After Shevardnadze: It's Anyone's Game
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project
After Shevardnadze: It''s Anyone''s Game
by Cory Welt
Cory Welt is a doctoral candidate in the Political Science Department at MIT.
Eduard Shevardnadze has established a commanding position in the Georgian political landscape, a position which was reinforced by the October 1999 parliamentary elections which saw Shevardnadze''s Citizens'' Union of Georgia emerge victorious. However, inside Georgia, Shevardnadze is a deeply unpopular figure who has failed to deal with problems of poverty, corruption, and secessionism. There are a number of political forces within the country that could mount a challenge to Shevardnadze in the future, either electorally or by force of arms.* * *If the joke going around Baku has President Heydar Aliyev kindly discouraging his granddaughter from running for president, the version in Tbilisi ends with Eduard Shevardnadze throwing his grandson over the balcony. To the West, Shevardnadze is that treasured sort of transition leader - a cultivator of democracy and a guarantor of stability. To the Georgians who tell the joke, however, Shevardnadze is a sly old fox, who dodges the bullets of assassins, welcomes foreign guests while slapping down his own family, and alienates every one of his supporters. Most Georgians believe that Shevardnadze came to power unjustly and has hung on far too long; and almost no one wants to see him around much longer.
Like the rest of his peers in the southern tier, however, Eduard Shevardnadze has at least one presidential term to go. Despite Georgians'' personal feelings about their president, virtually everyone is afraid of what the Shevardnadze-less future will bring. Between parliamentary elections on 31 October 1999 and presidential elections in April 2000, no candidate equal in stature and capable of promising greater personal security is likely to emerge. President by
default, Shevardnadze will be around until he''s forcibly thrown from power or passes from this earth. In the meantime, the struggle for post-Shevardnadze power will quietly (and, on occasion, not-so-quietly) continue.
If all goes well, this struggle will take place in the halls of the Georgian parliament. As surprising as it may be given Georgia''s post-Soviet political nosedive, the country is currently a partially functioning democracy. A number of political parties have a strong presence at national and local levels, they have varying opinions and bases of support, and (on occasion) they even influence the passage of legislation. They do not, by any means, control the levers of power: that job is reserved for the president and his regional representatives. But the parties do serve as legitimate, institutionalized arenas for the cultivation of new political leadership. And in preparation for October''s parliamentary elections (the country''s second post-independent poll) political forces in Georgia have neatly coalesced into several blocs covering a broad party spectrum. With a seven-percent threshold for representation, these elections will annihilate marginal parties and consolidate those that remain. If Georgia hews to its democratic path, presidential personalities should emerge on the basis of these new political formations.
The Parties and their Leaders
Shevardnadze''s CUG (Citizens'' Union of Georgia)
The CUG is the ruling party, formed in 1993 as the institutional base of the Shevardnadze presidency. As a vehicle for initiating a Shevardnadzid dynasty, however, it is woefully inapt. Two parties in one, the CUG is first and foremost the party of centralized power. This formation is made up of Shevardnadze''s ex-Communist cohorts in Tbilisi and friends and lackeys in the regions, deployed to keep the country together and to turn in the CUG vote. It is a party of Shevardnadze supporters that have remained such primarily because Shevardnadze supports them. It is a colorless institution that will not breed successors to Shevardnadze; most of its at all charismatic cadres have already fled to other parties. When Shevardnadze finally goes, this CUG will be wholly abandoned.
Columbia University''s CUG
The second CUG is the one familiar to the West. Shevardnadze''s second brainchild, it is a structure filled with convivial, bright, English-speaking thirty- and forty-somethings, many of whom have an educational stint at Columbia University or another Western institution under their belt. These are the reformers and technocrats running the parliamentary show and entrusted with prominent ministerial appointments like finance and justice. Generally liked by the population and a critical presence for maintaining Western support, Georgia''s "Young Turks" ought to have a future in presidential politics. Their positive qualities may, however, turn out to be their undoing. One newspaper speculates that Shevardnadze, under siege from an array of oppositional forces, may yet "betray [his] only truly loyal team" Shvidi Dghe, 27 August 1999.Young and with few powerful backers, the "Columbia" CUG for now must be content as the president''s model apparat. If, when he goes, they''ve managed to toughen up, they might have a chance at securing the next helm of leadership.
Aslan Abashidze''s Aghordzineba (Revival)
Aslan Abashidze is the big, bad wolf of Georgian politics - the entrenched leader of the autonomous republic of Ajara, a Black Sea region on the Turkish border which is, theoretically, the homeland of the Muslim Georgian population (never mind that Abashidze''s own grandchild was recently baptized). Once just a regional overlord, Abashidze has of late gotten into the national political game. Together with a quirky personality (he''s accused Tbilisi of trying to assassinate him with laser weapons), Abashidze has money (thanks to his lock on border trade), guns (a Russian military base), and a bevy of "irreconcilable" opposition parties that have come running to his side. His political movement Revival is a force to watch out for, especially now that Abashidze has officially been declared its presidential nominee.
For the longest time, Abashidze''s relationship to the center was unclear. Conventional wisdom assumed that he was just the largest of many links between the Shevardnadze center and the regions: in exchange for political support, Abashidze was granted free reign in Ajara. Now that he is a national contender, however, this covert partnership has been openly dropped. In a pre-election interview, the president accused Abashidze of having "turned people into slavesâ€¦established a police regime in classical formâ€¦and made the robbing of the country a [routine] occurrence." BBC, from Georgian radio service, October 18, 1999.
Whether such vitriol is authentic or just election maneuvering, Shevardnadze''s assessment of Abashidze is, more or less, right on. Abashidze is a clan leader extraordinaire, who maintains extremely good relations with both the Russian military and Georgian "constitutional" monarchists. This is not a man the West should like to see running the next Georgian government. Fortunately, the Georgian population tends to agree. Outside Ajara and Samegrelo (home of the Mingrelians, infamous for their support of ex-president Zviad Gamsakhurdia), Revival does not have enough support for Abashidze to become an electoral presidential threat. He is a major player - the major player, in fact, next to Shevardnadze - but for him to win on the national scene will require a crisis of Weimar-scale proportions. Otherwise, popular fear will keep the masses at Shevardnadze''s side.
Gogi Topadze (the "Beer King")''s ISG (Industry will Save Georgia)
Director of the alcohol-restaurant conglomerate Qazbegi, Gogi Topadze is the newest entry in the Georgian political lineup and the dark horse of the parliamentary campaign. When Topadze formed his political movement "Industry will Save Georgia" back in May, no one took him very seriously. Here was one of the wealthier men in the country seeking to woo not only embittered industrialists but doctors, teachers, and all others who have been impoverished in the market "transition." Shvidi Dghe, 5 May 1999. Taking aim at Shevardnadze''s reform team, Topadze accused the government of succumbing to the demands of international financial institutions at the expense of local production.
ISG''s message is one that resonates with a large sector of the Georgian population. Resentful of policies they blame for mass unemployment, a "re-ruralization" of the economy, and the surrender of national property (Tbilisi''s electricity distribution sold to an American firm, lumber smuggled out to Turkey), many respond to Topadze''s message. Whether they respond to its bearer, however, remains to be seen.
Since May, however, Topadze has recruited a number of experienced officials and politicians to his side - including well-known former members of Shevardnadze''s team. The main two are David Salaridze, former chief of police, tax department chairman, and ombudsman, and Temur Basilia, long-time presidential advisor on economic reforms. Famed for being single-handedly responsible for the bulk of tax collection during his tenure, Salaridze is a bit of a bulldog - he gets things done but leaves little of an institutional structure behind. Basilia, for his part, typically gets high marks for his role in the reform administration. The inclusion of Salaridze and Basilia in the ISG bloc gives the movement a strong stamp of legitimacy and competence.
The late inclusion of Guram Sharadze''s "Georgia First of All" in the ISG bloc may prove to be a stroke of genius. Sharadze sparked a national debate at the start of the year by protesting the removal of ethnic identity from internal identification cards. Popular support for his position (from Georgians and minorities alike) resulted in a revocation of this decision. With Sharadze on the team, the ISG should be able to extend its electoral pull. Industry and nationalism is, of course, a potent combination.
It can, however, also be a dangerous one. The elections will demonstrate how much of an attraction such a movement actually is. Then it will be up to Topadze and his cohorts to manage it responsibly. The entry of ISG into national politics could be the most sensible balance to the CUG''s internationalist position. If it becomes too popular, however, the movement''s leaders will have to be careful not to descend into ironclad protectionism and demagogy.
The also-rans-Shalva Natelashvili''s Laborists (the Labor Party); Irina''s "Third Way" (National Democratic Alliance); Mamuka Giorgadze''s People''s Party.
While at least two of these parties (the Laborists and the NDA) stand a chance of overcoming the seven-percent barrier, presidential contenders will not emerge from any of them. The Laborists were a surprise success in last year''s local elections, sweeping into power in many councils on a platform of free education, health, and various social services. Since then, they have separated from their Ajaran patron Abashidze and have not demonstrated any particular flair for governance. Now that the ISG is around, moreover, there is very little reason for voters sympathetic to its message to look elsewhere.
