Georgia is witnessing a new stage in the regrouping of its domestic political forces and leading political figures for the impending post-Shevardnadze period. According to some local experts, that period could begin earlier than expected: Speculation that President Eduard Shevardnadze could resign before his term is up and about his probable successor has been intensifying.
“PRODIGAL SONS” CHALLENGE THE GURU
Shevardnadze’s presidential term expires in 2005. Signs that his grip on power is becoming less firm, however, began to appear shortly after his convincing victory in the 2000 presidential elections. The largely unrealistic campaign pledges that he and his party, the Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG), made–including a promise to create 1 million new jobs in the country–went unfulfilled. Meanwhile, a number of issues provoked an increase in public protest. Among them: regional separatism, the refugee problem, rampant corruption, severe social-economic conditions, a sharp energy crisis and the appeasement of the exorbitant appetites of various clans, including the presidential family. Further, recent polls showed an erosion in Shevardnadze’s one-time overwhelming public support. The “Shevardnadze Myth” seems to be disintegrating.
The recent mysterious suicide of Nugzar Sajaia, powerful secretary of the National Security Council, also harmed Shevardnadze’s image somewhat. Everyone who knows his style of governance is aware of Shevardnadze’s readiness, if it is politically expedient, to get rid of even close confidants. Whatever the case, many politicians are now rushing to leave the sinking Shevardnadze-CUG ship, including the group of young politicians within the CUG known in Georgia as the “young reformers.” This group is spearheaded by the parliament’s chairman, Zurab Zhvania, who, in an open letter to Shevardnadze last September, unambiguously accused the president of involvement in corruption and demanded that he fire dishonest ministers and purge his corrupt entourage. Shevardnadze did step down as CUG chairman not long afterwards. But this did not stop the reformers from taking further moves against him. Few in Georgia doubt that Zhvania and his associates orchestrated the youth rallies held last November demanding Shevardnadze’s resignation as president, which brought the confrontation close to the brink of armed hostilities. Knowledgeable sources claim that the Prosecutors’ Office came close to issuing an arrest warrant for Zhvania and his allies on charges of plotting mass civil unrest.
But Shevardnadze is a recognized master at the game of balancing power, and he promptly defused the situation by “sacrificing” his closest henchmen–Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze, Economics Minister Vanno Chkhartishvili and Prosecutor General Ghia Meparishvili. But Zhvania, in turn, was forced to pay for this “gift” by resigning as parliamentary chairman. On the other hand, Zhvania and his team have in a relatively short time succeeded in removing most of their political adversaries from the CUG, a majority of whom were from the old Soviet “nomenklatura” or groups that could not consider the CUG without Shevardnadze. During a March 9 meeting of the CUG, Zhvania and his group stated that the party would become a “constructive opposition” to Shevardnadze. The president, who still belongs to the CUG, stated in a nationwide radio interview that if the CUG were to become an opposition force he would leave the party for good.
As a result of the split in the CUG, which subsequently spread to the parliament, Shevardnadze has been deprived of a docile parliamentary majority. And it was this majority that, over the last seven years, has allowed him to push any kind of law or resolution through the parliament. This May the CUG will hold a congress to decide whether the party ultimately goes into opposition. If Zhvania’s team succeeds in defeating its opponents, who want to maintain the CUG’s support for Shevardnadze, Zhvania will become one of the likely candidates to succeed Shevardnadze. It is noteworthy that Zhvania and its team are demanding that the local government elections that were postponed last October be held in June, as a decree issued by Shevardnadze prescribes, and not postponed again. Zhvania probably hopes that the CUG’s local infrastructure and its strong position in the electoral commissions will help it win the elections. Zhvania’s control over the CUG, meanwhile, will weaken Shevardnadze’s position in the regions. The president and his entourage understand this situation fully and are doing their best to postpone the local elections once again.
Many experts, however, believe the Shevardnadze-Zhvania confrontation has in fact been stage managed as a way to smooth Zhvania’s rise to power. In today’s Georgia nothing can do more to raise a politician’s profile than criticizing Shevardnadze. Commenting on Zhvania’s resignation as parliamentary chairman, Shevardnadze said in a radio interview: “Georgia might soon see Zhvania in a new capacity.”
Meanwhile, like Zhvania, another “young reformer,” Mikheil Saakashvili, an outspokenly pro-Western and reform-minded politician, for whom Shevardnadze paved the way to high posts in the parliament and government alike, has begun his own political game. Saakashvili may be a more genuinely independent political player than Zhvania. He demonstratively resigned from the post of the minister of justice, where Shevardnadze had moved him from the parliament, saying that he no longer wanted to be a member of Shevardnadze’s team. His radical anti-Shevardnadze rhetoric and the fact that he initiated a draft law on the confiscation of illegally gained property, combined with his charismatic qualities, have propelled Saakashvili into the forefront of Georgian politics. He demonstratively left the CUG (which Zhvania could not do) and established the National Movement, which now unites political and social forces of various stripes.
