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Georgia: Shevardnadze Unlikely To Emerge From Crisis Unscathed

The volatile Southern Caucasus state of Georgia was plunged into fresh political turmoil last week when President Eduard Shevardnadze fired the entire government on 1 November in response to street demonstrations prompted by a failed security raid on the country's leading private television channel. The speaker of parliament also resigned amid the uproar. Whatever the outcome of the crisis, regional experts believe the Georgian leader is unlikely to emerge unharmed.

Prague, 6 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's recent decision to force out the entire government in a bid to defuse a simmering political crisis appears to have proven insufficient. Street protests demanding changes in the country's top leadership are continuing.

Dozens of angry demonstrators -- including a small number of students from Tbilisi State University -- have been picketing the parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue -- the Georgian capital's main artery -- for the past few days.

Their demands are confused. Some protestors are calling on Shevardnadze to resign, while others are demanding that parliament be dissolved and that early parliamentary and presidential elections be organized.

Although the crowd of demonstrators is far less than the thousands who took to the streets of the capital last week, the situation remains tense in this Southern Caucasus state, where political unrest has become almost routine since the collapse of the Soviet Union 10 years ago.

Already beset by constant dissension among its top leadership and subject to unabating pressure from its powerful neighbor Russia, Georgia plunged into fresh political turmoil on 30 October when state security police raided the offices of Rustavi-2, the country's main private television channel.

Although police claimed they were acting on a court order to inspect the company's financial books, most people in Georgia assumed the operation was part of a plan to rein in Rustavi-2, which had recently exposed widespread corruption among law-enforcement agencies.

The police raid sparked a wave of public outcry and prompted the resignation of State Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze. The confrontation reached its climax on 1 November when Shevardnadze -- yielding to growing public protests -- decided to dismiss the entire government and General Prosecutor Gia Meparishvili. The crisis unexpectedly spread to the legislative branch of power when parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania stepped down later that day.

A former Soviet foreign minister, Shevardnadze has miraculously survived several political crises and two assassination attempts attributed to Moscow-backed opponents since he took over from nationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1992.

The veteran leader's popularity has steadily plummeted amid chronic economic hardships, reports of widespread corruption among Georgia's political leadership, and sporadic outbreaks of violence in the Russia-backed separatist region of Abkhazia. Public confidence in official structures has also dramatically eroded. One opinion survey conducted two months ago gave the government a record-low six-percent approval rating, with the lowest scores registered for the country's law enforcement agencies.

Facing growing pressure at home and abroad, Shevardnadze has made it clear he does not intend to step down until his mandate expires in 2005. Talking to reporters on 5 November at a regular news briefing, the Georgian leader reiterated his intention not to resign: "He [the president] can resign only if he commits a crime against his people, against the law, against the state. This is what is called an impeachment or, rather, the result of an impeachment. Or if he dies, which I do not plan to do. I will act in accordance with the interests of my homeland."

Shevardnadze continued: "Will I resign now? Of course, I could resign right after this press conference. But what will happen next? There is no government, no leadership in parliament. No one knows what will happen in parliament. Would that be a responsible act?"

Most analysts believe Shevardnadze may try to consolidate his power by calling early parliamentary elections in a bid to gain more supporters in the legislature, or by restoring a cabinet of ministers run by a prime minister to counterbalance the influence of parliament.

The Georgian leader reiterated that he considers the re-establishment of the prime-ministerial position a priority. He said the prime minister would concentrate on economic issues, while the security organs would remain under the jurisdiction of the president.

Under the present constitution, the Georgian government is headed by the president. There has been no prime minister since 1995.

The parliament was scheduled to meet today to discuss the composition of the new government, candidacies to the post of parliament speaker and possible constitutional amendments.

Political analyst Ghia Nodia runs the independent Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said both Shevardnadze and his opponents would like to amend the constitution for their own benefit: "Everybody agrees that constitutional amendments are necessary. Yet parliamentary groups disagree on how to amend the constitution. The most radical opponents are demanding a national referendum and early parliamentary and presidential elections. Shevardnadze, in turn, is asking for amendments that would allow him to create a cabinet of ministers that does not exist at the moment. [He] is also likely to ask that the president be allowed to dissolve the parliament, a move that would weaken the legislature. There will be probably a bitter struggle over which amendments should be adopted."

The current crisis has highlighted the growing isolation of Shevardnadze -- who resigned from the chairmanship of the Citizens' Union ruling party in September -- on Georgia's political scene.

Among the president's main rivals are his former ally and ex-parliament speaker Zhvania, and former Citizens' Union parliamentary leader Mikhail Saakashvili, who retook his seat in parliament on 22 October.

One of Georgia's most popular politicians, Saakashvili resigned from his post of justice minister less than two months ago, claiming he could no longer work with Shevardnadze and accusing other government members of corruption.

Shevardnadze is also facing growing pressure from supporters of his predecessor -- the so-called Zviadists -- and members of Mkhedrioni, a small hard-line group headed by former warlord Dzhaba Ioseliani.

Naira Gelashvili is chairwoman of a Tbilisi-based non-governmental organization known as the Caucasian House. In an interview with RFE/RL, she said Shevardnadze's hard-line opponents are trying to win over student protests: "Students represent a heterogeneous group. Most of them do not protest and are simply waiting to see what is going to happen. Their place has been taken by 'Zviadists' and Mkhedrioni members. Students are trying to distance themselves from these people. They do not want to be with them. For an untrained eye, this is very difficult to notice."

Whether Shevardnadze will survive this new crisis remains unclear. Political observer Nodia believes that even if the Georgian leader succeeds in keeping the situation under control, he is unlikely to emerge from the crisis unharmed: "Since [Shevardnadze] was forced to dismiss the government under pressure exerted by the street, I think that protests will not stop, that they will continue under various pretexts and that, progressively, his legitimacy will further decline. If [Shevardnadze] is careful not to let the situation completely develop beyond a constitutional framework, he can exert control for some time. Still, I think that he is politically weakened and that he will now have to act taking into account [the views of] other political leaders, of public opinion and of protestors of all kinds."

Gelashvili said it is difficult to predict the outcome of the current crisis. Yet, she, too, believes the country's leadership is no longer in a position to ignore demands put forward by public opinion: "Whether the crisis started today or a long time ago is difficult to assess. But I would not say that the situation is so terrible. The society is coming alive again. It is showing some determination, and it is making it clear that it cannot live like that any longer. I believe this is an improvement compared to the previous situation when the population was showing no reaction and was remaining amorphous. The important thing today is that the youth [in particular] and society [in general] are ready to take an active part in the [country's political] processes."

Nodia also believes the ongoing crisis shows that society is gaining in importance. He says: "It is extremely difficult to assess the present situation. But what is obvious now is that politics are made partly in parliament, partly in the street. Political leaders will have to take the street's opinion into account."