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Georgia: Upheavals Suggest Symptoms Of Instability

  • Liz Fuller

Prague, 30 October 1998 ((RFE/RL) -- Georgia hit the headlines again last week, when an army lieutenant identified as a former supporter of the late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia apparently attempted to overthrow the country's leadership, only to abandon the undertaking later the same day.

The failed insurrection was the fourth major upheaval the country has experienced this year. It followed the botched assassination attempt on President Eduard Shevardnadze in February, the abduction 10 days later of four members of the UN observer force in western Georgia, and renewed hostilities in Abkhazia's Gali Raion in late May.

The circumstances surrounding all four crises remain nebulous, and official explanations have generally been contradictory. That lack of clarity, in turn, creates the impression that the country is inherently unstable. Yet while that impression is accurate, the upheavals are not the cause of the malaise, rather merely a symptom of it.

Three factors make Georgia vulnerable to subversion. Two of those factors are internal: the domestic political power structure and centrifugal tendencies in regions on the periphery. The third is the vested interest of some circles in Russia in preventing the export of Caspian oil to international markets.

Georgian domestic politics are dominated by Shevardnadze. Since his return from Moscow to Tbilisi in 1992, following Gamsakhurdia's violent ouster, he has systematically neutralized almost all political figures who could pose a challenge to him.

He has simultaneously crafted a personal power base in the form of the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), currently the largest parliamentary group, in which former nomenklatura apparatchiks with whom Shevardnadze worked in the 1970s and early 1980s vastly outnumber the energetic young reformers whom he has selected and promoted over the past few years.

As a result of that personnel policy, many people, both in Georgia and abroad, have come to perceive Shevardnadze as the embodiment and guarantee of a tenuous stability. But that stability is at the same time threatened by endemic corruption within the central government and at the local level, where councilors stubbornly resist any reform plans that might circumscribe their personal power.

This "crisis in the reform process" has, in turn, alienated many of the young reformers who last summer threatened to quit the SMK and form a "loyal opposition" within the parliament. Popular disillusion with the ruling SMK is so great that domestic observers believe the party's only hope of winning the majority of seats on local councils in 15 November elections lies in resorting to large-scale falsification.

The anticipated beneficiary of the erosion of support for the SMK is Aslan Abashidze, chairman of the Supreme Council of the autonomous Republic of Adjaria on the Black Sea coast bordering Turkey.

Abashidze's individualistic and autarchic policies, which many Tbilisi observers believe have Moscow's support, have resulted in a markedly higher degree of stability and economic prosperity in Adjaria than elsewhere in Georgia.

A strong showing in the November local elections by Abashidze's All-Georgian Union of Revival, which is the second-largest parliamentary group, could lead to an open power struggle between Abashidze and Shevardnadze.

Nor is Adjaria the only region in Georgia over which the jurisdiction of the central government does not extend. Tbilisi effectively forfeited control of South Ossetia in 1992 and of Abkhazia a year later. The former is now financed almost solely by Moscow, which nonetheless refuses to condone its unification with the Republic of North Ossetia within the Russian Federation. As for Abkhazia, it is de facto an independent statelet.

Only minimal progress has been made at negotiations on formal agreements that would define the relationship between those former autonomies and the central government as well as pave the way for the return to their homes of those forced to flee during the hostilities.

The estimated 200,000 ethnic Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia are increasingly exerting pressure on the Georgian government to secure an internationally guaranteed settlement that would enable them to return home and protect them from anticipated reprisals from the Abkhaz.

The ethnic Armenian population of the southern region of Djavakheti, bordering on Armenia, is reportedly lobbying aggressively for autonomous status. And the population of the west Georgian region of Mingrelia, Gamsakhurdia's ancestral home, tends to regard Shevardnadze as a usurper.

This alienation of much of the periphery from the capital constitutes the ideal leverage with which to plunge Georgia into chaos, a fact of which the Georgian leadership is acutely aware. Who precisely would have a vested interest in doing so is less easy to say.

Several prominent Georgian politicians have hinted that last week's failed mutiny by Lieutenant Akaki Eliava (like the assassination attempt on Shevardnadze in February) may have been orchestrated in Moscow by individuals who recruited supporters of Gamsakhurdia who still refuse to acknowledge Shevardnadze's legitimacy.

The identity of the instigators may be unknown, but most observers are convinced that they are motivated by the determination to contain the growing U.S. influence in the Transcaucasus and to prevent the export of Azerbaijan's Caspian oil via Georgia.