Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is very proud of his friendship with former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and frequently reminisces about their joint efforts to eliminate the remnants of the “Cold War.” But this time the “old and close friend” arrived in Tbilisi on July 5 to deliver a message from U.S. President George W. Bush requesting fairness in the coming parliamentary elections.
Mr. Baker also brought with him some specific suggestions regarding preparations for the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for November 2, 2003. According to the “Baker Plan,” the opposition parties should be given a majority in the central and regional electoral commissions (nine members against five government appointees). This is something that the opposition has been trying in vain to get for the past several months by means of protest rallies and heated parliamentary debate. Baker also recommended that the person appointed to head the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) be approved by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and he suggested such additional measures as parallel counting of votes by independent observers.
The Baker Plan deprives the Shevardnadze-led pro-government election bloc “For New Georgia” of its eagerly desired majority in the CEC–but it stops short of giving the opposition a two-thirds majority, which is needed for the cancellation of election results in whole or in part.
On July 8 Shevardnadze met with the opposition and agreed on the composition of the CEC, but two opposition parties–the Industrialists and the Union for Georgia Revival–are refusing to cooperate unless they are given more seats from among the nine reserved for the opposition. (They want the seats to be divided based on the results of the 1999 parliamentary election, when they did well, and not on the 2002 local government results, as proposed by the other parties.)
The visit of the high ranking envoy from Washington caused mixed reactions among Georgians.
For some, the delivery of directions from Washington fueled perceptions that Georgia and Georgians are ineffective as a state and nation. Some local politicians caustically compared Baker’s visit with those by high ranking Russians during the Soviet era. Others, a minority, saw Baker’s visit as testimony of the increased interest of the West in the building of democracy in Georgia.
Baker’s visit to Georgia encouraged leaders of opposition parties and prompted media speculation about a possible “velvet” replacement of Shevardnadze. But there is no sign that Mr. Baker came to Georgia to “tweak Shevardnadze’s ears” and force his resignation. The election aside, the topics that the two men discussed suggest that, for Washington, Shevardnadze is not yet a completely “burned card.”
One problem is that the West has not yet selected a reliable political alternative to Shevardnadze. Today the West offers moral support to political leaders having a declared pro-western orientation. But the West is eager to avoid the possible chaos that might erupt if the political struggle against the Shevardnadze regime turns violent and creates a power vacuum. And, indeed, the pre-election situation provides cause for concern. Apart from unfavorable external factors (pressure from Russia and energy dependence, to name just two), the domestic situation in Georgia remains tense. There has been an upsurge in organized crime, a jump in the price of bread, a huge gap in the state budget, wage arrears, and the explosive situation that is developing in the breakaway regions.
By accepting the advice of his “old and close friend,” Shevardnadze is drawing his opponents into sharing responsibility for the smooth conduct of the elections and thereby buying himself some time and room for maneuver. However, the level of confrontation between Shevardnadze and his opponents–and within the opposition camp itself–remains high, and the temporary “cease-fire” could break down at any time.
WHO IS THE REAL OPPOSITION?
This is hardly a rhetorical question, if one takes into account the peculiarities of Georgian political life. The opposition camp varies in its degree of opposition, and the appearance of former Shevardnadze followers in this camp has complicated the pre-election political situation. Today, each opposition leader claims to possess “irrefutable evidence” demonstrating the hidden collaboration of the other opposition parties with Shevardnadze.
At present, the Labor Party, the Union for Georgia Revival, the National Movement, the United Democrats, the New Rightists and the Industry Will Salvage Georgia are the opposition parties with a chance to clear the 7 percent election hurdle.
Of this “sextet,” the National Movement, the New Rightists and the United Democrats sprang from the ruling party Citizens’ Union of Georgia (CUG) eighteen months ago, and are now doing their best to prove to everyone that they are not Shevardnadze’s “pocket opposition.” Meanwhile, the Laborites and Revival claim that they are the true opposition to Shevardnadze. They systematically highlight the fact that leaders of the other parties have backgrounds connected to the CUG and refuse to cooperate with them. The latter have hit back with similar accusations, namely, that Labor and Revival are Shevardnadze puppets.
The Industrialists (formal title: “Industry will Salvage Georgia”), consisting of old style businessmen, were “exposed” by Shevardnadze himself. He told a parliamentary meeting how the leader of the “Industrialists,” beer tycoon Gogi Topadze, came to him and offered to create one more pro-Shevardnadze party.
None of the opposition leaders want to burn all their bridges to Shevardnadze. Their strong and sometimes crude anti-Shevardnadze rhetoric and anti-Shevardnadze rallies are mainly aimed at rallying Georgia’s protest vote.
Parliament chairwoman Nino Burjanadze, a “lone player” who has gained considerable political mileage from her outspoken pro-Western position and anti-government rhetoric, declined ultimately to adopt a strict anti-Shevardnadze attitude. This prevented her from becoming the leader of the united opposition as many had expected. Now Burjanadze is rapidly building her own political party, which is based on moderate opposition group, and includes former loyalists of Shevardnadze. It will surprise no one if it turns out later that Burjanadze’s expected political marriage with the former pro-Shevardnadze intelligentsia is, in fact, part of Shevardnadze’s scenario.
The Union of Georgia Revival is headed by Aslan Abashidze, a disobedient leader of the Ajarian Autonomous Republic, which is itself loosely controlled by Tbilisi. Revival failed to proceed with the impeachment of Shevardnadze in the parliament because it was unable to gain the support of other opposition factions. But despite its demonstrative anti-Shevardnadze stance, Revival never turns down a deal with Shevardnadze when the deal serves Abashidze’s interests.
The Labor Party has been taking the lead among opposition parties for some time and has no representation in the parliament. It tries to squeeze maximum political advantage from its image as “the common people’s party,” and fervently rejects any allegations of covert collaboration with the government.
Thus, relations with Shevardnadze constitute the sole and most important test for assessing the opposition. This situation provides the president with a golden opportunity to play his favorite game of “divide and rule” with his political rivals.
THE SYNDROME OF “POLITICAL NARCISSISM”
The opposition parties and their leaders, who have been forced for years to adapt and maneuver to conform to the rules of games imposed on them by Shevardnadze, now see themselves as more independent and stronger political players. The factors feeding their excessive self confidence include support from the West and from the Georgian public, as was demonstrated by their success in the 2002 local elections.
But it seems that some of the opposition leaders have fallen into a “political narcissism” caused by false hopes about their political potential. For example, the National Movement openly declared itself the flagship of all opposition forces and made cooperation with the other opposition parties conditional on the appointment of its leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, as head of the united opposition electoral bloc.
The unity perceived as so vital just four or five months ago is now considered unnecessary in light of the severe troubles facing the pro-Shevardnadze bloc, which, according to opposition leaders, requires but a light kick to fall.
However, attendance at the June 3 protest rally organized jointly by several opposition parties was much lower than expected, and the rally did not produce any concessions from the government.
The failure of the opposition parties to unite and provide a clear democratic alternative to Shevardnadze months before the election might alienate part of the electorate, and will evidently play into the hands of the pro-Shevardnadze forces.
The upcoming parliamentary elections are attracting far greater interest from external players than did those that took place in 1999. The same elections, however, are bringing with them a certain threat of destabilization. On the one hand, widespread electoral fraud would cause a sharp political and civil confrontation. On the other hand, fair elections could well deprive certain forces of their power, a development that might of itself also prove destabilizing.
Zaal Anjaparidze is director of the Democracy Resources Development Center, a Georgian NGO.