BACKGROUND: On October 28, Ministry of Security personnel entered the office of the independent TV company Rustavi 2. The Georgian public took this as an attempt by the government to exert pressure on the free media. Public rallies in support of Rustavi 2 developed into large-scale student demonstrations, which resulted in a political crisis, and the dismissal of the government by President Shevardnadze on October 30. The expression of public discontent with Shevardnadzes rule has its own history. The passivity of the citizens in the April 2000 presidential elections, which was camouflaged by ballot box stuffing, was the first indication of the fact that the government no longer enjoyed the publics confidence. This was followed by street protests in the fall of 2000, when people saw that the government was providing no solution to the chronic electricity deficit, which has plagued the country for almost a decade. The growth of popular dissatisfaction coincided with the growth of political tensions within the government. The reformist group of the ruling party, led by Parliamentary Speaker Zurab Zhvania and Minister of Justice Mikhail Saakashvili, openly attacked members of Shevardnadzes government, especially Minister of Internal Affairs Kakha Targamadze and Minister of Economy Ivane Chkhartishvili. In Summer 2001, Shevardnadze attempted to manage the tensions by presenting a set of constitutional amendments to the Parliament. The proposal provided for the establishment of an office of Prime Minister and for collective responsibility of the Cabinet of Ministers. Shevardnadze revealed that he was going to nominate Zhvania for the position, thereby causing the resistance from the old communist section of the ruling Citizens Union. The opposition united around Aslan Abashidze, the authoritarian and pro-Russian ruler of the Ajara Autonomous Republic, home to a Russian military base. The debate in Georgia heated up in July 2001, when the assassination of a journalist from Rustavi 2 on July 26 further increased the rift between the people and the government. In September and October, the conflict in Abkhazia took center-stage, when Chechen fighters were apparently used by the government to recapture the breakaway area. However, Shevardnadze felt that war in Abkhazia would further increase tensions in the capital rather than distract attention, and such a conflict could indeed have resulted in the collapse of the political system.
IMPLICATIONS: During the recent political crisis, Speaker Zhvania also resigned alongside the government. Shevardnadze would have found it difficult to dismiss the government by itself, since that would have upset the balance in favor of the reformers. Zhvania, who knows the rules of Shevardnadzes game better than anybody else, helped Shevardnadze to make the decision by resigning. Saakashvli had resigned already in September, after having failed to win the battle against the Targamadze-Chkhartishvili team. Before Saakashvilis resignation, at the meeting of anti-corruption council, the reformers had been told by Shevardnaze to cooperate with the ministers accused of corruption. As a result of the October Revolution, the confrontation between the legislative (Zhvania) and the executive (Targamadze) changed venues, and continued within the Parliament. The split of the parliamentary majority in September, moreover, increased Zhvanias factions in the legislature. Failing to control the situation in Tbilisi, Shevardnadze went to Batumi to negotiate with Aslan Abashidze. In official terms, Shevardnadze appointed his long-time rival as his personal representative for Georgian-Abkhazian negotiations. In reality, Abashidze was charged with the task of regulating relations with Russia. This was the aim of his immediate departure to Moscow. But as it turned out later, he tried to secure his own future rather than Moscows support for Shevardnadze. Negotiations between Shevardnadze and Abashidze were very important for the distribution of power in the Parliament. Had they managed to unite, Zhvania would have faced difficulties. But Shevardnadzes alliance with Abashidze lasted only a few days, and collapsed as soon as the election of the new chairman of Parliament came to the agenda. Shevardnadze and Abashidze could not agree on a common candidate for the Parliamentary Speaker post, and this contributed to the victory of the candidate of Zhvanias team Nino Burjanadze. These developments further undermined the myth of Shevardnadze. In the past, everything seemed to be Shevardnadzes plot. Now it was obvious that he failed to get Vazha Lortkipanidze, his (and Russias) favorite candidate, elected to the crucial post of speaker. Indeed, Zhvania has proved to Shevardnadze, Abashidze and everyone else that despite his resignation, he still wields considerable power. This power will become evident when the Parliament will start appointing ministers. Constitutional amendments have returned from the agenda since the crisis. It is widely realized that to continue with the same system and type of government involves the danger of increasing popular discontent. However, it seems impossible to adopt these amendments without a wide political consensus among the parliamentary factions a consensus that simply does not exist today. The way out of such a deadlock should be early parliamentary and presidential elections, but the Georgian constitution does not provide for that. Since the political elite is unable to make a decision aimed at resolving the crisis, street protests are the only way for the people to express their will.
CONCLUSIONS: Before October 30, there were strong reasons to think that the Russian scenario could take place in Georgia: Shevardnadze would leave a heir who would provide his family, which has monopolized important sections of business, with solid guarantees of security. Because of Shevardnadzes present weakness and the complexity of the political situation, no one is either willing or able to provide such safeguards. Since Shevardnadze is unlikely to resign without such safeguards, the chances of early presidential elections are limited. As for early parliamentary elections, Shevardnadze may himself contribute to the dissolution of the Parliament in case new protests emerge. This way, he would avoid popular anger once again, and also remove the Parliamentary power base from Zhvanias team. But as the by-election held in Tbilisis Vake district has shown, reformers enjoy wide public support and have a real chance of winning the parliamentary elections. Saakashvili got 64% of votes in Vake, compared to a mere 9% for Shevardnadzes and Abashidzes favorite. The crisis has left Shevardnadze in a precarious position. There is no mechanism for him to engineer an acceptable transfer of power of the Russian model. He also failed to form a majority in the Parliament that would support him, Russias position with regard to him is unclear, and even in the midst of international anti-terrorist campaign, the President of the United States clearly indicated to him via the letters and phone calls that the West expects him to take real steps to fight the corruption.
AUTHOR BIO: Zurab Tchiaberashvili is a NATO Fellow, and Head of the Civil Education Department at the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia.
Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved