Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 203

Georgia’s long-simmering political malaise has suddenly boiled over as a political crisis. On November 1, President Eduard Shevardnadze released all government ministers from their posts, and the parliamentary speaker resigned. The political crisis is unfolding against the backdrop of Russian military pressures, conflict with Abkhazia, widespread discontent over economic conditions, collapse of the state’s finances and the approach of winter amid severe energy shortages. Against such a backdrop, the conspicuous official corruption exacerbates public discontent and serves also as a political weapon. It is the corruption issue that supplied the immediate catalyst to this political crisis.

On October 30, the State Security Ministry raided the Tbilisi television station Rustavi-2, Georgia’s most eagerly watched. This private, politically independent channel specializes in exposing official corruption through hard-hitting investigative journalism, often targeting the police and security apparatus. The channel’s youthful team resorts sometimes to sensationalism, occasionally verging on the inflammatory. As could have been expected, though apparently not by State Security Minister Vahtang Kutateladze, the raid on Rustavi-2 triggered a public uproar, which the station itself stoked by airing its videotaped footage of the raid.

Acting apparently at Prosecutor General Giorgi Meparishvili’s behest, a thirty-strong team of the security police searched the Rustavi-2 studios for evidence of tax evasion. The search was instantly interpreted as an attempt at silencing the station by using a method learned from the Kremlin’s crackdown on the NTV network. Kutateladze’s agents had to withdraw after two hours, under pressure from the station’s irate staff and from a rapidly growing crowd of demonstrators outside. The same day, October 30, the scene of protest demonstrations moved to central Tbilisi, where they are still in progress.

The raid discredited not only Kutateladze but also, by association, Internal Affairs Minister Kakha Targamadze. Both are widely seen as protectors of corruption rackets within their ministries and in the country at large. Yet these two ministers have all along been considered the pillars of political stability in Georgia, and thus by implication pillars of Shevardnadze’s presidency. The fragile character of that stability has only increased Targamadze’s and Kutateladze’s political clout and their ability to condone corruption, or target it selectively by political criteria. Increasingly, Shevardnadze came to be seen as politically indebted to these ministers and, thus, tainted by his association with them. This perception, largely unfair yet sharpened by the dire economic conditions, has sapped the president’s popularity. He is widely seen as unwilling to confront vested interests and crack down on graft, whereas he may in fact be essentially powerless to do so. This combination of factors has turned the Rustavi-2 incident into a challenge to Shevardnadze himself, though he almost certainly did not authorize the raid, and moved to disavow it.

Within hours of the raid, the president issued a statement that not only defended freedom of speech, but also recalled his own record in laying the groundwork for that right in Georgia during and after the Soviet period. Reminding the public that he had never attempted as president to suppress criticism directed at himself by the media, Shevardnadze pledged that “there will be no threat to freedom of speech as long as I am president.” The statement also announced that the president is investigating the State Security Ministry’s and the prosecutor general’s moves against the television station. Yet, in the councils of government, Shevardnadze seemed reluctant to distance himself from them and Targamadze.

The U.S. embassy in Tbilisi moved publicly to back Shevardnadze while differentiating between the president and the controversial ministers. An embassy statement noted that “independent Georgia under the leadership of president Shevardnadze has a splendid history of freedom of speech and media;” it described the ongoing demonstrations as evidence that the public values that freedom; and it warned against a situation in which “law enforcement authorities no longer protect freedom of speech or actively seek pretexts to restrict it.”

Parliament Chairman Zurab Zhvania and his supporters in the chamber seized the initiative from the vacillating president. Zhvania and his group of mostly young, staunchly pro-Western parliamentarians had been groomed by Shevardnadze as political successors, yet the speaker and his supporters began several months ago to distance themselves from the president on the basis of his failure to combat corruption with effective action. They concluded also that the president’s current unpopularity might become the kiss of death to any successor team anointed by him. On October 30 in parliament, Zhvania attacked the Internal Affairs Ministry for its earlier threats against Rustavi-2, the State Security Ministry for the raid, and both ministries as well as the prosecutor general for protecting “clans that have seized control of our economy” and are now seeking to control the country. “My friends and I have nothing to do with that section of the authorities, we are on the side of the public,” Zhvania concluded.

In the parliamentary sittings, National Security Council sessions and government meetings from October 30 onwards, Zhvania and his supporters battled for a change, not merely of ministers but of the way in which the country is governed. Shevardnadze threatened to resign as president if the two ministers and the prosecutor general are forced to resign their posts. On the night of October 31-November 1, Shevardnadze went on national television, not only to repeat that warning, but also to imply that a “coup d’etat” was in progress, and that Zhvania’s group was “struggling for power,” motivated by “careerism.” Apart from that obvious misstep, which undermined his position, Shevardnadze’s speech was on the whole conciliatory, and on the right side of the issue of freedom of speech.

Outside the parliament building, radical elements–mainly of the nationalist fringe opposition–began gaining the upper hand, demanding the resignation of Shevardnadze and new elections. In the parliament itself, a majority coalesced across party lines on a tactical basis, demanding that Shevardnadze dismiss the controversial ministers. The president seemed to give in step by step. He accepted Kutateladze’s resignation on October 31 and received those of Targamadze and Meparishvili on November 1. In the interest of stability, and at Zhvania’s and other officials’ insistence, Shevardnadze rescinded his threats to resign as president. In a last-ditch move on November 1, the president released all ministers from their posts and assumed the political responsibility for forming a new government.

Also on November 1, Zhvania resigned as speaker in order, as he explained, to refute accusations that he and his supporters were fighting for power. The parliament has scheduled a special session on November 6 to deal with the government vacancy and elect a Speaker. The parliamentary majority of the Union of Georgia’s Citizens collapsed two months ago, and there is no visible basis for putting together a coherent or durable majority, unless Shevardnadze reconstitutes his alliance with Zhvania’s group of reformers on a convincing anticorruption platform (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Rustavi-2 Television, Georgian Radio, Western news agencies, October 29-31, November 1-2).