On September 16, Georgian television broadcast live parliamentary debates on recent events in South Ossetia and how they fit into the broader context of Georgian-Russian relations. The pointed debate suggested that Georgia’s political opposition has awakened from its long hibernation following the November 2003 Rose Revolution.
The discussions showed that the sole issue on which the opposition and government agreed was that Russia is the “toughest neighbor of Georgia,” as one opposition leader said. “The situation might become so complicated that the Ossetian problem could recede into the background,” suggested Kote Gabashvili, chair of the Parliamentary Commission for Foreign Affairs.
The “New Rights” opposition faction prepared 10 blunt questions to Saakashvili’s government, demanding an explanation of what they called the government’s failure during the recent military campaign in South Ossetia. The opposition charged the government with deliberately concealing the truth about the military operation, including the number of casualties. According to New Rights, the government could have resolved the Ossetian problem in June by blitzkrieg. Moreover, Davit Gamkrelidze, the faction leader, claimed that the inflow of contraband from South Ossetia continues, but now under the patronage of Mikhail Kareli, Saakashvili’s special envoy to Shida Kartli region, and his clan.
The parliamentarians, defectors from the ruling National Movement-Democrats faction, also criticized government performance on a range of issues. Ivliane Khaindrava of the Republican Party, and a former member of the National Movement coalition, argued that many of the Saakashvili government’s reforms have transformed into “doubtful experiments” akin to the Maoist Cultural Revolution. “In Ajaria Saakashvili is doing exactly the same that Putin has done in the Russian regions,” says David Berdzenishvili another defector. Koba Davitashvili, former secretary general of the National Movement, argued that the ruling party is continuing the foreign and domestic policies of former president Eduard Shevardnadze, that is a balance of powers and flirtation with Russia.
On September 16, Davitashvili and another defector, Zviad Dzidziguri, formed a political union to oppose the Saakashvili-led ruling party. According to Dzidziguri, the new party hopes to recruit dissenters from regional branches of the ruling party, which, according to media reports, are torn by infighting. If the union manages to attract 10 legislators, the minimum number for creating a parliamentary faction, they will augment the small opposition groups currently in the parliament.
On September 20, the Resonance daily analyzed why Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania’s United Democrats have not been formally abolished after its de facto merger with Saakashvili’s National Movement. The newspaper argued that Zhvania needs the party because his clash with Saakashvili is inevitable. The newspaper noted that although the military operations in South Ossetia were mostly managed by Saakashvili’s confidants, (the ministers of security and interior), criticism has been heaped on the Defense Ministry led by Giorgi Baramidze, a member of Zhvania’s team.
The ruling faction responded aggressively to the opposition’s criticism during the debate. Giorgi Arveladze, secretary general of the ruling party, charged that the opposition acts as a Russian “fifth column” in Georgia. Other statements by the ruling party’s leaders similarly implied that opposition is the nation’s enemy. Accusations of “Russian moles” in Georgian state bodies have surfaced again recently, connected to efforts to pass a law on lustration. Kote Gabashvili, author of the initiative, claims to have accurate information that the Georgian parliament of 1992-95 had up to 38 legislators who had been recruited by the KGB in the Soviet era.
Some Georgian analysts argue that Russia will soon try to foment public unrest in Georgia, using various instruments of political and economic pressure (Resonance, September 14). The collapse of government plans to regain South Ossetia prompted some commentators to kindle anti-Western sentiments by suggesting that the Western community had not given Tbilisi expected support. “The West has dishonestly left Georgia face-to-face with the aggressor [Russia],” wrote an analyst for the influential 24 Hours daily. Should Georgia become disillusioned with the West, it might suggest the need for a new political force and leader(s) able to settle relations with Moscow without sacrificing national interests.
Moscow’s attempts to seek reliable allies in the Georgian political establishment, as some local analysts suspect, appear quite reasonable, given that the Rose Revolution sent the most active proponents of Russian interests in Georgia into political exile. Which political force Moscow will bet on remains to be seen, but the odds are that it would be an opposition leader out of parliament, because the opposition groups in parliament, judging by their political record, could be blamed for many national ills, but not a pro-Russian attitude.
(Resonance, September 16; Resonance, 24 Hours, September 17; Akhali Taoba, September 18; TV-Rustavi-2, September 17; TV-Imedi, September 19; Resonance, September 20).