The NDA - an alliance of Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia''s NDP and the small, intellectual Republican Party - is another formation destined for permanent political opposition. Known as the most principled political party, the NDP/Republicans have virtually the same policy program as the CUG minus the corruption. Unfortunately, the distinction between the NDA and the government is too fine for the average voter. Moreover, rumors abound that Sarishvili - the widow of independence-era politician Gia Chanturia - is really nothing more than a Shevardnadze stooge. Her initiation of the seven-percent barrier, a move that was hardly in her party''s strategic interests, confirmed many people''s suspicions. So while the NDA may have enough of a following to stay in parliament, it will have to find common ground with a stronger party to even hope of later fielding a promising presidential candidate.
The People''s Party is in even greater trouble. Having broken away from the NDP when Sarishvili took over, the People''s Party is comprised of well-meaning, competent politicians. However, its constant yet low support among the electorate has been diminished by a failed flirtation with Abashidze''s Revival alliance. Stuck between the two giants and competing directly against the NDA, the People''s Party will likely be singing its swan song in the October election.
If parliamentary elections are held and the results accepted without much contention, they will shape the prospects for succession after Shevardnadze goes. It might be too much to insist that Georgia is on the way to developing a stable, multiparty system, but at least some indicators point in the right direction. If the same blocs are around after Shevardnadze leaves office, presumably in 2005, his successors will emerge from institutionalized parties with more or less clear political preferences. Swings left and right will occur, but nothing too extraordinary. Georgia will have politically become the equivalent of a Central European polity. All of this is, however, a very big if.
Coups and Chaos
Georgia''s stable future is far from assured. Its disputes with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are nowhere near resolution. The Russian military bases in Ajara and the Armenian-populated Javakheti encourage resistance towards central authority in those regions as well. Even Samegrelo occasionally produces a defender of local "autonomy." Until Tbilisi settles relations with its regions and resolves the "Russia" question, all bets are off. Remember: Shevardnadze himself came to power through non-democratic means; he could easily be removed the same way.
There are at least three candidates to launch coup attempts. The first is Abashidze. He''s got guns. He wants power. He''s also managed to cultivate quite a following among Gamsakhurdia loyalists. If he can manage his odd Russian/nationalist alliance, he may not get enough votes to win a presidential election, but he could round up enough supporters to engineer a presidential coup. Already, CUG officials are predicting a nasty response from Abashidze after he loses the parliamentary elections.
Another perennial candidate is Igor Giorgadze, the former minister of security who was implicated in the first Shevardnadze assassination attempt. Bouncing between Russia and western Georgia, Giorgadze has managed to avoid the authorities and maintain an aura of invincibility. With his father at the head of the most prominent successor to Georgia''s Communist Party, which advocates extremely close relations with Russia, Giorgadze is a force many continue to worry about.
Finally, there is a host of real and imaginary Russia-backed Zviadists and other Mingrelians. Samegrelo is the last niche in a presumed Russian plot to block Georgian access to the Black Sea (the only major port outside of Abkhazia and Ajara is Mingrelian Poti). The emergence in Samegrelo last spring of a shadowy figure from Moscow calling for Mingrelian autonomy has heightened the population''s paranoia.
Obviously, it is difficult to measure the possibility that a coup is going to determine the post-Shevardnadze succession. Assassination and coup attempts are, however, typical fare in post-Soviet Georgia and no one would be surprised if another attempt were actually successful. While much of Georgia would not mourn Shevardnadze''s passing, another coup d''etat is not what the country needs.
What, then, does Georgia need? The ideal successor - if he or she could be found - would be a Lech Walesa-type leader, committed in principle to reform but able to garner support a popular level. Like Walesa, such a successor would be a transitional figure, slightly authoritarian in manner. Georgia is, however, very much still at the start of its voyage to normalcy. After Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze, charisma tempered by rationality is a character set that this country sorely needs.
The parliamentary elections of 31 October 1999 confirmed the CUG''s position as the pre-eminent political force in Georgia. Through methods fair and foul, the ruling party acquired 42 percent of the popular vote, while its main competitor, the Revival bloc, received 25 percent. Surprisingly - and, to many, suspiciously - the only other party to clear the seven-percent barrier was Gogi Topadze''s Industry will Save Georgia, with just over 7 percent of the votes. The Labor Party received just under 7 percent, while the National Democratic Alliance and the People''s Party each received less than 5 percent.
With 80 out of 150 seats reserved for party lists and at least another 39 from single-mandate constituencies (out of 75), the CUG has probably acquired even more seats than they won in the previous poll of 1995. Their success, however, should not necessarily be interpreted as a reflection of popular approval. Intimidation, bribery, and popular fear of the opposition accounted in no small measure to this CUG victory.The greatest winners in the elections are the young and, in many cases, Western-educated members of the CUG. With their ranks bolstered by a fresh party list, it is this branch of the CUG that has the greatest chance of eventually producing a successful presidential candidate to succeed Eduard Shevardnadze.
For Academic Citation: