The parliamentary elections in Georgia, which are scheduled for November 2, are turning into a struggle between the forces of the past, grouped around President Eduard Shevardnadze, and a newborn opposition that adheres to Western values. The fact that the leaders of this opposition were until recently Shevardnadze loyalists gives added spice to the election struggle. The elections could propel this “fresh blood” to power. On the other hand, despite a sharp social-economic crisis, political disorder and territorial disintegration, President Shevardnadze remains the center of attraction for political and public forces in Georgia.
Shevardnadze has already disproved the forecasts of experts, who had predicted that he would try to keep an equal distance from the various political parties. That would have left room for the political maneuvers at which he is so adept, before and after the elections. Shevardnadze probably learned a lesson from the events of November 2001, when, under the pressure of large scale opposition rallies, he narrowly escaped being forced to resign before the end of his term. Shevardnadze is prepared to test his political fortunes again, this time as the head of a new pre-election coalition under the ambitious name “For New Georgia.”
A complex mixture of personal, political and economic factors underlies this decision by Shevardnadze. The Georgian president remains firmly devoted to his long established Soviet style of governance, and perhaps sees himself as a “Georgian Deng Xiaoping,” steering his country on a stable course through tough but necessary reforms. The 75-year-old Shevardnadze does not hide his desire to continue playing an important role in national politics for the next five or six years. He explicitly said this during the early April press conference at which he announced the creation of the new coalition.
Shevardnadze wants the branches of power in Georgia, including the parliament, to be entirely submissive. The current parliament, where the ruling Citizens’ Union of Georgia (CUG)party and its allies no longer hold a clear majority, is creating increasing problems for Shevardnadze and his followers, and he would prefer not to have to deal with an opposition legislature in the future.
For the past decade Shevardnadze’s political survivability has been heavily dependent on the support of the old Soviet-party “nomenklatura” on the one hand, and newly emergent political and financial groups on the other. And these two groups of forces have linked their own survivability to the Georgian president. Under Shevardnadze these people have gained personal wealth and almost unchallenged control over major spheres of the economy. The remnants of the Soviet nomenklatura fully realize that they do not stand much of a chance in fair elections, so the upcoming contest will mark their “final and decisive struggle” to keep power. For the sake of victory in the elections, all internal disagreements and conflicts of interest within the pro-Shevardnadze camp have been temporarily set aside.
The slippage of power from the hands of pro-Shevardnadze groups became more tangible after the humiliating defeat of the ruling CUG party in local elections last June. It became clear that the weakened CUG acutely needed Shevardnadze’s strong support in the coming parliamentary ballot.
One of the possible scenarios under which Shevardnadze would keep state power is the transformation of Georgia into a parliamentary republic by means of changes to the constitution. In such a case Shevardnadze might remain in power and emerge either as prime minister or parliamentary speaker. The idea of a parliamentary republic enjoys support among many opposition parties.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF THE NEW COALITION
Shevardnadze has always been a step ahead of his opponents in political competitions. The creation of a representative pre-election coalition under Shevardnadze has flummoxed opposition leaders, who remain divided despite their espoused intention to unite.
Currently, “For New Georgia” consists of the CUG, the Socialist Party, the National Democratic Party and the “Greens” Movement. It also includes a newly established public movement–“The Silk Road”–and other smaller political and public organizations of various stripes, including unions and small business associations. Among the top leaders of the coalition are State Minister Avtandil Djorbenadze, who chairs the CUG, Tbilisi Mayor Vano Zodelava, most regional governors, and the leaders of the pro-governmental parliamentary factions. The coalition commands a broad range of administrative and political resources and levers. In Georgia, resources of this sort can be quite useful in shaping elections to benefit the government. For example, the coalition is almost guaranteed to get the votes of ethnic minorities in regions that are fully controlled by their governors.
The coalition could also benefit from another resource–behind the scenes support from the “force” agencies, and especially the police, which played an important role in securing victory for the CUG in the largely fraudulent 1999 parliamentary elections.
At one of the government meetings Shevardnadze warned that he would fire ministers right before the elections if they continued to “sit on two chairs.” The ministers got the message: They promptly created public organizations within the ministries, which then joined Shevardnadze’s coalition.
