Just three months after failing to regain power in Georgia's parliamentary elections, the opposition United National Movement (ENM) is on the verge of splitting into two entities that could become rivals in municipal elections due later this year.
The bone of contention between the two factions is party leader and former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was stripped of his Georgian citizenship in November 2015 after being appointed governor of the Ukrainian city of Odesa.
Although non-Georgian citizens may not engage in politics in Georgia, Saakashvili was never formally removed from the post of ENM chairman. His supporters within the party want to underscore his status as its informal acclaimed leader by not electing a new chairman at a congress of 7,000 delegates scheduled for January 20..
Some of the party's most influential members, however, including former National Security Council head Giga Bokeria, regard Saakashvili as a liability and would prefer Davit Bakradze, who headed the ENM faction in the outgoing parliament, as a new chairman.
The prospect that Saakashvili could have officially been named as prime minister in the event of an ENM victory is viewed by former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, a long-time ENM member and former close associate of Saakashvili, as a potential reason for the party's undoing in the October vote.
In early November, Ugulava -- who was then serving a prison term on a charge of misspending millions of laris of public funds in the run-up to the 2012 parliamentary ballot in which the ENM was swept from power -- published an open letter wherein he suggested that the party's failure to state clearly whom it would nominate as prime minister had deterred some potential supporters who feared Saakashvili's return. (Saakashvili may have compounded those fears by affirming in a Facebook post 48 hours before the election that he planned to return to Georgia from Ukraine to celebrate the ENM win.) Ugulava further suggested electing an entire new party leadership, including a new chairman.
Ugulava was released from jail on January 6 after the Tbilisi Appeals Court reduced his sentence, and immediately told journalists he would do all he could to put an end to what he termed the "shameful and ridiculous spectacle" of infighting within the ENM.
At the same time, he made it clear that he had little hope of ending the standoff between the two factions. Ugulava said he planned to meet personally with Saakashvili to discuss the situation, but no such meeting has taken place, and a telephone conversation between the two men was apparently inconclusive.
Meanwhile, the anti-Saakashvili faction, which is seen as uniting the party's best intellects, is arguing that the committee Saakashvili's supporters set up to organize the January 20 congress is illegal.
Ratiani also sought without success on January 9 to force the resignation of Nikanor Melia, who heads the 20-member ENM parliament faction. Melia countered by accusing the Bokeria-Bakradze-Ratiani wing of cutting a secret deal with Bidzina Ivanishvili, the wealthy businessman who founded Georgian Dream and is rumored to influence, if not dictate, its policies. Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GD-DG) swept the ENM from power in 2012, and retained its ruling-party status in October by winning another four-year term.
Unconfirmed reports predict Melia will create an independent parliament faction numbering up to eight parliamentarians, while Ugulava, Bokeria, and Bakradze will formally quit the ENM on January 12 and join the party European Georgia, which was part of the ENM election bloc.
If they do so, the prediction by Saakashvili supporter Zurab Melikishvili that the party will emerge "strengthened" from its congress next week, looks utopian.
It is as yet unclear which faction former Interior Minister and Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, who is serving prison terms for assaulting a parliamentarian and for his role in the violent crackdown in May 2011 on antigovernment demonstrators in Tbilisi, will side with.
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