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Caucasus Report: November 24, 2003

24 November 2003, Volume 6, Number 41

SHEVARDNADZE'S RESIGNATION RESOLVES CONSTITUTIONAL DEADLOCK... Eduard Shevardnadze stepped down as Georgian president late on 23 November, thereby resolving the constitutional deadlock precipitated by the seizure of parliament the previous day by supporters of opposition National Movement (EM) leader Mikhail Saakashvili.

The catalyst for what Saakashvili and outgoing parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze termed a "velvet revolution European style" appears to have been the U.S. reaction on 20 November to the final results of the controversial 2 November parliamentary elections. According to those results, which failed to include some 20 constituencies where repeat elections were still outstanding, the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia (AS) bloc had won up to 84 mandates, including 16 "independent" and 11 deputies elected in 1992 from constituencies in Abkhazia, and whose mandates are automatically prolonged. The Democratic Revival Union (DAK) headed by Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, who on 10 November affirmed his support for Shevardnadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2003), has a total of 39 seats, giving the two factions together a total of 123, or just over half the total 235. Saakashvili's EM was said to have garnered only 36 seats. Saakashvili, however, has argued since the preliminary results were made public on 3 November that his EM was the real winner. Exit polls gave the EM between 20 percent-27 percent of the proportional vote. (Of the total 235 seats, 150 are distributed under the proportional system among parties or blocs that poll a minimum of 7 percent; the remaining 75 are allocated in single-mandate constituencies.)

Speaking in Washington later on 20 November, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli criticized the results promulgated by the Georgian Central Election Commission as "deeply disappointing," saying that they "do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people, but instead reflect massive vote fraud in Adjaria and other Georgian regions." That was the first time ever that the U.S. has openly accused the leadership of a former Soviet republic of rigging an election. The opposition appear to have construed that verdict as conveying tacit approval of their stated plans to force Shevardnadze to step down as a preliminary to holding repeat parliamentary elections and a pre-term presidential ballot. Until then, U.S. State Department officials and U.S. Ambassador in Tbilisi Richard Miles had simply said repeatedly that they hoped that the Georgian leadership and opposition would find a way to resolve peacefully and democratically their dispute over who won the ballot.

On 21 November, Georgian National Security Council secretary Tedo Djaparidze, who until early last year served as Georgia's ambassador to Washington, admitted that the country's leadership had failed to take into account the will of the Georgian people. At the same time, he warned that "Georgia's security has been shaken," and that Shevardnadze is "in a difficult situation" and subjected by persons whom Djaparidze did not identify to "blackmail." In a clear warning that, even if rigged, the election outcome for Adjaria is better not called into question, Djaparidze said such attempts to reach "a certain compromise in the election process" could result "in the disintegration of Georgia, if one of its most ancient regions breaks away from it." As a compromise, Djaparidze proposed that the newly elected parliament should convene but should swiftly call fresh elections. Shevardnadze sacked Djaparidze on 23 November for his imputed "sympathy" toward the opposition and appointed Deputy Minister of State Anzor Baluashvli to replace him. It is not clear whether the clear disinclination of either the police or the armed forces to move against the opposition demonstrators was the result of orders from Djaparidze, or whether, as in the case of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Shevardnadze's ultimate decision to step down was prompted by the realization that he could no longer rely on the support of the police and military.

Early on 22 November, former Defense Minister Giorgi Karkarashvili -- who acted as mediator on 12-13 November between Shevardnadze on the one hand and Saakashvili, Burdjanadze, and her predecessor as parliament speaker and co-leader of the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc, Zurab Zhvania -- told Caucasus Press that during talks the previous evening AS had reached consensus on new proposals for resolving the standoff with the opposition.

But the opposition's actions on 22 November forestalled any such offer. Saakashvili declared on 21 November his intention of mobilizing supporters the following day to demand Shevardnadze's immediate resignation and to prevent the new parliament convening. Shevardnadze had announced on 17 November during his regular Monday radio interview that he planned to convene the first session of the new parliament within the timeframe stipulated by the constitution, which is no later than 20 days after the ballot. He went on to warn that "the only way to save Georgia is to preserve the integrity and firmness of the constitutional system." Violating the constitution would, Shevardnadze continued, precipitate nationwide chaos in the form of "a struggle of all against all." Shevardnadze thus effectively ruled out compliance with the demand by Burdjanadze and Zhvania to acknowledge that the official results of the ballot were rigged, annul them, and schedule new elections. Shevardnadze argued that the constitution does not empower him to declare the election results invalid, doing so being the prerogative of the Central Election Commission.

