Commenting on the latest developments in and around the breakaway South Ossetia region before departing for London on July 12, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili made a remarkable statement. He said that certain forces in Russia want to duplicate the events of 1992, when opposition forces overthrew President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, driving him into exile. “However, this time they will confront not a fragmented but a highly consolidated Georgia,” Saakashvili said (TV- Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, Polit.ru July 12).
The crisis in the South Ossetia has revealed a noteworthy, although still weak trend, in the Georgian political spectrum. For the first time, virtually all of the major opposition parties and groups have either supported Saakashvili’s government or limited themselves to minor criticism. Georgians remember the dark days of the early 1990s, when separatism, national discord, and political confrontation were so high that some opposition groups even celebrated the government’s humiliating defeat in independence-minded Abkhazia. But ten years on, most Georgian political parties seem to have learned some lessons from the past.
When the Ossetian militia captured about 50 Georgian servicemen on July 8 and humiliated them on television, the event should have sparked yet another political row between Saakashvili’s government and its variegated opposition. Indeed, the opposition groups, which have been engaged in a protracted struggle for supremacy since the Rose Revolution, could hardly find a better chance to seize the initiative by organizing anti-Saakashvili protests. Moreover, the Georgian and Russian media have fueled the furor by depicting the incident as a tremendous set-back and insult to the state of Georgian and Saakashvili’s government in particular (NTV, ORT, Resonance, 24 Hours, TV-Imedi, July 8-9). Yet, the opposition declined to undermine Saakashvili.
Zviad Dzidziguri, a member of parliament who defected from the ruling National Movement-Democrats and who plans to create a new parliament opposition faction, believes that the constant political squabbles in Tbilisi had distracted the government while the South Ossetians declared independence. “I want to call everybody to back the government. There is no time for rivalry when the territorial integrity of the country is at the stake,” he said. Dzidziguri explained that his political allies can dispute the government’s fiscal, social, and other policies at another date, but no rift is allowable when the territorial integrity of the country is at stake (Week’s Palette, July 12-18).
The New Rightists-Industrialists, the leading opposition faction in Parliament, was quite doubtful and critical about the results of the July 3 negotiations between Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow as well as Tbilisi’s policy on South Ossetia. David Gamkrelidze, leader of the faction, argued that the friendly atmosphere of the presidential meeting “will disperse soon if we give an impartial assessment of Russian-Georgian relations.” Gamkrelidze demanded that the government fully disclose the contents of the agreements that had been reached in Moscow (24 Hours, July 6). However, when the latest crisis in the South Ossetia erupted, the New Rightists withdrew their demands, instead calling on Tbilisi to consider radical measures to free the captive servicemen. Pikria Chikhradze, another legislator from the New Rightists, explained that the situation was so tense that “we decided not to emphasize the government’s mistakes.” Chikhradze, however, does want Saakashvili and his government to cease flirting with Moscow (Resonance, July 12).
The Georgian Labor Party, another major opposition force, has limited itself to a statement that Saakashvili’s government lacks even “elementary tactics” for handling the conflict (Interpress, July 12). The “political silence” of the followers of Georgia’s first president Gamsakhurdia, who revoked the autonomy of South Ossetia in 1990, as well as the Republican Party that recently broke with the National Movement, confirms that Georgian political parties have put their ambitions and desire for quick political profits aside in favor of the national unity so acutely needed in the current tense situation.
The opposition parties believe — with some justification — that if they give moral support to the government, or at least refrain from open confrontation, that Saakashvili and his team will be more cooperative with and conciliatory toward the opposition. However, Saakashvili appears to want a stronger declaration of national unity than so far given. Barely one month ago, Saakashvili branded any legislator who failed to vote for a new law downgrading the autonomy of Ajaria as “an enemy of the nation” (24 Hours, July 12; TV Rustavi-2, July 5).
Future developments regarding South Ossetia may become a good test of the political maturity of the Georgian political spectrum and political stability in the country in general.