The tactics used by Shevardnadze as an experienced political gambler deserve attention indeed. Apart from the administrative resources he controls, Shevardnadze is trying to create additional leverage to secure success. The Georgian president is skillfully playing on the ambitions, commercial interests and vulnerabilities of different political and public groups and leaders.
By inviting almost forgotten political parties and leaders–some from the opposition camp–to join his coalition, Shevardnadze is reanimating them and offering them the chance to reappear on the domestic political map. The National-Democratic Party serves as an instructive illustration of how Shevardnadze deals with both friends and foes. The party, which last summer made a proposal to unite opposition forces against the “criminalized regime” of Shevardnadze, is now a member of the pro-Shevardnadze coalition.
In addition, Shevardnadze has brought to the forefront influential figures who were kept in the background until recent times. These include two cofounders of the pro-Shevardnadze public movement “Silk Road”–Ghia Chanturia, who is president of the Georgian International Oil Corporation, and Akaki Chkhaidze, the head of the Georgian Railway Department. Both men are from the old nomenklatura, and are well-known as the local supervisors of some of the most successful international projects in Georgia, including the oil-pipeline and Eurasia transport corridor. These projects will determine much about Georgia’s future development, and in public eyes they are associated with Shevardnadze’s efforts.
Shevardnadze has succeeded in taming some Georgian business leaders who gathered in the office of the Taxpayers’ Union in March. They sought to send an angry message to the government, together with a demand to improve the business environment for them. Certain of them hinted that they might direct their financial support to the opposition parties. Local “oligarchs” enjoying a strong “roof” from the government have always been perceived as unofficial donors to the government in general–and to Shevardnadze in particular. Their message was another alert about a possible shift in the balance of power, and a serious challenge to the government.
Shevardnadze, though, rose to the challenge. His reaction to the “oligarchs’ message” was sharper than anyone expected. Shevardnadze publicly reminded them how he had helped them to build their lucrative businesses. The State Chancellery threatened to publish the names of businessmen whose activities were in conflict with the law. Moreover, some representatives of the coalition openly stated that the businesses to whom Shevardnadze granted special favors must now repay their debt to the authorities. Shevardnadze’s counterattack produced the desired effect. One after another, the businessmen who had participated in that memorable gathering in the Taxpayers’ Union began to vow fidelity to the Georgian president.
Shevardnadze and his coalition are also trying to tailor the Electoral Code of the country to their needs. A presidential draft authorizes Shevardnadze to appoint nine of the eleven members of the Central Electoral Commission. Taking into account the degree of vote-rigging typical of elections in Georgia, this move is easily understandable. A firm reaction to the draft from the opposition, however, forced Shevardnadze to backtrack and start negotiations.
The eclectic coalition seems nonetheless to lack a firm ideological platform, and has yet to develop its main message to the population. It is assumed that the “New Project for New Georgia”–Shevardnadze’s address to the nation and parliament in 2002–will become the coalition’s basic pre-election document. It emphasizes the foreign policy goal of integration into the European Union, NATO and other Western structures. This is the main card in Shevardnadze’s hand, which he has played repeatedly to win support both domestically and abroad. In addition, the coalition hopes for some political dividends from the firm support that Shevardnadze gave to U.S. policy in Iraq.
Still, the coalition has several weak points which might surface during the election campaign. The government has been singularly unable to solve any of the major problems of the state, ranging from paying overdue salaries to the restoration of territorial integrity. The coalition also includes many odious figures, some of whom are associated in the eyes of the public with corruption and other negative activities. To the public, these people are viewed as part of Georgia’s past.
The mentality of the Georgian electorate today is torn between the need for a new approach and a fear of exactly these sorts of changes. Shevardnadze and his followers are counting on this ambivalence.
In conclusion, one can see that the rejuvenation of the Georgian political spectrum is proceeding very slowly. Backward-looking forces are still very active, and the democratic opposition is weak. As a result, voters in Georgia are again being forced to choose between bad and worse.
The grouping of pro-governmental forces around Eduard Shevardnadze has brought greater clarity to the distribution of political forces in the run-up to the elections. And this has put on Georgia’s political agenda the need for a strong opposition leader to emerge, one with a political stature comparable to that of Shevardnadze.
Zaal Anjaparidze is director of the Democracy Resources Development Center, a Georgian NGO.