Saakashvili and his followers (many of whom defected from Zhvania’s team) have quickly gained the sympathy of so-called “protest social groups” and a bulk of the liberal intelligentsia, who are likely to become Saakashvili’s future electorate. Many analysts compare the vociferous and radical Saakashvili with Georgia’s late president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
On the wave of his rapid success, Saakashvili has demonstratively distanced himself from Zhvania, though he admits that cooperation will be necessary. Zhvania, in turn, is pushing to create a united democratic alliance and to hold early parliamentary elections. The developments in the coming months will show whether the two men can find common platform. But it will not be easy for Zhvania and Saakashvili get rid of the stigma for the serious mistakes they made while growing as politicians under Shevardnadze’s umbrella.
PRO-RUSSIAN FORCES ARE ON THE ALERT
What is happening in the camp of the other political forces, including those oriented toward Russia? The major political parties are engaged in intensive and mostly backdoor consultations with one another, which indicates that none of them wants to advertise their political plans prematurely. This it is still early to forecast what kinds of new political alliances might be hammered out in the foreseeable future. But what is evident is that some leading political figures with presidential ambitions are trying to enlist support from the Kremlin. Vahtang Rcheulishvili, leader of the Socialist Party, has collected as many as 600,000 signatures from Georgian citizens over the course of the “Russia is our neighbor” campaign, which calls for an immediate improvement in bilateral relations. Russia’s political elite gave high praise for this action during a visit by Rcheulishvili to Moscow, declaring that they had discovered “an absolutely different Georgia.”
Meanwhile, the recently created political part called the “New Rightists” has successfully made its mark on the political map by ostentatiously opposing Shevardnadze. The party, which was formed in 2001, is made up of well-to-do businessmen and some of those who participated in the pro-independence movement of 1980s. It is rumored to be possible future political vehicle for President Shevardnadze’s son, Paata. The arrival in Georgia of Badri Patarkatsishvili, the financier and close associate of Russian media mogul Boris Berezovsky quickly acquired a political subtext. Patarkatsishvili set about creating a media conglomerate and began to attract traditionally pro-Russian political figures who hope to succeed Shevardnadze. These include former Kakha Targamadze, the former interior minister, and Vazha Lortkipanidze, who was formerly state minister and ambassador to Russia. Both of them used to be Shevardnadze’s favorites. The “New Rightists” have of late become suspiciously sympathetic to Patarkatsishvili’s group.
Aslan Abashidze, the strong-minded leader of the rebellious Ajarian Autonomous Republic, leads the political party called the Union for Georgia’s Revival, which is unanimously acknowledged as the second strongest party in Georgia after the CUG. Abashidze has received from Shevardnadze a formal mandate to handle the resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict (further evidence of Shevardnadze’s political weakness). Abashidze will try to squeeze as many political points out of this issue as are necessary to improve his political position. It goes without saying that any Georgian politician who is able to come close to restoring Georgian control over Abkhazia will become almost a national hero.
In recent years Western countries have tended to bet on Zhvania’s and Saakashvili’s groups, much to the dismay of other political parties that also consider themselves pro-Western. It is likely that during the ongoing political regrouping these parties will be forced to strike a deal with the pro-Moscow forces in order to survive politically. Among these parties, the Laborite Party and the Industry Will Save Georgia party and their respective leaders have already created a firm electorate. Both parties, especially the Laborites, oppose Shevardnadze. In addition, the Laborite Party has already collected 30,000 signatures in Tbilisi demanding that early parliamentary and presidential elections be held. In order to legally submit the appeal to the Constitutional Court and then to the parliament, only 200,000 signatures are necessary.
Jumber Patiashvili, Shevardnadze’s main challenger in the last presidential elections, has shown signs that he plans to run for president again. He created a strongly pro-Russian bloc of political and public organizations called “Ertoba”(Unity). One of this bloc’s first acts was to create a partnership with the “Edinstvo” or Unity factions in Russia’s State Duma.
WHO STANDS WHERE?
While polls in Georgia about political leaders cannot be taken as definitive, they do suggest several trends. The first, that the public is gradually becoming aware of alternative leaders. The second, that Shevardnadze is no longer the unquestioned leader in the opinion polls. The third, that relatively young and pro-Western politicians, despite their lack of financial support, are steadily climbing up in the political rating lists.
Which political forces stand the best chance to come to power if Shevardnadze decides to step aside in the near future?
In February of this year the Georgian Institute for Polling and Marketing (IPM) conducted a nationwide survey (5000 respondents) to determine how the political parties would do if parliamentary elections were being held at the time of the poll. The survey found that the five leading political parties (and their leaders, whether formal or informal) are as follows:
1) Union for Georgian Revival (Aslan Abashidze): 13.1 percent