Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Georgia Awaits a Transfiguration
As the dull crump of artillery fire broke the stillness of the Tbilisi night, a wave of panic swept through the capital. People ran out into the streets in a state of confusion. "It's a terrorist attack. They're shelling the chancellery," pronounced some prophet of doom.
In the newsroom of the Kavkasioni newspaper, which adjoins the chancellery building, the late shift was still hard at work. Seconds after the opening salvo, a reporter sprinted into the office. "Hurry up!" he yelled. "Grab your things and run! It's dangerous here!"
Outside, people were scurrying back and forth - some towards the chancellery; others in the opposite direction. One man was carrying a sleeping child in his arms.
Still, the reports rang out at 30-second intervals - but, miraculously, the chancellery building remained unharmed.
Then a figure appeared at an open window and called down, "Don't be afraid. They've just announced on TV that it's a rehearsal for the president's inauguration ceremony!"
It took some time for people to calm down. Nearly all the residents of the surrounding streets were forced to abandon their homes during the armed coup of 1991-1992. In those terrifying days, bullets smashed through the windows like deadly hail-stones: such memories die hard.
The next morning, a woman living on the adjoining street told TV reporters, "We thought war had broken out again." It was an inauspicious prelude to President Eduard Shevardnadze's second term of office, which was given its official send-off later that day.
However, the April 30 inauguration ceremony was redolent with good omens. Lowering rain-clouds rolled back to reveal blue skies and a soaring rainbow. "The rainbow proves that your presidency will be peaceful and prosperous," commented the Georgian patriarch, Ilia the Second, as he blessed the president.
Shevardnadze was accompanied by an extended entourage, which included his wife, children and grandchildren as well as the State Minister, the parliamentary speaker and the nation's law lords. Foreign dignitaries included Russian oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky: heads of state were not invited because of budgetary constraints.
On the square outside Tbilisi's parliament building, the president took a solemn oath to God and country.
In fact, questions of symbolism and portent had overshadowed the build-up to the inauguration ceremony. Local religious groups were outraged that the event - scheduled as per the 1995 constitution for the third Sunday after the elections - coincided with the Orthodox Easter.
Members of the National Independence opposition party staged a protest meeting outside the patriarch's residence, calling on the church to boycott the ceremony. "Does Shevardnadze think he's God Almighty?" was one commonly expressed opinion.
But Shevardnadze was quick to point out that the inauguration day was determined by the constitution not the president and, to counter any accusations of hubris, he added that the date had been approved by the patriarch himself. Ilia the Second stood by his decision - and even gave the coincidence a political slant.
During a celebratory service at the Svetitskhovely Cathedral, he said, "Mr. President, it's no accident that your inauguration has fallen on Easter Day. Our country awaits a transfiguration. Divine Georgia in heaven prays for you and for our country."
But Eduard Shevardnadze is never one to shy away from symbolic gestures. Last week's ceremony included a visit to the Mtatsminda Pantheon where the president paid tribute to the memory of great figures from Georgia's past. The ritual served to underline his much-vaunted commitment to freedom and to European values. "Ascending Mtatsminda is a mystical act," he said. "It signifies a spiritual oneness with the past."
And, naturally, Shevardnadze didn't miss the opportunity to trumpet his commitment to Georgia's future. After the inauguration ceremony was over, he was seen to exchange a few words with his namesake, four-year-old Eduardo Saakashvili, the son of a prominent Citizen's Union leader.
But now the time for theatrical flourishes is over and the population waits eagerly for signs of decisive action. According to the terms of the constitution, after taking his oath the president accepts the resignation of his entire government. Two weeks later, he is obliged to present parliament with a new cabinet.
On the eve of the elections, Shevardnadze pledged that he would not shrink from firing any ministers who had failed to carry out their duties. During his electoral campaign, Georgian television broadcast this promise at least 20 times a day.
In his inauguration speech, the president enlarged on the theme. "We won't tolerate this any more," he declared. "Serious changes will be made in both central and local government. I'm determined to get rid of anyone who is embroiled in corruption and can't handle his job."
But any initial optimism was probably punctured by Shevardnadze's subsequent pronouncements. "You'd be wrong to expect any revolutionary changes," he said. "The core of the government will remain unchanged."
As a result, an atmosphere of lingering uncertainty hangs over the population at large. There is hope of significant government reforms and improvements in living conditions. But, on the other hand, there is a growing fear that life will carry on as before and corrupt ministers will hang on to their posts.
Malkhaz Kharbedia, deputy editor of Arili magazine, loves literature but loathes politics. His family faces problems common to most people in Georgia - all four members are professionally qualified, but only one has been lucky enough to find a job.
Kharbedia is convinced that the proposed changes will do nothing to improve his family's lot. State policy, he explains, has never had the interests of the people at heart.
"People accept and endure life in Georgia as something inevitable, but those in power don't seem to realise how many sacrifices society is making. I worry that people may turn to irrational solutions - maybe even violence. The relationship between the people and their leaders is utterly archaic and has no place in the 21st century."
In the old days, says Kharbedia, people faced problems collectively while now they attempt to tackle them as individuals. "Overcoming problems on an individual level seems to be the best way out. It is perhaps the only way that an ordinary person can find a role for himself in society. Sooner or later, we'll reach the point when we're no longer slaves to what we call our 'fate'. And, just like in the West, less and less will depend on a set of irrational values."
But it's hard not to remember how the patriarch, the president and the members of his family eagerly harped on the happy coincidence of Easter and the presidential inauguration - and the portentous omen of a rainbow in a clear April sky.
Ia Antadze is a correspondent for the Kavkasioni newspaper in Tbilisi.
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