Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 206

The political situation in Georgia is stabilizing, though not normalizing in the wake of the October 30-November 1 mass protests in Tbilisi. The crisis, triggered by the State Security Ministry’s raid on the Rustavi-2 independent television station (see the Monitor, November 5) has dramatized the need for a thoroughgoing reform of the political system. The resignation of the entire government on November 1 has left President Eduard Shevardnadze solely in charge of the executive branch. The legislature lacks both a majority and a Speaker after the resignation of Zurab Zhvania also on November 1 and the fragmentation of the hitherto ruling Union of Georgia’s Citizens.

Yet while exposing the system’s dysfunctions, the current crisis has also revealed the factors of stability, which developed in Georgia’s political system and society during the last few years. Virtually all political forces and the citizenry at large defended freedom of expression, forcing the resignation of the state security minister, internal affairs minister and prosecutor general. These officials had apparently authorized the raid on the television studio, and had for some time been suspected of condoning official corruption. The current political crisis is being handled within the legal and institutional framework. These facts alone suggest that Georgia has managed to create a basis, perhaps thin but apparently broad, for democratic consensus and that the institutionalization of the state has become a reality during the six years of state-building, which followed the civil conflicts and institutional vacuum of the early-to-mid-1990s.

The parliament began a special session yesterday that is expected to conclude with a new parliamentary leadership, a working majority formed of heterogeneous groups and launched negotiations among the political forces toward the formation of a new government. Beyond those immediate tasks, Shevardnadze and most political forces agree on the need to amend the constitution in order to create a cabinet of ministers and the post of prime minister. These changes are likely to cut into the powers of the president, who under the current constitution heads the government.

The October 30 incident merely brought to the point of eruption a political crisis that had been brewing for some months. The unreformed economy, bankruptcy of state finances and conspicuous official corruption sapped Shevardnadze’s popularity, undermined the authority of the political establishment as a whole, discouraged investment and jeopardized international lending. Long-promised relief through Western-backed transit projects is yet to materialize. The weakened president, while personally not involved in corruption, grew increasingly reliant on the Internal Affairs and State Security ministries for support. The two ministries are perceived as protectors of official corruption and also as practitioners of corruption themselves. Yet they are also seen with some justification as pillars of stability in parts of the country, where central civilian authority is weak.

These developments alienated Shevardnadze’s natural allies–the young reformers in government, in parliament and in the ruling Union of Georgia’s Citizens (UGC). This group, led by Zhvania, pressed Shevardnadze to launch overdue economic reforms and to crack down on corruption. With the president hesitant on both counts, the reformers distanced themselves from him during the months and weeks that preceded the October 30 incident. Justice Minister Mikheil Saakashvili and Revenue Minister Mikheil Machavariani resigned their posts in protest. These and other thwarted reformers–such as Finance Minister Zurab Noghaideli–criticized also the undue political clout enjoyed by Internal Affairs Minister Kakha Targamadze.

In response to that criticism, the president appeared to reverse his earlier decision to groom Zhvania’s group as successors. Shevardnadze proceeded to resign as chairman of the UGC and seemed content to watch the splintering of that party’s parliamentary majority–on which he could no longer count–into several factions. These moves undermined the reformers’ and Zhvania’s own political positions. Both before and since the November 1 events, Shevardnadze has been seeking to create a propresidential majority in parliament on the ruins of the UGC, to include certain special interest groups and opposition deputies.

On November 3, Shevardnadze reached agreement with the long-time opposition leader Aslan Abashidze, leader of the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria within Georgia, and hitherto an irreconcilable oppositionist. Abashidze’s record is that of an authoritarian, nonreformist and pro-Russian politician, but also that of a mercurial personality. Abashidze heads the Union for Georgia’s Revival, and he controls the Revival group of deputies in the parliament in Tbilisi, where Abashidze himself has not set foot in many years. The Revival group, in turn, is the centerpiece of an opposition alliance in the Georgian parliament. Following the UGC’s collapse, Revival is now the single largest parliamentary force. Shevardnadze has evidently concluded that he needs its support before the debates on constitutional amendments and the formation of the new government get underway.

This strategy risks alienating the reformers even more. For their part, Zhvania and his group favor reconstituting their alliance with Shevardnadze on a clear reformist and anticorruption platform (Roundup based on coverage by Georgian news agencies, November 1-6).