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Caucasus: Analysis From Washington -- What Next In Georgia?

Washington, 2 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze now faces what may be the greatest challenge of his long career: assembling a new government that brings into his administration people not tainted by the scandals of the past and winning over those in the Georgian population and the Georgian political elite who have lost confidence in his capacity to govern.

Shevardnadze's track record in politics suggests that he may be able to meet this challenge, but the current situation in and around Georgia means that he will have to draw on his undoubted political skills if he is to recover and prevent a further collapse of the political situation in his country.

While the events in Tbilisi have been overshadowed by the campaign against terrorism, what comes next in Georgia is certain to affect not only that international effort but also the balance of economic and political power in the Caucasus and in other parts of the world as well.

Shevardnadze on 1 November dismissed his entire cabinet. That action is the latest in a series of increasingly dramatic events in Georgia. On 30 October, officers of the State Security Ministry raided the offices of the Rustavi-2 television station, ostensibly to inspect the company's books. But the action was so heavy-handed that most people in Georgia assumed that the raid was part of an effort to rein in the independent media.

And the raid prompted both demonstrations in front of the parliament building and demands by senior politicians that Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze, Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze and Prosecutor General Georgiy Meparishvili resign or be fired. On 31 October Kutateladze resigned under pressure, but Shevardnadze initially, and apparently having misjudged the situation, defended the other two.

Then early on 1 November, Parliament Speaker Zurab Zhvania resigned, a move that his supporters saw as an act of political courage but one that his opponents -- including the parliament's deputy speaker and Socialist Party leader Vakhtang Rcheulishvili -- viewed as a move by Zhvania to bring down Shevardnadze and become president himself. And as that was happening, the crowds in Tbilisi were becoming ever more insistent that Shevardnadze leave the scene.

Shevardnadze countered the same day by dismissing his entire cabinet, a move that left him, in his own words, as practically the only leader of executive power in the country. On the one hand, that position highlighted the isolation of the Georgian leader and led some in Tbilisi and Moscow to begin to look beyond him to what a post-Shevardnadze Georgia might be.

But on the other hand, this move gives Shevardnadze the opportunity to rebuild his government if he reaches out to new political forces in the short term to staff his government and if in the longer term he moves to restore a prime ministerial form of government responsible to the parliament.

There are three reasons for thinking that Shevardnadze faces an almost impossible task:

First, the political situation in Tbilisi is now so overheated that almost anyone he might select would likely find it difficult to accept appointment if he thought Shevardnadze is likely to fall sometime soon. Consequently, Shevardnadze may fall into the trap of turning to those he has known longest but who in many cases have betrayed his confidence in them.

Second, the political situation in Georgia more generally is increasingly unstable. Not only are there the long-standing problems with Abkhazia, South Osetia, and Adjaria, but there are increasing splits among the Georgians themselves, among the Svans, the Mingrelians, and others. These underlying social divisions would make it difficult at any time to manage Georgia, but now all of them are exacerbated by economic collapse and outside meddling.

And third, the political situation in Georgia is at least in part a product of forces beyond its borders. Russian officials have at various times played with almost all these divisions in Georgia both to weaken that country and to undermine Shevardnadze, whom many of them still blame for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even today, some Russian parliamentarians were signaling their view that Moscow must form alliances with the anti-Shevardnadze forces.

Faced with this situation, most politicians would begin planning their retirement, and Shevardnadze may yet be forced into that role. But given Shevardnadze's political skills in the past, skills that he does not appear to have brought to bear at the start of this crisis but which he clearly has not yet lost, the Georgian president may yet survive and his government restabilize.

If Shevardnadze succeeds or if the transition to a new government is managed carefully, the consequences for the rest of the world of what has happened this week in Tbilisi prove to be relatively small. But if he fails or if the moves to replace him go out of control, then that development may send shock waves throughout the southern Caucasus, possibly isolating Azerbaijan and other Caspian basin states from the West and expanding Russian influence across the area.

And such trends in turn would be likely to affect both the broader region of which the southern Caucasus is a part and the balance of power and expectations across the world as a whole.