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Caucasus Report: October 6, 2000

6 October 2000, Volume 3, Number 39

Ministerial Appointment May Transform Georgian Political Landscape. On 4 October, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze appointed Mikhail Saakashvili as justice minister. Saakashvili is also the leader of the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) parliament faction. A 32-year-old, U.S.-trained lawyer, Saakashvili succeeds Djoni Khetsuriani, who tendered his resignation on 3 October following the escape of 12 inmates two days earlier from a Tbilisi security prison.

Saakashvili's appointment is likely to have a major impact on the future of the SMK parliament faction, on that party as a whole, and on the chances of three men who are already spoken of as putative candidates to succeed Shevardnadze as president: Saakashvili, his mentor parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania (see RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, no. 27, 2 September 1998), and Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze.

The Union of Citizens of Georgia was created by Shevardnadze in late 1993 as his personal power base. As such, it represented, at least initially, a marriage of convenience between disparate elements -- the Greens, whom Zhvania originally headed, former Communist Party regional apparatchiks and bureaucrats-turned-businessmen, and youthful and ambitious scions of the former Communist intelligentsia -- all of whom chose to hitch their respective wagons to Shevardnadze's political star.

As early as 1998, tensions had surfaced within the SMK between the youthful reformist faction headed by Zhvania and Saakashvili, and what the latter has referred to as the "Komsomol-Communist nomenklatura" -- men who embarked on their political careers in the 1950s and 1960s and whose ties to Shevardnadze date back several decades. Over the past two years, analysts have suggested that reactionary and corrupt elements within the SMK, including many local administrators, are compromising the reputation of the party as a whole. Despite the party's victory in the October 1999 parliamentary poll, its reformist wing has increasingly complained of its impotence to kickstart the stalled reform process.

More significantly, some SMK activists and deputies have expressed disappointment that some members of the reformist wing, including Zhvania, appear to be prepared on occasions to compromise with the faction's conservative wing on issues of principle (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, no. 26, 29 June 2000).

In a lengthy interview published in the September issue of "Nezavisimaya gazeta-sodruzhestvo," the monthly electronic supplement to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Saakashvili admitted that his party faces serious problems and challenges, and he explained how he hopes to overcome them. First, Saakashvili argued the need to bring new blood into the SMK's grassroots organizations in the provinces, as those party organizations are virtually identical with the local administrative bodies. Saakashvili conceded that such an arrangement "makes it easier to contest elections," but at the same time he admitted that the party needs to create independent local associations that would be more sensitive to the needs and concerns of the local population, even if doing so infringes on the interests of the local authorities.

Second, Saakashvili focused on the dilemma of the young businessmen who were elected to the Georgian parliament in November 1999 on the SMK ticket. He expressed pride in the fact that Georgia occupies first place among the post-Soviet states in having the highest proportion of parliament deputies who have received their education in the West. Those deputies could and should -- although Saakashvili did not explicitly say so -- serve as a powerful lobby within the legislature for economic reforms, and indeed some have stated their intention to table an anti-crisis program. But Saakashvili insisted that in order to avoid a conflict of interests, such deputies must make a choice between their business interests and their deputy's mandate.

Third, and probably most important and most difficult --although again Saakashvili does not characterize it as such -- is the need to address the problem of corruption, whether among the "Komsomol-Communist nomenklatura," or within the ranks of the procuracy and police. Saakashvili admitted that representatives of that class joined the SMK in the early 1990s and proceeded to make large fortunes within the shadow economy by virtue of their former contacts. He also admitted that the procuracy and police have acquired tremendous influence and engage with impunity in clandestine business deals, having virtually wiped out the competition posed by small and medium business. He acknowledged that any attempt to target these vested interests may provoke resistance and possibly even a violent backlash, but said that it is imperative to do so or risk losing the trust of the electorate.

Saakashvili formulated his vision of the ideal SMK as follows: "The SMK...should be a reformist association based on a liberal-democratic ideology and not on the old nomenklatura ideology or a nationalist, chauvinist one. In Georgia today there is no alternative to a liberal-democratic model based on the ideas of a national state, European integration, and creation of an open society." But in an apparent contradiction, he continued: "But for this a strong organization is needed that would create a firm barrier against all the lobby groups and clan interests that are proliferating...For us an SMK that would wield real political power is not an end in itself but a means to thwart the designs of strong and influential clans."

As a political credo and plan of action, those theses may have been reasonable and logical two months ago, when the interview was conducted. But they may in the event never be implemented. Since then, the SMK parliament faction has begun to disintegrate: at least 12 of its members (not 37 as erroneously reported in "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, no. 37, 14 September 2000), mostly but not all of them young and with business interests, have quit the SMK faction to form an opposition grouping of their own. Some of the defectors have admitted that it was tensions within the faction that impelled them to do so.

Insofar as Zurab Zhvania is being groomed as Shevardnadze's successor, it is likely that in the event of a final split within the SMK, many of its older members would support Zhvania, while the younger generation might form the nucleus of Saakashvili's power base. But success in his new post will inevitably underscore the difference between Saakashvili, the architect of Georgia's judicial reform, who has a reputation as "Mr. Clean," and Zhvania, who some in Georgia have suggested has ties to questionable business associates.

While there is no hard evidence of a falling-out between Zhvania and Saakashvili, the latter's recent interview points to a major difference between the two on the crucial issue of relations with Russia. Over the past three to four years, Zhvania has been more outspokenly critical of Russian policy towards the South Caucasus than perhaps any other Georgian politician (with the possible exception of Revaz Adamia, the chairman of the parliament commission on defense and security, who is one of the possible candidates to succeed Saakashvili as SMK faction head). Saakashvili, in contrast, stresses the need for improved relations with Russia, which he terms the key to a successful foreign policy. He adds that the election of Vladimir Putin as Russian President has made the task of developing "normal" relation with Moscow much easier "because we now know who is in charge in the Kremlin and who takes the decisions."

Saakashvili's new post also inevitably will pit him against a man with whom he has already crossed swords, namely Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze, whom he recently accused of conducting clandestine surveillance of parliament deputies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 September 2000). Although Saakashvili did not mention Targamadze by name when criticizing corruption among the police force, Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, the young and respected chairwoman of the National Democratic Party of Georgia, has for years accused the interior minister of involvement in the shadow economy. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "One way or another, the Russians will be obliged to sit down at the negotiating table like last time. I don't cease to tell [Russian President] Putin that it would be better for him to negotiate with me while I'm still alive. Otherwise it will be worse. [...] This time I shall make it a point of honor that the document we sign after these negotiations will contain an international guarantee." -- Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov interviewed in "Liberation," 2 October.

"I have lots of friends in Russia and I believe that Azerbaijan and Russia have vast prospects for cooperation." -- Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, quoted by Caucasus Press on 29 September.

"We do not deny that there is corruption in Azerbaijan, but we are combatting it. " -- Azerbaijani presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev, quoted by Interfax on 3 October.