Some 20,000-30,000 opposition supporters convened on one of Tbilisi's central squares at 13:00 local time on 22 November for a protest demonstration to demand Shevardnadze's resignation and the holding of new parliamentary and presidential elections. Sakashvili then led a march to the state chancellery, where he issued an ultimatum to Shevardnadze to resign within one hour and apologize to the Georgian people. The demonstrators then proceeded to the parliament building, where Shevardnadze was scheduled to address the first session of the new legislature. According to Western media reports, police and Interior Ministry troops deployed around the parliament building failed to offer any resistance to the demonstrators who, led by Saakashvili, stormed into the main chamber. Former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania was quoted by "The Washington Post" on 23 November as saying that "we were not expecting such an outcome, but people were completely galvanized." Ignoring pleas from Saakashvili and Burdjanadze for order, some of the demonstrators engaged in fistfights with deputies.

Shevardnadze was constrained to abandon his address and was hustled out of the building by his bodyguards who transported him by armored car to his official residence on the outskirts of Tbilisi. He then issued a statement condemning the storming of the parliament building as an attempted coup d'etat and an attempt to overthrow the president. He said he had no alternative but to declare a state of emergency and "restore order" with the help of the Interior Ministry and the army. The constitution requires that in order for the state of emergency to come into force, it must be ratified by parliament within 48 hours (Article 73.1.g). If that happens, parliament must remain in session until the state of emergency is lifted (Article 61.4). Neither parliamentary nor presidential elections may be held while a state of emergency remains in force (Article 46.2). More important, Article 63 of the constitution precludes a parliament debate on impeaching the president as long as a state of emergency is in effect.

Burdjanadze, as speaker of the outgoing parliament, declared late on 22 November that in accordance with the constitution, she was assuming the presidential powers. But legal expert David Usupashvili told Caucasus Press on 23 November that the transfer of the presidential powers to Burdjanadze was illegal as Shevardnadze was not incapable of discharging his duties. Usupashvili said that the parliament elected on 2 November is still illegitimate as two-thirds of its members failed to convene within the required time period (20 days after the ballot, or 22 November). He also argued that there is no need for a state of emergency as no threat of armed conflict exists, nor is there any threat to the safety of the population.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, dispatched by President Vladimir Putin, arrived in Tbilisi early on 23 November and met with the three opposition leaders and with Shevardnadze. Ivanov's Georgian counterpart Irakli Menagharishvili issued a statement on 23 November saying that "a mutual compromise between the authorities and the opposition is necessary to defuse the political situation and ease confrontation in Georgia...[and] a return of the political situation to the constitutional field can take place through understandings," ITAR-TASS reported. Shevardnadze can be legally removed only by a 2/3 vote by the outgoing parliament; but Article 63 of the constitution precludes a parliament debate on impeaching the president as long as a state of emergency is in effect, and Shevardnadze declared such a state of emergency shortly after being transported by armored car from the parliament building back to his official residence on 22 November.

Burdjanadze professed herself ready for talks to find a solution to the current constitutional deadlock. She told Reuters "we are ready for a reasonable compromise and for talks," but at the same time made clear that the opposition would not retreat from its demand for new elections. Shevardnadze for his part agreed in principle to talks with the opposition, including on the possible holding of parliamentary and presidential elections, on condition that they first vacate the parliament building.

Saakashvili, however, declared later on 23 November that it was "too late" for talks with Shevardnadze. He gave the president until 18:00 Moscow time to resign, initially threatening that if Shevardnadze failed to do so, he would lead a march of his supporters on the presidential residence. That evening, however, Saakashvili called off the march on Shevardnadze's residence but went there himself together with Ivanov and Zhvania for the brief meeting that ended with Shevardnadze signing his statement of resignation in return for immunity from prosecution. International leaders, including German Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, lauded Shevardnadze's "wise" and "courageous" decision; U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Shevardnadze acted "in the best interests of the Georgian people." The U.S. has recognized Burdjanadze as acting president. (Liz Fuller)

...AND SETS SCENE FOR NEW POLITICAL STRUGGLE. According to the Georgian Constitution, in the event that the president dies or resigns before his term expires, new presidential elections must be held within 45 days. The ballot to determine Shevardnadze's successor can therefore take place no later than 7 January 2004. Reuters on 24 November quoted an economic aide to Burdjanadze as saying the new leadership will ask the United States for $5 million to finance the ballot.

