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Clash of the Tbilisi Titans
A fierce power struggle is brewing in Georgia between the leading lights of the ruling cabal.
Serving President Eduard Shevardnadze's victory in elections scheduled for April 9 appears to be a foregone conclusion, but the battle to succeed him will then begin in earnest.
An intense rivalry is already emerging among the three main contenders in Shevardnadze's ruling Citizen's Union party, which mopped up nearly two-thirds of the seats in last year's parliamentary elections, effectively pushing all other political factions out of the picture.
But the three gladiators, Parliamentary Chairman Zurab Zhvania, Minister of State Vaja Lordkipanidze and Niko Lekishvili, leader of the parliamentary majority, are expected to step up their fight for popular support, increased parliamentary influence and, last but not least, the approval of President Shevardnadze after he is re-elected.
They will also be struggling to discredit one another wherever possible and score political points.
The most immediate prize is the post of prime-minister, proposed 18 months ago as part of a package of constitutional reforms. It is likely the post will be introduced after the April elections and whomever Shevardnadze appoints will be seen as his heir apparent in 2005.
Lekishvili is a former entrepreneur who enjoys the respect of the local business community. In the last elections, he succeeded in bringing a large body of his supporters into parliament and now wields considerable influence over the republic's top financiers.
While Lekishvili lacks the power base to launch his own leadership bid, he may choose to throw his weight behind either of his rivals and this could seriously tilt the balance of power in the Georgian government.
Zurab Zhvania has been working hard to portray himself as a bastion of honesty. He is a champion of free speech, national culture and nongovernmental groups. However, his reputation has been tarnished by his apparent inability to shake up the Georgian legal system, which is dogged by corruption and in-fighting.
Many voters are also concerned that the ranks of the Citizen's Union party - hand-picked by Zhvania - includes several controversial figures who are opposed to legislative reforms.
Formerly Georgia's ambassador to Moscow, Vaja Lordkipanidze was recalled by Shevardnadze in August 1998 and appointed Minister of State. He has since been given the hottest political potatoes to juggle: Abkhazia and the national economy.
These unenviable tasks offer Lordkipanidze opportunities both for covering himself in political glory and for committing political suicide. The Georgian refugees who fled Abkhazia during the conflict are pinning their hopes on Lordkipanidze - and will be slow to forgive him if he fails.
The challenge of turning round the Georgian economy is no less demanding. According to the state department of statistics, 90 per cent of the population live below the poverty line while 30 per cent are thought to exist on the edge of starvation. The average salary in Georgia is around 70 lari ($35) a month whilst the minimum required for a normal existence is estimated at between 113 and 190 lari.
Vaja Lordkipanidze is well aware that his rivals are eagerly awaiting his downfall. Zurab Zhvania misses no opportunity to highlight the failure of economic reforms and has applauded recent moves by Shevardnadze to increase Lordkipanidze's responsibilities. Give the minister of state enough rope, reasons Zhvania, and he will hang himself.
But Lordkipanidze himself is cautious, rarely entering into open conflict and keeping his personal spheres of interest tightly under wraps. He knows that Zhvania will have to start tackling major national problems if he is to gain credibility within the party and the country as a whole.
Shevardnadze will have to time his appointment of a prime minister carefully. Too soon and the candidate will be unlikely to last the distance; too late and he will have no time to gain the public's confidence.
Certainly, the population at large will look at the president's official heir with intense scrutiny. While they credit Shevardnadze with building the Georgian state, they no longer expect him to spearhead the radical reforms needed to drag the fledgling republic onto the international stage.
Ia Antadze is a journalist on the Tbilisi newspaper Kavkasioni.
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