Wednesday, 27 March 2002

BRAWL OVER THE CONTROL OF CITIZENS UNION OF GEORGIA REACHES CRITICAL STAGE

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By Irema Japaridze (3/27/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The string of conflicts between the warring factions of the formally governing Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG) reached a boiling point when supporters of former Parliamentary Speaker Zurab Zhvania clashed with the supporters of Kvemo Kartli Governor, and CUG's pro-Shevardnadze faction leader, Levan Mamaladze in a fist fight at the party's Tsekavshiri office on March 14. The incident was yet another embarrassment for Zhvania, who is battling for his political survival and is increasingly becoming less relevant in Georgia's domestic political landscape compared to most other national politicians. Analysts have predicted that if Zhvania is unable to win the struggle for the control for CUG, he will have to lead his supporters out of the party and join Michael Saakashvili's newly organized National Movement for Democratic Reform.
The string of conflicts between the warring factions of the formally governing Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG) reached a boiling point when supporters of former Parliamentary Speaker Zurab Zhvania clashed with the supporters of Kvemo Kartli Governor, and CUG's pro-Shevardnadze faction leader, Levan Mamaladze in a fist fight at the party's Tsekavshiri office on March 14. The incident was yet another embarrassment for Zhvania, who is battling for his political survival and is increasingly becoming less relevant in Georgia's domestic political landscape compared to most other national politicians. Analysts have predicted that if Zhvania is unable to win the struggle for the control for CUG, he will have to lead his supporters out of the party and join Michael Saakashvili's newly organized National Movement for Democratic Reform. However, Saakashvili is unlikely to accept Zhvania as the principal leader in his group, forcing the man who was only a heart-beat away from the Georgian Presidency for over six years into a relatively obscure position of a second-in-command to Saakashvili. Ever since the ideologically leftist and discredited Citizens Union formally fell apart in the fall of last year, a battle has raged between the two warring factions for the control of the party's regional property and apparatus. While extremely unpopular in the polls, CUG possess a regional organization that can be vital in future parliamentary and presidential elections. No Georgian political movement has a nation-wide network like theCUG -only the center-right New Rights Party, with support from the business community, has regional organizations in 50 of Georgia's 75 electoral districts. Shevardnadze, understandably unwilling to give his former political ally turned staunch enemy the control of the political organization he helped create from scratch, charged Mamaladze with leading a fight against Zhvania for control of CUG. In December 2001, it seemed that a compromise was reached between the two sides, when CUG appointed a nine-person governing council, which later elected Zhvania as its chairman. However, earlier in March, one of three factions that represents CUG in Parliament (it also bears the name "Citizens Union") declared that it was moving into opposition Shevardnadze then declared that only a Party Congress could decide to make CUG an opposition force. Shevardnadze further asserted that he was not planning on leaving CUG, but that Zhvania and his supporters were free to withdraw and form their own political group. Meanwhile, Zhvania's supposed ally Saakashvili send word through public statements by his associates that the Zhvania-Saakashvili alliance would be in jeopardy if Zhvania and Shevardnadze remained members of the same party. Zhvania was thus left with a choice of either forcing the CUG Congress to kick Shevardnadze out, or leaving the party to form his own political block, while abandoning any hope of controlling CUG's coveted regional organization. Last week it became evident that Zhvania's support within CUG was far lower than originally anticipated. While he has been able to garner significant support in the Tbilisi branch of the party and from CUG's youth organization, regional party leaders held a press conference in Tbilisi's Metekhi Palace Hotel on March 18, to declare their support for Shevardnadze. This development is a significant blow to Zhvania, whose fight for the control of CUG has been precisely about the regional organization and property. Without the support of the regional leaders, Zhvania will have a very difficult time controlling CUG, even if he is able to formally remain as its leader at the yet-to-be scheduled, but all but certain emergency CUG Congress. The struggle for control of the CUG is an early precursor to the struggle to succeed President Shevardnadze that is slowly unleashing in Georgia. If Zhvania is able to take over CUG, he will be able to maintain his position as leader of the so-called Reformist Team, which is one of the three principal political forces in Georgia (the other two being Revival, led by Adjaria leader Aslan Abashidze, and New Rights Party, led by David Gamkrelidze). However, if Zhvania loses the fight over CUG, his political star will dim. In such a scenario, Saakashvili will emerge as the principal leader of the so-called Reformers, a development that will be of significant concern to the United States. In February, the White House let it be known that it was very concerned about Saakashvili's statements following his visit to Washington in which Saakashvili claimed that the Bush regarded Georgia a failed state and had given up on Shevardnadze. Some Georgian analysts have suggested to the author that if the pro-Shevardnadze faction is able to win the battle for control of CUG, it might join forces with one of the two other leading candidates. An early indication of this possibility was a meeting on Friday, March 22, 2002, at the Georgian Taxpayers Union, where Georgia's leading businessmen expressed their support for Shevardnadze as the country's only guarantor of stability. The meeting with the businessmen, including figures from the New Rights Party, suggests that Shevardnadze may be slowly designating them as figures who can promote stability in the post-Shevardnadze era. At the meeting, Temur Chkhonia, Executive Director of the Coca Cola Bottlers Georgia, who is not affiliated with any particular political group, proposed that President Shevardnadze term in office should be expanded by two years, Rustavi-2 Television reported. In a TV interview after the meeting, Mamuka Khazaradze, the President of Borjomi Mineral Waters and a leader in the New Rights Party, said that the expansion of the term was Chkhonia's personal idea which others meeting participants did not necessarily support. The Georgian leader graciously thanked Chkhonia for his comments, but stated that "he is definitely not going to expand his presidency and in the remaining three years one of his 'main goals is to find acceptable successor for the Presidential post,' because Georgia already has paid an incredible price for wrong decisions in the past,".

Irema Japaridze

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