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Georgia: Experts Discuss Successor After Shevardnadze

Earlier this year, Eduard Shevardnadze was re-elected to his final five-year term as president of Georgia. But already policy analysts are concerned about who will succeed him. They aired their thoughts at a conference on Caucasus issues in Washington.

Washington, 12 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia has as its president one of the world's best-known diplomats, Eduard Shevardnadze. But the republic is far from stable, and policy analysts wonder how it will fare after Shevardnadze leaves office in five years.

The succession in Georgia was part of an all-day conference yesterday (Monday) on issues relating to the Caucasus. The meeting was held at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington.

Georgia's stability has been seriously compromised by separatist movements in the regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia. Shevardnadze also has been the target of two assassination attempts, and has once had to crush a military mutiny.

Monday's conference -- on issues of the Caucasus region -- opened with a long exchange of ideas on the presidential succession in Georgia. One panelist was Charles Fairbanks, director of SAIS' Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

Fairbanks began by saying that even one of the most stable democracies -- the U.S. -- can have trouble deciding on its next president. Therefore it should not be surprising that there is apprehension over who will follow Shevardnadze as Georgia's leader.

He was particularly concerned about Russia's influence on its small neighbor. He noted that Russia recently exempted people living in Abkhazia and Ossetia from visa requirements imposed on other Georgian residents. The two separatist regions are near Georgia's border with Russia and have large ethnic-Russian populations.

Fairbanks said if Russia increases this sort of pressure on Tbilisi, then Georgia's contact with the West could be choked off.

Another panelist went further. He is Paul Joyal, a Washington businessman who publishes Intercon's Daily, a digest of news from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Joyal said he believes the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin is restoring a frightening aspect of the old Soviet rule to his country. Besides the visa exemptions for Abkhazia and Ossetia, he cited its embrace of the Stalinist-era national anthem and the recent trial of Edmond Pope, an American whom a Moscow court last week convicted of espionage and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

"It appears to me that there is a re-emergence of a counterintelligence state in Russia that we're seeing today."

For the most part, however, panelists expressed optimism about Georgia's future.

Fairbanks said in most cases, former Communist countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have had successful presidential elections. He noted that even the authoritarian Slobodan Milosevic was successfully voted out of office as Yugoslavia's president. But he also said heads of state in these countries try to manipulate election results as much as they can.

"When it became clear that he [Milosevic] had lost the election, that was decisive. But, on the other hand, as we also know, elections are usually fraudulent to a greater or lesser degree."

Ghia Nodia, a Georgian intellectual who founded the Caucasian Institute for Peace, agreed and elaborates on Fairbanks' point.

"People assume that elections will be rigged to some extent. But there is some extent after which they are getting angry."

Nodia said he expects Shevardnadze will either explicitly or implicitly designate his choice for successor, then step aside and let Georgia's voters decided if the heir-apparent is to their liking. And he gave a great deal of time to listing which political leaders might be candidates for the position.

But Nodia stressed that it is too early for such forecasts. He said the field of candidates will be clearer after parliamentary elections in 2003.

Korneli Kakachia, a Georgian political activist, agreed it is too early to consider possible candidates, but for a different reason. He said political leaders interested in becoming Georgia's president are at the moment not making their intentions known.

"None of them want now to be active in public because there is a threat that when you are too active, it might turn against you after some time."

Finally, Kakachia said, it is not important who succeeds Shevardnadze but what his policies will be. And that, Kakachia said, is even more difficult to forecast.

Others taking part in the conference were David Darchiashvili, the head of the research department of the Georgian parliament, and Colonel Archil Tsintadze of the Georgian Army.