In an address to the Georgian people late on 23 November, Burdjanadze said the parliament elected in 1999 will continue to function. She did not offer any indication when new parliamentary elections will be held. The question of holding new parliamentary elections raises a further constitutional puzzle, insofar as a referendum was held concurrently with the 2 November parliamentary elections in which 78 percent of those who participated endorsed Shevardnadze's proposal to downsize the legislature to be elected in the next elections (due in 2007 if the parliament elected on 2 November is recognized as legal) from 235 to 150 deputies. The opposition did not question the validity of that vote; what remains unclear is whether if new parliamentary elections are now held, they will be for a 235- or a 150-deputy parliament. The United States on 22 November called for a "thorough investigation" of the machinations surrounding the 2 November ballot, and it is conceivable that they may be annulled on the basis of its findings.

If pre-term presidential elections are held before a new parliament is elected, then almost certainly both Saakashvili and Burdjanadze will run for that post, as neither can be 100 percent certain that if they do not do so, their respective blocs can count on a clear majority in the new parliament that would entitle them to the post of parliament speaker. Exit polls conducted on 2 November suggested that Saakashvili's National Movement polled the largest percentage (between 20 percent and 27 percent) of the votes cast under the proportional system, while the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc fared far less well than anticipated, garnering between 10 percent-16 percent. The programs of the two blocs are so dissimilar that a merger seems unlikely.

Shalva Natelashvili, chairman of the Labor Party, which according to exit polls won between 13 percent-17 percent of the vote on 2 November, may also contest the presidential ballot. And his party, which declared its intention to boycott the new parliament on the grounds that votes cast for his party were reallocated during the vote count to Saakashvili's bloc, is likely to run alone in the parliamentary elections and may attract some votes away from the Saakashvili bloc if the economic situation worsens noticeably in the next few months.

One prominent political figure has already announced his decision to run for president. Temur Shashiashvili, once a close associate of Shevardnadze but in recent years increasingly critical of his policies, said on 24 November he will resign as governor of Imereti to contest the ballot. According to the results of a poll of 1,400 of its readers conducted by "Tribuna" several months ago, 27 percent favored Shashiashvili as the next president, while Burdjanadze and Saakashvili both had 17 percent backing.

Former State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, who fled Georgia after being accused of masterminding the car bomb attack on Shevardnadze in August 1995, has likewise said he may return to Georgia to run for president, Caucasus Press reported on 24 November. Giorgadze claims he enjoys strong support in Georgia. He is also widely believed to have support among top-level Russian security officials who might be tempted to give him covert support should the new Georgian leadership fail to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin's stated hopes for "a resumption of the traditional friendship" between Georgia and Russia.

Former Georgian Communist Party First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili -- who finished a distant second to Shevardnadze in both the 1995 and the 2000 presidential elections and who aligned over the past three weeks with Burdjanadze, Zhvania, and Saakashvili to campaign for the annulment of the 2 November parliamentary elections -- has not yet said whether he will be a candidate. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Economic growth is our guiding light and we believe it should be the region's as well. After all, globalization begins with regionalization. The countries of Europe and the European structures talk to the Caucasus, visit us, consider our problems and progress, our needs and accomplishments, all together, in one breath. This is not just because of our geographic proximity to each other, but because we also share economic and social commonalities.

"It is as if we are all on a cruise, together. We are all on the same boat, going in the same direction. The songs we each like to sing, the way we pray to our common God, the history we remember and retell may all be different. Some may have more money in their pockets than others, but in the end, if the boat sinks, rich and poor will all drown together.

"As far-seeing, visionary, bold leaders, we must see to it that the boat does not sink. Azerbaijan's oil will not be its salvation, nor will Georgia's seaports. We can list a number of oil-rich but otherwise poor countries. And the world's continents are full of countries with coast lines, whose peoples stand in bread lines." -- Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, speaking on 12 November in Berlin at a conference on "The Southern Caucasus - Political Challenges and Development Perspectives" (quoted by Noyan Tapan).

"If [Azerbaijani President] Ilham Aliyev does not wish to have opposition media, let him issue a decree on shutting down the independent mass media and turn Azerbaijan into [a second] Turkmenistan." -- Gabil Abbasoglu, deputy editor in chief of the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat," quoted by Turan on 19 November.

"I find it staggering to see how low the level of our political discourse can be. There are no principles, only intrigues, insinuations, and hearsay. It is almost unbelievable, not only to me but also to many neutral observers.... We live in a time of transition, with no clear rules of public behavior." -- Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac, quoted by "RFE/RL South Slavic Report" on 20 November.