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Caucasus Report: September 10, 2001

10 September 2001, Volume 4, Number 31

HAS ZURAB ZHVANIA OVERPLAYED HIS HAND? On 28 August, for the third time in as many years, Georgian parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania went public with a warning that Georgia is on the verge of "a major crisis," and that the government's failure to win back the confidence of a population alienated and antagonized by endemic high-level corruption could lead to widespread social upheaval. Specifically, Zhvania proposed sweeping reforms of the law enforcement agencies, which many Georgians consider a hotbed of corruption, the formation of a competent team of economic specialists within the government, and the implementation of systematic reforms.

On two previous occasions, in the summer of 1998 and in September 2000, Zhvania had threatened to resign unless measures were implemented to overcome corruption (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 20, 14 July 1998 and Vol. 3, No. 37, 14 September 2000). But in contrast to last year, when he took pains to stress that his criticisms should not under any circumstances be construed as an attack on Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, this year Zhvania's warning took the form of an open letter to the president that was published in several newspapers. It should be noted in this context that in April, when Vano Merabishvili, chairman of parliament's Committee for Economic Policy, told the "Washington Post" that Shevardnadze no longer has the energy to take decisive measures to combat corruption, Zhvania immediately issued a statement castigating Merabishvili for unethical behavior (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 16, 26 April 2001).

Addressing parliament on 29 August, Shevardnadze thanked Zhvania for his warning (which the two men reportedly had discussed before it was made public), and assured deputies that he shares Zhvania's concern at the extent of corruption, which he pledged yet again to eradicate. But Shevardnadze also gave Zhvania to understand that there are no grounds for blaming the present situation on the president, declaring that he is ready "to answer for all my actions before God and the people."

Legislators from the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), however, were apparently unconvinced by Shevardnadze's statements and the same day set about drafting a collective letter to him expressing their support for Zhvania's demands and specifying in greater detail the measures they consider are needed to improve the situation in the country. Parliamentary Human Rights Committee Deputy Chairman Konstantine Kemularia explained to journalists that "we are acting in compliance with the constitution, which stipulates that the parliament should formulate domestic policy and the president should implement it."

But as of 4 September, only 47 of the 100 SMK deputies had appended their signatures to that missive. Among those who refused to do so was former Prime Minister Niko Lekishvili, who told journalists on 3 September that he sees "no sense" in a further letter to the president given that Shevardnadze and parliament agree on the nature of the problem posed by corruption and the need to tackle it.

The limited support from within the SMK for Zhvania's initiative prompted the daily "Akhali taoba" on 4 September to conclude that Zhvania and his supporters have suffered a "defeat" in their "confrontation" with Shevardnadze. Some observers both in Georgia and abroad have anticipated for some time that at some point Zhvania would publicly challenge Shevardnadze with the aim of forcing him to resign. In those circumstances, under the Georgian constitution the presidential duties would devolve to Zhvania as parliament speaker, pending pre-term elections. But recent opinion polls suggest that Zhvania's popularity rating is so low he would have little or no chance of winning a free and fair ballot: A recent poll ranked former Georgian Communist Party First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili as the most popular choice for president, followed by Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 June 2001, and also "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No.1, 5 January 2001).

Moreover, Zhvania suffered a serious setback earlier this summer when the parliament refused to endorse amendments to the constitution proposed by Shevardnadze reintroducing the institution of the cabinet and the post of prime minister, to which Zhvania reportedly aspired. Zhvania may therefore have decided to challenge Shevardnadze now, rather than wait and risk his star falling even further. If this interpretation of the situation is correct, another factor of possible relevance is Shevardnadze's expression of support late last month for National Democratic Party of Georgia Chairwoman Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia's candidacy in the upcoming by-election in the Tbilisi district of Vake. (The SMK has not yet named a candidate in that ballot.) The outspoken chairman of the parliament's Committee on Defense and Security, Giorgi Baramidze, construed Shevardnadze's endorsement of Sarishvili-Chanturia as a betrayal of the SMK.

It is, however, equally conceivable that the catalyst for Zhvania's move was Shevardnadze's rejection of a bill drafted by Saakashvili that would have allowed for the confiscation of assets that the owners could not prove were acquired legally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 August 2001 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 30, 17 August 2001). During the second half of August, Saakashvili toured Georgia's regions, where the population at large expressed overwhelming support for his initiative. And an opinion poll in early September revealed that 74 percent of a total of 500 respondents likewise approve it. (In an indication of the depth of popular rage at the ostentatious wealth accumulated by some government ministers, residents of the village of Ureki have threatened to set fire to a five-storey mansion that Economy, Industry and Trade Minister Vano Chkhartshvili -- one of the main opponents of Saakashvili's draft bill -- is having built there, according to "Akhali taoba" on 3 September. One recent opinion poll found that 45.7 percent of 495 respondents questioned believe Chkhartishvili to be the wealthiest minister in Georgia, followed by Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze.)

