," the American said, punching his fist into his palm to punctuate his point.

Like the vast majority of his contemporaries, both Kandelaki's earnestness and inexperience were quickly evident. Of the government's 17 ministers, two of them were born before 1965. The youngest, Bakur Kvezereli, the Minister of Agriculture, is 27. The country's Foreign Minister, Eka Tkeshelashvili, was appointed last May, shortly before her 31st birthday.

Not only are so many of the ministers very young, but many also share a lack of practical experience in the subject of their ministry. The Defense Minister, who just turned thirty, has never served in the military or had any defense background. Rather, he had been head of Georgia's financial police when he was appointed at the age of 28.

Similarly, Tkeshelashvili's foreign affairs experience had been working as a lawyer for the Red Cross.

As PW noted, they are all very smart and very inexperienced, as was evidenced by the August war with Russia, which could easily have been avoided.

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