Georgian Reformer Faces Political Oblivion

On the eve of Georgia's local elections, the country's most prominent pro-Western politician has lost control of his party - and perhaps his political career

Georgian Reformer Faces Political Oblivion

On the eve of Georgia's local elections, the country's most prominent pro-Western politician has lost control of his party - and perhaps his political career

Zurab Zhvania, former right-hand man of President Shevardnadze, is struggling to rescue his political career after losing the battle for control of the former governing party, the Citizens Union of Georgia.

As speaker of parliament, Zhvania was a favourite of the West and widely talked of as the heir to Shevardnadze. But, after resigning as speaker last year, Zhvania has now ceded control of his CUG power-base to Shevardnadze loyalists.

Zhvania and his supporters have been forced to stand on the ticket of the little-known Christian Conservative Party in the upcoming local elections on June 2. These polls are being seen as the prelude to parliamentary elections, which are due to be held in the autumn of 2003.

The feuding inside the CUG erupted into the open last autumn when Shevardnadze, who had quarrelled with Zhvania's "reformers", resigned as party chairman.

The party broke into two warring camps: supporters of the president, headed by the governor of the Kemo Kvartli region Levan Mamladze and pro-western allies of Zhvania, who announced that the CUG was becoming an opposition party.

Zhvania stayed on as head of the committee organising the party congress at which they planned a purge of party ranks. His team hoped to use the party's coffers and property to become the heir of the old CUG and prepare for the post-Shevardnadze era, which begins in 2005, when the president's second term expires.

However, the "reformers" suffered a series of serious reverses - in what many in Tbilisi are calling a "velvet revolution". First, the Tbilisi district court and then the supreme court disallowed the application by Zhvania's team to run under the CUG's name in the local elections. This was what forced them to find refuge in the Christian Conservative Party. Then the Zhvania group lost the chairmanship of all 16 parliamentary committees.

The pro-Shevardnadze group are capitalising on their success. The head of the CUG coordinating council, the parliamentary deputy Gela Kvaratskhelia, said that he plans to call a party congress before the June elections, which will adopt changes to its regulations, change the structure and start the process of appointing a new leader. The post of party chairman has been vacant since Shevardnadze stepped down in September.

Kvaratskhelia said that Zhvania and his supporters had done "nothing but evil" to the party, and confirmed that they would have nothing to do with the planned congress.

Zhvania supporter Eduard Surmanidze said that the CUG parliamentary group would split in two within the next few days. He said that 10-12 of the 36 deputies would form a group loyal to Shevardnadze. The rest, supporting Zhvania, would set about creating a new party. They will probably go into alliance with another "dissident", the former justice minister Mikhail Saakishvili.

Twenty-two parties and blocs are contesting the elections for the local assembly, or "sakrebulo", in Tbilisi. Shevardnadze appears to be placing his bets on the "New Rights" movement, founded by a group of MPs who quarrelled with Zhvania a few years ago.

Leading candidates on the New Rights list for the Tbilisi poll on June 2 include five-times women's world chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili and Mzia Tortladze, sister of influential businessman, Badri Patarkatsishvili. Patarkatsishvili recently donated one million lari (about 500,000 US dollars) to help victims of last month's earthquake in the capital.

The string of setbacks presents Zhvania, who is still only 38, with the biggest challenge of his career. Political observers are wondering if this is his political funeral or whether he can rise from the ashes of the governing party and be able to stand for president in 2005.

Zhvania made his reputation as a young member of Georgia's Green movement, who had not studied in party schools. First elected to parliament in 1992, when he was not yet 30, he became speaker in 1995 and formed a close relationship with Shevardnadze. In 1999 he was re-elected to the post.

One seasoned political analyst, the former parliamentary deputy Ivlian Khaindrava, said the former speaker's star was definitely waning - but cautioned against the idea that the Shevardnadze-Zhvania alliance was necessarily over.

"I don't believe we can say that it is all over between Shevardnadze and Zhvania," he said. "We can't definitely rule out their coming together again in the future. If they find they need each other, they will reunite. At the same time, there always have been, are and will be many people who wish to replace Zhvania as Shevardnadze's favourite."

Khaindrava said that the president had little reason to turn to Zhvania at the moment and that his refuge in the Christian Conservative Party was "not the shortest route to president". "To keep himself in politics, Zhvania has to look more realistically at his own strength and prospects," Khaindrava said.

Mikhail Vignansky is director of Prime News agency in Tbilisi.

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