There is, however, an alternative, and more machiavellian, explanation of the standoff between Zhvania and Shevardnadze: Namely, that it was an elaborate charade agreed upon in advance with the aim of boosting support for the dismissal of those government ministers perceived as irrevocably compromised by allegations of corruption, including Chkhartishvili and Targamadze, at the risk of irrevocably splitting the SMK. That hypothesis, however, raises the crucial question: Why does Shevardnadze not feel strong enough to move against individuals who are universally perceived as corrupt? Could Targamadze have evidence that members of Shevardnadze's family are engaged in corruption? Or is Shevardnadze counting on Targamadze's support to neutralize a coup bid by Zhvania?

The independent daily "Rezonansi" on 29 August claimed that the government has in fact already split into two camps over Zhvania's open letter, with Saakashvili, Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli, Fuel and Energy Minister David Mirtskhulava, Education Minister Aleksandre Kartozia, and Agriculture Minister David Kirvalidze supporting Zhvania, and Chkhartishvili, Targamadze, Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili, and Prosecutor General Gia Meparishvili opposing him. Minister of State Gia Arsenishvili, Minister for Special Assignments Malkhaz Kakabadze, and National Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze have not yet declared which camp they support.

A third possibility is that Zhvania's challenge to Shevardnadze was indeed meant in earnest, but that Shevardnadze called his bluff, convinced (correctly, as it turned out) that the parliament speaker does not have enough support within parliament to split the SMK and create a new majority faction. If that hypothesis, which this writer considers to be the most probable, is correct, the outcome of the campaign to collect signatures under the second open letter to the president suggests that Zhvania may have seriously overplayed his hand. When it became clear that the SMK would not succeed in collecting 100 signatures under its open letter to Shevardnadze, opposition deputies called on Zhvania to resign; Zhvania countered by affirming that he is prepared to step down if 100 deputies sign a written request that he do so. But both the SMK and the opposition rejected that approach; Minority XXI Century faction leader Djemal Gamakharia characterized Zhvania's maneuvering as "infantile," while SMK Deputy Vitali Khazaradze argued that "at the current stage we will not find a better speaker." (Liz Fuller)

IS THE KREMLIN PLANNING AN EIGHTH FEDERAL DISTRICT? Quoting unnamed "sources in the presidential administration," "Obshchaya gazeta" reported on 23 August that the Kremlin plans to split the South Russia Federal District into two parts, one comprising the lowland regions of Rostov Oblast, Stavropol and Krasnodar krais, and Kalmykia, and the second the national republics of the North Caucasus.

The paper cites the failure of presidential envoy Viktor Kazantsev to develop a fruitful working relationship with the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership, and predicts that he will shortly be transferred to some other post. But the paper fails to suggest who might replace him, either in the rump northern half of the present South Russia district or in the new North Caucasus district. The latter post should, the paper reasons, go to someone who is familiar with the complexities of the region, but who does not have personal ties to the ruling elite in any of the North Caucasus republics -- which rules out former Russian Deputy Premier Ramazan Abdulatipov, who would otherwise seem to be eminently suited for the post. "Obshchaya gazeta" suggests that the optimum candidate would be "another general," but stops short of naming Colonel General Gennadii Troshev, who succeeded Kazantsev last spring as commander of the North Caucasus Military District.

Troshev is about to publish a book detailing his involvement in both Chechen wars and which, according to Interfax on 26 August, contains a less-than-flattering portrait of his former superior. Troshev describes Kazantsev as unbearably rude and short-tempered, to the point that "officers who were waiting in the anteroom turned pale" before being summoned to his presence. But at the same time Troshev acknowledges that Kazantsev is not vindictive and does not bear grudges.

Troshev, who was born in Chechnya, was rumored last fall to be in the running for the post, which in the event has not been introduced, of Chechen governor-general, even though he went on record in June 2000 as saying that he had no interest in a civilian post in Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 41, 20 October 2000).

The demise of Kazantsev would inevitably impact the future career of his protege, former Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantemirov, who in June was named a chief federal inspector on Kazantsev's staff (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 June 2001). (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Georgia is half-destroyed, Armenia is going the same way, and Azerbaijan is surviving only thanks to its oil and a totalitarian regime." -- Sergei Karaganov, chairman of Russia's Council for Internal and Foreign Policy, quoted by "Prime News" (21 August).

"We will not be able to lead the country to progress as long as elections are held at gunpoint and by the power of money." -- Armenia's Law-Based State Party Chairman Artur Baghdasarian, quoted by "Noyan Tapan" (21 August).

"A handful of people are destroying our belief in the future. Even the Turks could not foresee in their most optimistic forecasts that there would be such a largescale emigration from Armenia." -- Opposition National Accord Front member Khachik Sargsian, speaking at an anti-government rally on 5 September and quoted by "Noyan Tapan."

"These Wahhabis are mostly guys too lazy to do anything but drive all around the republic and talk their heads off. " -- Unnamed local police official in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, quoted by "Vremya novostei" on 17 August.