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Georgian Reformer's Tbilisi Battle

Mikheil Saakishvili has won his battle to lead Tbilisi city council - but a fellow Georgian reformer may have benefited most from the struggle.
By Jaba Devdariani

Mikheil Saakashvili, the most ardent opponent of Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, was finally elected chairman of Tbilisi city council on November 5. But a five-month delay in him assuming his post may have cost his political career dearly.

The June 2 local elections in Tbilisi ended in triumph for the radical opposition, the two winning parties - Saakashvili's New National Movement and Shalva Natelashvili's Labour Party - having rallied under the slogan "Tbilisi without Shevardnadze".

However, the opposition's victory turned sour as the courts ordered a vote recount because of numerous reports of procedural violations. Five months on, the recounts did not change the balance of seats, but in the mean time the political landscape of Georgia had begun to change to Saakashvili's disadvantage.

Saakashvili, formerly justice minister and one of the leaders of the "young reformers" wing of the governing party, the Citizens Union of Georgia, had repeatedly challenged Shevardnadze over corruption in his administration, before he resigned from the government in September 2001.

The charismatic figure was re-elected as a parliamentary deputy in a subsequent by-election, and launched the New National Movement, an opposition coalition of reformist and nationalist forces.

It is widely believed that Saakashvili has presidential ambitions for 2005, when Shevardnadze's second term expires. By running for the Tbilisi city council, he was evidently hoping to gain increased public exposure and become the opposition's principal figure.

However, Zurab Zhvania, Saakashvili's main ally and rival for leader of the reformist opposition, benefited from the protracted recount saga. Zhvania, head of the moderate reformers, announced on November 1 that he would run for the presidency in two and a half year's time. His United Democrats party has also begun to outline an extensive policy agenda for next year's parliamentary elections.

By contrast, Saakashvili's New Nationalist Movement have not even had the chance to begin to implement the reforms they have promised for Tbilisi, leaving them critically short time for elaborating a nation-wide campaign for 2003.

Saakashvili has declared that his agenda as a chairman of the city council is "to confront the corrupt hierarchy" governing Georgia. He has also stated that his party has "specific programmes" for energy, construction and water supply, which it will implement in the Georgian capital.

However, a good number of Tbilisi residents are sceptical that Saakashvili has the power, or indeed the will, to tackle their everyday problems. Nino Mzhavia spoke for many when she said she thought the former justice minister preferred "showy occasions" to real work, "Most things [Saakashvili] did when he was the [justice] minister, did not last," she said.

Saakashvili also runs the risk of losing votes of much of his natural electorate among the liberal intelligentsia to the more moderate Zhvania. The New Nationalists have displayed a much more radical streak in recent weeks. Party activists broke into a session of the Central Electoral Commission and later virtually laid siege to the Tbilisi municipal headquarters as the vote for the new chairman got underway.

As a result, some observers argue that Saakashvili is interested only in being as vocal a council chairman as possible so that he can compensate for the diminishing returns of his new political position and attract broad new public support for his fight against Shevardnadze.

One of his first battles is likely to be waged against the un-elected mayor of Tbilisi, presidential appointee Vano Zodelava. Zodelava possesses much more power than the city council, although the latter has the power to impeach him and to block many of his decisions.

So far, Saakashvili has said he "does not intend to cooperate closely with Zodelava", but will have a working relationship with him, as he would any politician "including Shevardnadze". The mayor himself cautiously stated in a recent interview that "it is better to greet the new council well [than fight against it]".

As the mayor and the council chairman square up for battle, Saakashvili can count on 33 votes - 15, 14 and 4 from the Labour party, New Nationalists and Zurab Zhvania team, respectively - in support of his policies in the 49-seat chamber.

The main opposition force, The New Rights, can expect maximum of only 16 votes. However, the Labour party whose representatives were easily swayed by the CUG in the previous city council of Tbilisi, could shift its allegiance. It is expected that the revitalised CUG under the powerful state minister Avtandil Jorbenadze (effectively Georgia's prime minister) will try to use the levers of government to make Saakishvili's life uncomfortable.

Thus, while the Tbilisi city council becomes a bellwether for the upcoming parliamentary elections, the political haggling is likely to overshadow most of the real problems of an impoverished city with its crumbling infrastructure and services. In the long run, Tbilisi city council, won in a hard battle by the opposition, could end up being the tombstone for a large part of it.

Jaba Devdariani is editor-in-chief of Civil Georgia,

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