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Georgia’s Opposition Faces A Choice Between Unity And Principles

Irakli Alasania: What kind of a leader would he be?
Irakli Alasania: What kind of a leader would he be?
After the mass demonstrations of last spring failed to force Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili from office, the opposition was thrown into disarray. This has been obvious for some time, but the strange developments of the second half of February exceeded all expectations. The focus was the chaotic maneuvering of Irakli Alasania, head of the Alliance for Georgia coalition and, by most reckoning, the main rival to incumbent Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava in the municipal election scheduled for May. The host of a comic television show even complained that his neck was aching from following all of Alasania’s recent back-and-forthing.

The political stakes riding on the capital’s mayoral election – which, in accordance with the opposition’s demands, is being held by direct ballot for the first time – are considerably higher than one would expect in an ordinary democracy. The opposition is much stronger in the capital than in other parts of Georgia; during the 2008 presidential election, opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze won in Tbilisi, although he lost nationwide.

By agreeing to a direct election, the authorities took a serious political risk, and far from everyone in the ruling party agreed to this. For an opposition candidate, the Tbilisi mayor’s office is a powerful trampoline in the race for the presidency in 2013. Of course, the opposite risk also exists – if the opposition is unable to achieve victory even in Tbilisi, there is really no hope of winning a national election.

Saakashvili’s calculation is simple. As soon as the time comes for the opposition to determine precisely who is to be its candidate for mayor, its leaders will begin tearing each other apart. And this will allow Ugulava, who has cultivated an image as a modest, but effective, manager to quietly and deservedly garner a majority of the vote. It would seem this calculation is correct.

How To Achieve Unity?

The opposition understands that unity is its only chance. But how is this achieved exactly and – this is the main question – around whom should they rally? The opinion polls say that Alasania has the best prospects, but only if all the popular opposition leaders declare their support for him. But this is just what they don’t want to do. That’s why even those who have no love for Saakashvili have begun talking about the opposition’s inevitable loss in the May election in Tbilisi. The calls for the opposition to make one more effort at unification have become increasingly strident.

This is the background for Alasania’s recent strange perambulations. First, his coalition partners, the New Rightists and the Republicans, proposed the formula “all minus one,” meaning they are open to cooperation with everyone except former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, who has become entangled with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party. Alasania’s Free Democrats went along with their partners’ suggestion to exclude Noghaideli. However, this formulation was unacceptable for other opposition figures, most notably the popular Gachechiladze brothers, who are more to the taste of many ordinary Tbilisi residents than the overly suave Alasania. And opposition supporters believe an alliance between Alasania and the Gachechiladzes is the last hope for victory in May.

So, a couple of days later Alasania changed his mind and said that he accepts the conditions of the other opposition parties regarding the principles for determining a common candidate (that is, he agreed to join company with Noghaideli), but he would let his coalition partners make their own choice of campaign strategy. This meant the end of the Alliance for Georgia. But hardly had the discussion of this development begun when another bit of news emerged: Alasania was returning to the Alliance and beginning an active election campaign, having decided that the search for a common opposition candidate was hopeless. Alasania himself spent several days hiding from hordes of excited journalists. After all, it is hard to explain such incomprehensible zigzagging.

All of this, of course, can mostly be attributed to Alasania’s own chronic indecisiveness. And it makes the question of what kind of leader he’ll be all the more pertinent. But his wavering has cast light on a general problem of the entire opposition: the absence of a clear strategy and fundamental principles. In the absence of programmatic and ideological differences, there are two basic lines of division within the opposition.

'Thunder And Lightning'

The first concerns the methods to be used in the struggle for power. The Alliance for Georgia and the Christian Democrats lately have been fairly consistently saying that the only legitimate path to power is via elections, even if the campaign conditions established by the authorities are less than satisfactory. The others would either boycott elections or consider them simply opportunities to mobilize protest demonstrations by accusing the authorities of mass falsification. When the younger and more artistic Gachechiladze brother was asked recently what he expects from the May election, he answered: “Thunder and lightning." There is no chance of winning, so what else is there?

The second line of division concerns relations with Russia. Most oppositionists agree that although Russia is currently the enemy, it is nonetheless important to try to maintain some sort of relations with Moscow (which, for obvious reasons, Saakashvili cannot do). But it is altogether a different matter to reach separate agreements with Putin behind the backs of the legitimate government, as Noghaideli and then Nino Burjanadze have done. Many people – including many in the opposition – consider this collaboration and treason, at least in the moral sense, if not legally.

So the question again arises: Does the slogan “united opposition” imply cooperation with everyone who opposes Saakashvili or should unity be based as well on some sort of positive principles? Many in the opposition cannot answer this question.

These two lines of division are logically distinct, but in reality they are increasingly becoming blurred. Hopes for revolution and hopes for Russia are interwoven. In a recent interview with the Georgian pro-government tabloid “Prime Time,” United Russia Duma Deputy Sergei Markov quite openly laid out his country’s plans: Small states cannot be genuinely sovereign, and Georgia must be dependent on Moscow, not Washington; Moscow will cooperate with various opposition groups while also counting on the revolutionary traditions of the Georgian nation; everyone knows that power there changes not through elections, but through revolutions.

As a result, the Georgian opposition is becoming more clearly divided into the Thunder and Lightning Party (that is, pro-Russian) and the Elections Party (pro-Western). As the example of Alasania shows, it isn’t easy for everyone to find themselves in this scheme. But this episode also has had a positive result: The path chosen by Noghaideli and Burjanadze is not popular. After all, it was the negative reaction of many in the opposition to seeing Alasania sharing a podium with the renegade Noghaideli that pushed him to make his last move.

Increasingly, Saakashvili’s political enemies are conceding that the path to the temple of democracy lies through elections. The problem is that this faction of the opposition is in dire need of a strong, persuasive leader.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia Chavchavadze State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL