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Georgia: CUG Hopelessly Divided

The dismissal of the Georgian government last week highlights the growing rift between conservatives and reformers.
By Jaba Devdariani

President Eduard Shevardnadze's dismissal of his entire cabinet last week may well be his means of making a clean break with a government that has grown more and more unpopular over the last two years.


The decision followed a bizarre move by the state security ministry to send in thirty of its members to the Rustavi 2 television station in what was seen as an unacceptable attempt to silence a channel which has been relentless in its attacks on corruption within government circles.


The operation brought to a head tensions between rival government factions: the president's conservative allies and the so-called reformers whose views were aired by the station.


In truth, the groups have been clashing ever since the ruling Citizens Union of Georgia, CUG, was set up in 1993 in order to bolster President Shevardnadze's political power base.


Back then, they were united only in their common opposition against radical nationalism and militant secessionists. The coalition had since been kept together solely by the deft politicking of its leader.


Last month, however, Shevardnadze resigned from the party leadership, hoping to distance himself from a coalition more and more dominated by reformists. His clear intention was to shore up his alliances with his conservative colleagues, including interior minister Kakha Targamadze and security minister Vakhtang Kutateladze.


The latter's resignation on October 30 was yet another blow to the conservative wing whose popularity is currently at an extremely low ebb.


The tensions and rivalries within the floundering ruling coalition are best illustrated by the contrasting fortunes of conservative Vazha Lordkipanidze and reformer Mikeil Saakashvili, who both won important by-elections late last month.


In the Nineties, Saakashvili rapidly rose to prominence in the Georgian parliament. Young, ambitious, colourful, with a university education in both the East and West, he was the antithesis of the seasoned, but gray, Lordkipanidze, a typical product of the old school Soviet nomenklatura.


Saakashvili's popularity eased his way to election as CUG chairman in 1998.


As a counter to the growing influence of the reformers, Shevardnadze recalled Lordkipanidze from Moscow where he had been serving as ambassador, appointing him state minister, the second most powerful post in the country.


But Shevardnadze's balancing act was going to falter. Tensions between the young reformers and conservatives started to grow. Soon Lordkipanidze was out on his ear when the reformers managed to persuade Shevardnadze to ditch him in May 2000.


With Lordkipanidze out of their way, the reformists started to take executive power. Saakashvili became justice minister in October 2000 and pushed ahead even harder with his anti-corruption drive.


He started by demanding urgent action to deal with graft within the ministry of interior and prosecutor's office. But Shevardnadze, loyal to the conservatives who ran these ministeries, did nothing. Sensing the hopelessness of his quest, Saakashvili resigned.


"Reform of the government from within is beyond the realms of possibility, " said Saakashvili in his resignation speech.


In the surrounding fuss, Shevardnadze, who found himself unable any more to deal with the factions inside CUG, stepped to one side and washed his hands of the coalition.


The polarisation of the CUG, it seems, was merely a reflection of the clash of two worlds that takes place in every walk of life in Georgia.


Jaba Devdariani is the founding director of UNA-Georgia. Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the position of UNA-Georgia.