On May 5, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze released his long-time associate, Vazha Lortkipanidze, from the post of minister of state, a position equivalent to that of prime minister of the Georgian government. Lortkipanidze was given an honorable discharge, complete with public assurances that the president expects him to continue serving the state in some other, as yet unspecified capacity. On the same day Shevardnadze nominated Giorgi (Gia) Arsenishvili to replace Lortkipanidze. Professionally as well as by family ties, Arsenishvili belongs to the upper stratum of the Tbilisi cultural establishment, a group which traditionally supports Shevardnadze. Arsenishvili was dean of the applied mathematics department at Tbilisi State University and served as presidential representative in the Kakheti province from 1995 to date but has no experience in the central government.
Lortkipanidze had represented another group with which Shevardnadze had felt comfortable–that of Komsomol leaders who rose during the final Soviet years and were relatively open to reform ideas. Following Shevardnadze’s return to Georgia in 1992, Lortkipanidze served as ambassador to Russia before being promoted as Minister of State in 1996. On the basis of his background, Moscow did not regard Lortkipanidze with the visceral mistrust it displays toward his younger rivals in the governing Union of Citizens of Georgia (UCG, see below). That fact in turn earned Lortkipanidze in Tbilisi the somewhat unfair reputation of a Russophile, though in fact he cautiously advocated a middle course for Georgia between Russia and the West.
During his last two years as minister of state, Lortkipanidze exercised overall supervision of Tbilisi’s contacts with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia and managed to develop a measure of personal rapport with those two regions’ leaders, despite the deadlock in the negotiations. South Ossetia’s leader Lyudvig Chibirov publicly expressed the wish that Lortkipanidze should continue handling those negotiations after his release as minister of state; Abkhazia’s Vladislav Ardzinba is likely to second that view. Lortkipanidze’s record on implementing reforms and anticorruption efforts was lackluster: In many ways he acted as little more than a representative of the holdover nomenklatura and its vested interests.
Shevardnadze, who was re-elected on April 9 to a five-year term and was sworn in on April 30, had pledged during the electoral campaign to promote consistent reformers to cabinet posts, remove officials involved or complicit in corruption, and enlarge the cabinet’s prerogatives. At the height of the presidential campaign, the parliament empowered the minister of state to issue legal acts on economic issues with a view to accelerating the implementation of reforms. Behind that measure and the ensuing release of Lortkipanidze stand the UCG’s parliamentary leaders.
Shevardnadze, in his dual capacity as head of state and UCG chairman, became the arbiter of two rival groups within the governing party: one mainly based in the state apparatus and personified by Lortkipanidze, the other based mainly in the legislature and headed by Parliament Chairman Zurab Zhvania, majority leader Mikheil Saakashvili and other parliamentary leaders. The top figures in this group are young, outspokenly pro-Western and indeed pro-American, convinced of the need to accelerate market reforms and bent on attacking official corruption which they describe as a national disaster for Georgia. This group is also determined to bring Georgia closer to the European Union and NATO and to speed up the removal of Russian troops from Georgia, in anticipation of Russian attempts to regain control over the South Caucasus.
Ultimately, this group prevailed upon Shevardnadze to initiate the government reform by replacing Lortkipanidze. The young reformers’ victory is not unqualified because the nominee Arsenishvili is not one of their group. However, Arsenishvili is not known to have leadership aspirations or a political base of his own. As minister of state, he will have to take–early on–such unpopular steps as slashing budget expenditures, allowing or even ordering energy utilities to cut off consumers in default, raising taxes and maximizing their collection rate.
The stake in the recent presidential election campaign was not only the presidential office itself but also the mantle of succession to Shevardnadze. In that contest, waged just below the surface, the group led by Zhvania appears to have gained the advantage over their rivals. Zhvania headed Shevardnadze’s campaign headquarters, shaped the president’s electoral message and–with his supporters–took much of the credit for the president’s landslide and the resulting national mandate. This development places the young reformers in a strong position to put their stamp on the new government, accelerate Georgia’s rapprochement with the West and prepare a smooth transition toward the post-Shevardnadze era, building on Shevardnadze’s achievements, which they want the president to complete during his remaining years in office (Rezonansi, May 5; Prime-News, Iprinda, May 6-8; see the Monitor, February 24, April 3-4, 10, 13).
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