The executive secretary of the opposition faction United National Movement (UNM), Zurab Japaridze, unexpectedly announced, on May 25, he was leaving the party (Georgiatoday.ge, May 28). Former Georgian president and UNM chairman Mikheil Saakashvili left the country over a year ago to avoid criminal charges that were brought against him by state prosecutors after the Georgian Dream coalition came to power. Whereas, UNM’s general secretary, Vano Merabishvili, is serving a nine-year prison term. Japaridze, UNM’s executive secretary, was thus the political party’s key leader in the interim. According to the party statutes, Japaridze had the power to lead the organization and outline the agenda for the UNM’s Political Council, which is made up of 68 members (Civil Georgia, May 27).
Curiously, Zurab Japaridze did not explain the reason for his exit from the party, only vaguely mentioning the need for “renewal.” Other leaders of UNM are also perplexed as to why the de facto head of the party stepped down without warning his colleagues and failing to explain himself to the public and UNM’s supporters. “…Japaridze did not initiate any discussion in the UNM and did not propose any novelties designed to renew the party. So, it is quite hard for us to understand what he meant by ‘renewal,’ ” UNM member of parliament (MP) David Darchiashvili told Jamestown (Author’s interview, May 29). According to the MP, Japaridze’s move “is either folly or informed by mercantile considerations.”
Former minister for the environment Goga Khachidze, the head of the Tbilisi branch of the UNM, Giorgi Meladze, and parliamentarian Pavle Kublashvili also left the party along with the executive secretary. They, too, refused to respond to journalists’ repeated questions about the causes of the split in UNM, saying that they did not want to make “an internal party discussion” public. However, their former colleagues, including the deputy speakers of the parliament, Gigi Tsereteli and Mikheil Machavariani, insist that Zurab Japaridze and his supporters did not propose any changes in the party, so their decision looked absurd (Civil Georgia, May 27).
The split in UNM came especially unexpectedly because the latest polls by the US National Democratic Institute indicated that the party’s popularity rose from 14 to 16 percent in the past year, whereas public support for the ruling Georgian Dream coalition plummeted in the same period from 48 to 24 percent. Thus, the trend shows a narrowing of the gap between the ruling coalition and the main opposition force (Civil Georgia, May 13).
According to this author’s sources in UNM, Japaridze and his supporters sought a complete revamping of the leadership of the party. They discussed with the head of the party’s faction in the parliament, David Bakradze, the issue of replacing the chairman of the party, former president Saakashvili with Japaridze. The “reformers” were hoping to gain greater support of voters in the parliamentary elections of 2016. They insisted that the UNM “needs new faces instead of old ones.”
However, independent experts think that the opposition only would have lost voters. “If they meant to invite new people to leadership positions in the party, it would have caused disappointment among the voters, who are prepared to vote for the leaders of the UNM who created the ‘face’ of the party in 2001,” analyst Nika Imnaishvili told Jamestown. According to the expert, “the UNM would have lost ‘recognizability’ among the voters.” And although the new leaders would not have been associated with the negative views of the government that accumulated over nine years of rule by Saakashvili and his party, they also would not be associated with the positive achievements of UNM’s “epoch of reforms.” Thus, according to Imnaishvili, “a total renewal of the party could have killed it as an influential political force that has its own face and unique history, for which the voters remember it” (Author’s interview, May 30).
Analyst Giorgi Khukhashvili, meanwhile, argued that the four departing UNM leaders “saw that [their] party had no prospects and panicked” (Author’s interview, May 30). At the same time, the prime minister of Georgia, Irakly Garibashvili, predicted the beginning of the end for UNM. “According to my information, the United National Movement will soon split into three parts,” the head of government said, without clarifying the sources for such information (Nregion.com, May 27). According to one of the leaders of the Georgian Dream coalition, Levan Berdzenishvili, “The UNM will disappear, just as the party of Eduard Shevardnadze—the Union of Citizens of Georgia—disappeared immediately after the ex-president lost power” (Sputnik-Georgia, May 27).
Some of the departing leaders of UNM expressed plans to merge with the pro-Western party Iveria under the leadership of former minister of foreign affairs Grigol Vashadze and former minister of culture Nika Rurua. Meanwhile, Japardize met with US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland. He offered the ambassador his reasons for leaving the party and soon after the meeting announced he would visit Washington, DC, to “hold high-level negotiations” (Ici.ge, May 28).
As of now, the only result of the split in the largest opposition party has been that its chairman, Mikheil Saakashvili, practically relinquished his positions in the party, agreeing to become the governor of Odessa region of Ukraine (see EDM, June 2, 4). According to this author’s sources, Saakashvili had long refused to accept a government positions in Ukraine because he did not want to have to give up his Georgian citizenship. Reportedly, Saakashvili was offered the position of deputy prime minister for structural and economic reforms in Ukraine in 2014. Georgian laws prohibit foreigners from chairing political parties in the country.
After the split in UNM, Saakashvili expressed disappointed in his party and almost left it in protest himself. Saakashvili’s possible departure could be the ultimate blow to UNM, because by losing the former president, the party would likely lose a significant portion of voters. Since no other influential opposition force is currently present on the Georgian political stage apart from UNM, the ruling Georgian Dream coalition would find itself in a much more “comfortable” position during the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2016.
Thus, Georgian political observers now question the future of the political system of the country, asking whether any opposition will be likely to make it into the next parliament.