Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 202

Georgia’s parliamentary elections, which were held on October 31, represent a decisive crossroads in the country’s post-Soviet history. The outcome will also affect the destinies of countries situated in the broad arc from the eastern Caspian to Ukraine. The elections pose a stark choice between President Eduard Shevardnadze’s policies and those of the opposition bloc which has coalesced around Ajaria’s Supreme Soviet Chairman, Aslan Abashidze.

The governing Union of Citizens of Georgia (UCG) promises to continue Shevardnadze’s policies. Those policies are predicated on close economic, political and security cooperation with the West, a clear understanding of the need for internal reforms along Western models, and readiness to pursue the uphill reform effort in a society which lacks the historic experience of democracy. Shevardnadze’s personal prestige may well be the chief asset of the UCG in these elections. The party is expected to lose its absolute majority in parliament and to work out an alliance with Irina Sarishvili’s National-Democratic Party–provided that this pro-Western party enters the new parliament in sufficient strength.

The opposition’s campaign message, explicitly or implicitly, calls for closer relations with Russia, for slowing down or stopping altogether the market reforms and for reconcentrating political and economic power in the hands of the state. Such concentration, however, would almost certainly be the prelude to apportioning state power among the opposition’s multiple factions and clienteles. The opposition’s main electoral strategy consists of capitalizing on the social costs of economic reforms and the immaturity of sections of Georgia’s electorate. It seeks, moreover, to earn political dividends from problems which exist–or can be fostered–between the central government and such regions as Mingrelia and Javakheti. Abashidze has led the way in that respect by constantly challenging the central government’s constitutional prerogatives with respect to Ajaria.

The opposition bloc, Revival, has borrowed the name of Abashidze’s party in Ajaria. The bloc consists of five parties of various ideological persuasions, ranging from left to right and from socialist to nationalist. Jumber Patiashvili, former First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party’s Central Committee, is the sixth partner in this bloc in an individual capacity. The smaller parties hope to win–or, in some cases, regain–power in Tbilisi on the coattails of these two standard bearers. Abashidze is, moreover, the Revival bloc’s virtual nominee to run for president against Shevardnadze in April 2000.

It takes a volatile political atmosphere and an irresponsible opposition to produce Abashidze as a presidential standard bearer. In a body politic replete with frustrated mini-leaders, and a society in which corruption is common, Abashidze is considered an epitome of both phenomena by many local and external observers. He has turned Ajaria into his personal fief, using its Batumi seaport and the cross-border Turkish trade as sources of unaccounted-for income, which supports his administrative apparatus and his challenge to the central government.

Abashidze provides a friendly environment to the Russian military and naval bases in Ajaria, maintains close relations with the Russian command and openly favors the retention of Russian troops in Georgia–a stance directly opposed to that of the government. One week ahead of the election date, Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov, the commander of Russian troops in Ajaria, went on television to express his confidence that a victory of the Revival bloc would result in the conferral of basing rights on the Russian troops in Georgia by the new Georgian parliament (Tbilisi Radio and Television, Prime-News, October 25-26).

Beyond Georgia itself, the stakes in this election include: the Baku-Ceyhan and trans-Caspian oil and gas pipeline projects, in which Georgia is the linchpin country; the planned Caspian-Black Sea transit corridor, to be extended via Ukraine into Central Europe; the European Union’s TRACECA (Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Central Asia) project; and the future of GUUAM, the five-country group which acts as a Western-oriented counterweight to Russian hegemonial aspirations in the CIS. The regional countries, the United States and other Western governments strongly support these projects and the related regional political alignments. Russia works to thwart them and has stepped up those efforts since launching its war in the North Caucasus–a war whose larger goals extend to the South Caucasus. Georgia’s partner governments in the European Union and the United States, as well as many regional countries–(in east-west order) Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Moldova and Ukraine–await the outcome of Georgia’s election bearing those high stakes in mind.