Georgia is witnessing a new stage in the regrouping of its domestic political forces and leading political figures in anticipation of the impending post-Shevardnadze period. That period could begin earlier than expected. Speculation both that President Eduard Shevardnadze could resign before his term is up and about his possible successor has been intensifying.
Shevardnadze’s convincing victory in the 2000 presidential elections was made possible thanks to considerable vote rigging, which his henchmen carried out especially in the provinces. The turnout, according to many witnesses, was extremely low, no more than 20-25 percent. That was the first sign that the “Shevardnadze Myth” was disintegrating, a trend confirmed further by public opinion polls. The campaign pledges made by the Georgian president and his party, the Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG), were largely unrealistic and went unfulfilled, and this caused erosion in Shevardnadze’s once overwhelming public support. Shevardnadze’s appeasement of the exorbitant appetites of various clans, including the presidential family, significantly undermined his authority both domestically and abroad.
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 was spearheaded by then Minister of Justice Mikheil Saakashvili and then parliamentary chairman Zurab Zhvania. In an open letter to Shevardnadze last August, the latter 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. Few in Georgia doubt that Zhvania and Saakashvili orchestrated the youth rallies held last November demanding Shevardnadze’s resignation, which brought the confrontation to the brink of armed conflict. Shevardnadze narrowly avoided having to resign by “sacrificing” several of his closest henchmen, Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze and Economics Minister Vano Chkhartishvili. Zhvania, however, was forced to pay for this “gift” with his own resignation as parliamentary chairman.
The impending local elections have deepened the fissure between the Zhvania-Saakashvili team and Shevardnadze. Having failed to find a common language with Shevardnadze on key issues of state building during several behind the door negotiations, Zhvania finally left the ruling CUG party and declared himself an opponent to Shevardnadze. Zhvania plans to create his own political party after the local elections are held. This suggests that Zhvania, who until recently with the Shevardnadze fold, has started playing his own political game. Some experts, however, believe the Shevardnadze-Zhvania confrontation has actually 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 criticism of Shevardnadze.
The other “young reformer,” Mikheil Saakashvili, an outspokenly pro-Western and reform-minded politician for whom Shevardnadze paved the way to high posts in both the parliament and government, began playing his own political game earlier than Zhvania. Saakashvili may be a more genuinely independent political player than Zhvania. He demonstratively resigned from the post of the justice minister, saying that he no longer wanted to be a member of Shevardnadze’s team. His charismatic qualities, radical anti-Shevardnadze rhetoric, including his pre-election motto “Tbilisi Without Shevardnadze,” have propelled Saakashvili to the forefront of Georgian politics. He 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 “social protest 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.
But it will not be easy for Zhvania and Saakashvili get rid of the stigma for the serious mistakes they made while emerging as politicians under Shevardnadze’s umbrella. Today both men actively try to put the blame for those mistakes exclusively on President Shevardnadze.
However there are other political forces striving to capture the supreme power after Shevardnadze, and they are attempting to neutralize the main advantage that Zhvania and Saakashvili enjoy–strong support from the West. These forces are trying to group themselves around Shevardnadze and his family. They have already won a first victory, having recently formed a new, albeit undeclared pro-Shevardnadze parliamentary majority by supplanting the CUG and Zhvania-Saakashvili team from parliamentary committee chairs. These forces are spearheaded by the recently formed political party, the “New Rightists.” This party has made its mark on the political map by ostentatiously opposing Shevardnadze for show. The party, which is made up of well-to-do businessmen and some of those who participated in the pro-independence movement, is rumored to be a possible future political vehicle for President Shevardnadze and its family. It is likely that the “family’s” favored successor to Shevardnadze will emerge from this political circle or its allies.
The “New Rightists” have of late become suspiciously sympathetic to Badri Patarkatsishvili, well-known Georgian financier and close associate of Boris Berezovsky, the self-exiled Russian media mogul. Patarkatsishvili is lavish with financial injections in different sectors, including media, which is highly likely to serve Shevardnadze’s political successor. According to some sources, the possible successors include Kakha Targamadze, the former interior minister, who threatens to make public astonishing “kompromat” (compromising materials) against his opponents, State Minister Avtandil Jorbenadze and chairman of the Supreme Court Lado Chanturia. Then there is Aslan Abashidze, the strong-willed leader of the Ajarian Autonomous Republic, who 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. Still another is Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the Labor Party, which won a surprising victory in the most recent local elections and whose supporters have been growing in number. His leftist slogans backing free medical service and education and the fight against corruption make him a likely and formidable fighter for the presidential post.
While polls in Georgia about political leaders cannot be taken as definitive, they do suggest several trends. The first is that the public is gradually becoming aware of alternative leaders. The second, that Shevardnadze’s popularity is no longer a given. The third, that relatively young politicians, despite their lack of financial support, are steadily climbing up the political rating lists.
At the same time, many people expect that Shevardnadze, who is 74 years old and whose term expires in 2005, will follow in Russian President Yeltsin’s footsteps and name a successor in accordance with the interests of the “Family,” meaning a successor who will guarantee the political and economic safety of Shevardnadze’s family members and his closest entourage. Today President Shevardnadze’s “Family,” including his closest relatives and confidants, holds truly unlimited power. Shevardnadze said last year that he has in mind several young and promising figures as candidates to succeed him in the presidential post. Judging by his most recent steps, he would not be averse to paving the way for one of his minions. The local elections, scheduled for June 2, will be a good dress rehearsal for the succession. The results of these elections will show whether the “Russian scenario” for kingmaking is likely to be repeated in Georgia.
Zaal Anjaparidze is a freelance writer in Georgia.