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Georgia: Politicians Prepare For Critical Election Season

Georgia's parliament has broken for the summer recess -- in normal times, an opportunity for tempers to cool and for political bygones to be left as bygones. But not this year. There is too much at stake. November's parliamentary elections loom on the horizon -- and beyond them, presidential elections in 2005.

Tbilisi, 1 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- These are fractious times in Georgia -- even more so than usual. Parliament is in recess, but the nation's big political players are already flexing their muscles in preparation for the battle ahead.

Georgia will hold parliamentary elections this November. And the outcome could have a critical impact on who becomes Georgia's next president when Eduard Shevardnadze's mandate expires in 2005.

Zurab Zhvania is the leader of the United Democrats, one of the main opposition parties, and a former parliamentary speaker. "These are elections which will mark the beginning of the end of 30 years of Shevardnadze's rule in Georgia and will start a new period when new forces will come to power," Zhvania said. "Who will these people be? Will they symbolize and bring to Georgia a European way of development, or will this be another form of Soviet nostalgia? [This] is why these are very important elections -- elections which will decide how Georgia's future will look in the next few decades."

Shevardnadze has ruled in Georgia for so long most people can barely imagine life without him. The Georgian Constitution currently allows a president to serve no more than two consecutive five-year terms. But many question whether Shevardnadze will really go.

Ramaz Sakkvarelidze, a political observer and supporter of the president, has no doubt that this presidential term will be Shevardnadze's last. "To the best of my knowledge, Shevardnadze is not planning to depart from the plan mapped out by the constitution," Sakkvarelidze said. "Indeed, he told me as much in a private conversation just a short while ago. He won't permit manipulation of the constitution. As you know, there has been some discussion in Georgia of introducing the post of prime minister to Georgia so that Shevardnadze could stay on in power as prime minister. But he himself rules that out."

But is Georgia ready for a successor? Alexander Rondeli heads the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. He said Shevardnadze's greatest failing has been his inability to prepare Georgia for his departure.

"I think the most difficult task for him was to orchestrate change and to create new state institutions and to strengthen existing ones. I think this was not very successful. But without stable institutions, succession and transfer of power is very difficult. So the main task is ahead of him -- how to guarantee the stable transfer of power," Rondeli said.

The time for such a task, however, is running very short. And many seriously doubt whether Shevardnadze has either the will or the desire to make such significant changes.

The conduct of the November elections is expected to give a clear indication as to where Georgia's future lies. Shevardnadze says he is determined to ensure they are free and fair.

Mark Mullen of the Tbilisi branch of the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute believes the president's place in history may depend upon it.

"If the elections are fairly run, if over the next couple of years there is a relatively peaceful handover and there is the perception by the population that there are some new people coming in, some new people with new ideas who try to implement them, I think [Shevardnadze's] going to be remembered as the person who, amidst pretty serious adversity, was able to keep things together here and to set up Georgia if not as a Eurasian transit corridor, at least to build the biggest pipeline in the world. On the other hand, if these elections are not fair and the succession turns into a big mess, I think there might be some blame for the problems Georgia will have down the line -- that he wasn't able to build sufficiently the institutions needed to deal with his succession," Mullen said.

Given the stakes, one might have expected Georgia's political opposition -- young, mostly right-of-center and pro-Western -- to pool their resources and put aside personal differences. The reality is that, with just months to go before the elections, opposition leaders are snapping at each others' heels. Zhvania, still seen by some as a possible successor to Shevardnadze, is in despair.

"A lot of people in the opposition have the same agenda -- to strengthen their position as much as possible for the presidential run in 2005. I consider this very stupid because right now we have the problem of dissolving the system of clan government which we have right now in Georgia. Within this system, nobody representing democratic political groups in Georgia will have any chance of winning the presidential race. We should understand that we are fighting to create an environment for democratic elections between political forces -- and not between gang troops, corrupt clans, and maybe some semi-political forces," Zhvania said.

The disintegration of the Citizen's Union, the political bloc created to support Shevardnadze, gives Georgia's young democrats a genuine chance to succeed in the November elections. The latest opinion polls still put them ahead of the pro-government groups and parties, despite their public bickering.

But rampant ambition, personal rivalry, and jealousy could still be their nemesis, if the result is an erosion of public faith in all politicians.