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Caucasus Report: November 7, 2001

7 November 2001, Volume 4, Number 37

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT SEEKS TO IMPOSE ORDER ON CHAOS. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has profited from the public outrage that followed the 30 October raid by security officials on the independent TV station Rustavi-2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 October 2001) to rid himself of a government whose members were at odds among themselves to the point that, according to one of its members, 18 of the 21 ministers were not on speaking terms with each other. What is more, he managed to do so without exposing himself to the charge that he sacrificed Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze, whom he has consistently protected from criticism despite evidence of the latter's involvement in the shadow economy. Shevardnadze may also have damaged parliamentary Speaker Zurab Zhvania's chances of succeeding him as president. Many observers believe that Zhvania has been trying for months to force Shevardnadze to resign; some have even suggested that he may have orchestrated last week's Rustavi-2 raid to that end.

But Shevardnadze succeeded in turning the situation to his advantage only at the cost of going back on his word, a move that may sour his relations with both Zhvania and Targamadze and alienate some who might otherwise have supported him. (The Targamadze "clan" is said to be the third-most-powerful in Georgia, after those of Shevardnadze and Adjar State Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze.) And confrontation between supporters of the president and demonstrators calling for his resignation have already led to violence and injuries in western Georgia, underscoring what could prove to be a dangerous polarization of society into pro- and anti-Shevardnadze camps.

The chronology of events that enabled Shevardnadze to strengthen his control of the situation was as follows. On 1 November, Shevardnadze affirmed his readiness to resign should parliamentary deputies demand the resignation of Targamadze and Prosecutor General Gia Meparishvili. (National Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze, whose men had triggered the crisis by their raid on Rustavi-2, stepped down on 31 October.)

Under the Georgian Constitution, if the president resigns, his duties devolve on to the parliamentary speaker pending new presidential and parliamentary elections. Shevardnadze's offer has thus been widely construed as a challenge to Zhvania. But that interpretation overlooks the fact that there was no guarantee that Zhvania could summon the required majority in favor of the proposed resignations, especially since they would lead to the resignation of Shevardnadze, possibly the only remaining stabilizing factor on the political scene. In the event, deputies did vote for the dismissal of Targamadze and Meparishvili, whereupon Zhvania himself announced that he would step down as well rather than risk either being accused of scheming to oust Shevardnadze or triggering a "confrontation" between the president's supporters and detractors. Zhvania further rejected calls for Shevardnadze's resignation as unacceptable. (But some of Zhvania's circle, including parliament's defense and security committee chairman, Giorgi Baramidze, continue to argue that Shevardnadze should step down.) Zhvania then hailed Shevardnadze's subsequent dismissal of the entire remaining cabinet as an opportunity to appoint "a serious, strong cabinet of ministers to deal with both the economic and the political crisis."

But Shevardnadze's subsequent statements indicate that he has other plans. In his traditional Monday radio address, he proposed on 5 November that parliament move swiftly to amend the constitution and introduce the post of premier, which would head the cabinet of ministers. Shevardnadze had proposed doing so this spring, but parliament failed to pass those amendments before the close of its spring session (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 19, 21 May 2001; No. 24, 29 June 2001; and No. 29, 13 August 2001). Shevardnadze added that the premier will be endowed with broader powers than his counterpart in either Russia or any other CIS state. He did not, however, specify whether in future it will be the powerful premier, rather than the parliamentary speaker, who assumes the duties of the president should the latter step down or become incapacitated.

At the same time, Shevardnadze said that he plans to renominate most outgoing ministers, with the exception of Targamadze and Kutateladze, to their previous posts, characterizing them as "reliable people and professionals." But it is not clear whether, if the constitutional amendments he proposes are passed, he will have carte blanche in selecting the new cabinet of ministers, or whether the premier will be empowered to veto candidates the president proposes.

The constitution currently requires that Shevardnadze propose his new ministerial candidates to parliament within two weeks of the government's dismissal. But the deputies' failure on 6 November to agree on a successor to Zhvania raises the question of how easy it will be for a fragmented legislature without a majority faction first to elect a new speaker then to enact Shevardnadze's proposed constitutional amendments. The vote on the speaker's candidacy requires the presence of 157 deputies, of whom no less than 118 must vote in his/her favor. A vote on constitutional amendments must be passed by no less than two-thirds of the total 235 deputies.

There are at present three candidates for the post of speaker: Nina Burdjanadze (independent) chair of the parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee, who is closely allied with Zhvania; Deputy Speaker Giga Tsereteli (Union of Citizens of Georgia); and former Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze (independent). Scientist Elgudja Medzmariashvili, who recently quit the SMK faction to form Tanadgoma, a new faction that supports Shevardnadze (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 33, 9 October 2001), declined to be considered for the post.

Of those three, Burdjanadze is perceived as having the most support, and she has pledged that if elected, she will not promote the interests of any parliamentary faction but act "in the interests of the country" and try to "normalize" the situation within parliament. Assuming that the parliament does enact the required constitutional amendments in time, Shevardnadze's choice of premier is likely to depend on who becomes speaker of the legislature, given that he must maintain a balance between his supporters from the now greatly weakened Union of Citizens of Georgia and the radical young opposition. If that post devolves to Burdjanadze as a member of the Zhvania camp, then Shevardnadze may well select the conservative Lortkipanidze as a counter-balance, even though there is said to be bad blood between Lortkipanidze and Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Abashidze, whom Shevardnadze has just named as his special envoy for mediating an end to the Abkhaz conflict.

