An Unintended Effect of Russia’s Open Game: Major Schism in the Georgian Opposition

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

There were times when Russian leaders and their junior partners in the radical Georgian opposition often acted in dissonance and the Kremlin’s rhetoric and action did not necessarily coincide with the ups and downs in the Georgian radicals’ statements and street functions, unwaveringly aimed at President Saakashvili’s ouster. Now, it seems, those days are over and boring cacophony of the past has been replaced with harmony and concord. But, to Moscow’s chagrin, this newly-acquired feature of the Russian-pro-Russian coalition has also caused a major schism in the Georgian opposition “monolith.”

When Russian President Dmitri Medvedev demanded on February 11 that “Mr. Saakashvili must be held accountable by his own people,” the leader of the pro-Russian forces in Georgia ex-premier Zurab Noghaideli did not wait long before responding with a threat of “uprising” in the spring if “public mood is not reflected” in the results of the upcoming local elections. Then, on February 17, Medvedev said that he would “not have any relationship with the acting president of Georgia” and called him a “persona non grata.” Medvedev also added, “The Georgian people must decide for themselves through the established constitutional procedures who they want to manage their country.” Radicals in Georgia swiftly followed with a statement, as if conversing with the Russian leader: “It is impossible to change the Saakashvili regime through constitutional means,” the pro-Russian Labor Party’s Giorgi Gugava said.

Incidentally, the Labor Party is going to boycott the local elections scheduled for May 30, 2010 and Nino Burjanadze, ex-speaker of Georgian Parliament and leader of the radical opposition party Democratic Movement-United Georgia, widely believed to be a pro-Russian force, intends the same. Her spokesperson bluntly asserted on February 17 that their party does not wish to participate “in the farce.” Burjanadze, with her financial support, was behind the three-month-long street protests in spring 2009 when radical oppositionists perpetrated a failed attempt at “regime change” in Georgia.

Noghaideli himself, who champions the pro-Kremlin cause in Georgia and recently signed a cooperation agreement with Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, has mounted a double-track tactic. On the one hand, Georgia’s ex-premier says his political party will engage in the election campaign “through primaries” organized among the opposition candidates, but on the other hand, does not exclude other options if “constitutional means” ultimately fail to force President Saakashvili’s party, United National Movement, from power “at the local level.” Six political parties have already expressed readiness to participate in the primaries to select a single opposition candidate for Tbilisi mayor, but notably, Noghaideli has repeatedly claimed that he is not going to run. He and his satellite parties said on February 1 that they intend to start “a new wave of protest rallies” from April 9 and “hold a large-scale rally” on May 26 “to warn” the authorities against election fraud.”

Noghaideli’s rendezvous with Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in late December 2009 and, even more significantly, the agreement he inked with United Russia – the party without any democratic credential – caused a major rupture in Georgia’s opposition camp. Two of the three leaders in the Alliance for Georgia tri-party coalition, Davit Usupashvili and Davit Gamkrelidze—who usually advocate for Georgia’s pro-Western orientation—came out with harsh criticism against Noghaideli on February 17 and proposed the “all minus one formula” to exclude the openly pro-Moscow Noghaideli from the opposition unity in the run-up to the local election. At a press conference dedicated to their proposal, the two opposition figures warned against the ex-premier’s “dubious role” in Georgian politics. The third leader of the Alliance, Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s former envoy to the UN and now a candidate for Tbilisi mayor, did not take part in the press conference where his partners slammed Noghaideli, but he felt obligated to somewhat clarify his position on the “Noghaideli formula” by saying that “our position [within the Alliance for Georgia] is absolutely identical.”

One year ago, the major identification for political orientation in Georgia was embodied in your attitude toward President Saakashvili and his political party. You were either pro- or anti-Saakashvili. As the Kremlin leaders have started to openly show their preferences by nominating Noghaideli as their favorite, the politician’s ID in Georgia now seems to be shifting to pro- or anti-Noghaideli, which also reflects his or her stance on the future of Georgian democracy. This makes a lot of sense, at least to many observers, given the existential threat Russia’s policy poses to both Georgia’s nationhood and democratic future.