If, however, Lortkipanidze becomes speaker, then the choice of premier becomes problematic. Zhvania is said to aspire to the position, but it is not clear whether Shevardnadze now considers him too dangerous a rival. (No details have been divulged of a lengthy meeting between Shevardnadze and Zhvania on 4 November.) Abashidze is said to have been offered the post before and refused, although he may reconsider if the powers of the premier are greatly expanded -- which leaves the highly popular former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili as the most obvious remaining candidate. (Liz Fuller)

ARE FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS POSSIBLE IN GEORGIA? On 24 October, RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau hosted a roundtable discussion on the implications of the by-elections in two constituencies three days earlier in which two prominent political figures trounced their rivals to win election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 October 2001). In the Tbilisi district of Vake, former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili defeated nine rivals to garner 64 percent of the vote, while in the west Georgian raion of Baghdadi former Minister of State Vazha Lortkpianidze won over 80 percent of the vote.

The discussion participants, journalist Zviad Koridze and psychologist Gaga Nizharadze, both expressed their conviction that the outcome of the voting was falsified, and that not only the winning candidate but others too engaged in an attempt to influence the outcome. Koridze, who headed the election staff of one of the defeated candidates in the Vake ballot, affirmed that none of the elections held in Georgia over the past 12 years has been free and fair. He added that, over that time period, not only have procedural violations become "a tradition" but the techniques used to falsify the outcome of the vote have become increasingly sophisticated.

Nizharadze for his part added that political psychology in Georgia is such that political parties do not consider it unacceptable to try to determine the voting results. He pointed out that most candidates retain the services of sociologists who conduct polls to establish their popularity rating, and then try to ensure that the outcome of the ballot coincides more or less with that rating. (One of the tricks used to do this is the so-called "merry-go-round," or multiple voting.)

At the same time, Nizharadze made the point that Saakashvili's election victory per se should not be called into question as he was undoubtedly the most popular candidate. (Koridze too remarked that Saakashvili waged the most effective election campaign.) While procedural violations may have increased Saakashvili's share of the vote by a few percentage points, Nizharadze said, they did not fundamentally change the outcome.

Each of the discussants focused on aspects of the by-elections that they considered disquieting. Koridze argued that for any politician to garner over 80 percent of the vote, or for one candidate to garner over 60 percent while his closest rival polls less than 10 percent of the vote, not only recalls Soviet practice but reflects an unhealthy lack of discrimination on the part of the electorate.

Nizharadze, while stressing that he wholeheartedly endorses Saakashvili's political views, observed that Saakashvili is slowly becoming a political figure who is not merely respected but loved. People increasingly refer to him not as "Mikhail Saakashvili" but by the half-Russian, half-Georgian diminutive form of his Christian name, "Mishiko." That kind of adulation, Nizharadze continued in an oblique reference to the meteoric rise and fall of the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia, can be "a very dangerous phenomenon." He expressed the hope that Saakashvili himself will realize the perils of such a relationship with the electorate and take steps to keep it in check.

Nizharadze also suggested that falsification of elections has become an accepted phenomenon in Georgia, along with corruption and theft, and one which many people feel there is little point in protesting insofar as protests are powerless to change the situation. The Georgian authorities, he claims, have come to consider that they have a perfect right to engineer the election results they want. He added that he doubts that those isolated individuals who currently condemn such practice would "remain as pure as driven snow" should they acquire the opportunity to determine the outcome of a future ballot.

Finally, the two discussants agreed that Saakashvili and Lortkipanidze will play a prominent role within parliament, although they both consider it too early to predict which of them will prove the more influential (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 33, 9 October 2001). (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "This is the southern stronghold, this is a friendly power and a people who are friendly to us, and we must be geopolitical friends with it in every way possible." -- Former USSR Council of Ministers Chairman Nikolai Ryzhkov, speaking on Armenian Public Television (quoted by Noyan Tapan on 5 November).

"We are like a married couple who have divorced and now regret it, but who will not make any effort towards reconciliation because of their pride." -- Georgian Intelligence Department head Avtandil Ioseliani, a propos of relations between Georgia and Abkhazia (quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 31 October).

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT VOTES ONCE MORE FOR BUDGET SEQUESTER. The Georgian parliament voted on 23 October to slash budget spending for 2001 by 164.6 million laris ($79.1 million) or 15 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 24 October 2001). As government ministers declined to a man to accept any responsibility for the shortfall -- Minister of State Gia Arsenishvili implied that parliament deputies were themselves to blame for having endorsed unrealistic targets for both revenues and spending -- President Shevardnadze yielded to deputies' demands and created a three-man commission that is to identify those ministers responsible.

This is the third consecutive year that Georgia has been constrained to revise its budget parameters downwards because of huge shortfalls, primarily in tax revenues. True, this year's sequester came later than those of 1999 and 2000, both of which were enacted in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 July 1999 and 10 and 14 July 2000). And the sum involved this year is only just over half of last year's 300 million laris cut. As was the case in both 1999 and 2000, the International Monetary Fund insisted on this year's sequester as a precondition for the release, which was formally announced on 26 October, of a further $11 million tranche of a three-year, $137 million Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility loan approved in January 2001. (Liz Fuller)