Probing for the Right Spot

The recently-founded New Right Party joins the race to become Georgia's political alternative

Probing for the Right Spot

The recently-founded New Right Party joins the race to become Georgia's political alternative

The process of political realignment in Georgia took a further step into the unknown with the launch of the New Right Party, NRP, in Tbilisi on June 15.

The NRP owes its support to members of New Faction, a party of up-and-coming commercial interests that parted company with the ruling Citizens' Union of Georgia , CUG, amid controversy late last year.

The creation of a new right-wing party underlines the ongoing struggle to claim a niche still vacant in Georgia's political spectrum. But the number of contestants vying for the slot also suggests that, unless they forge a consensus, the vacancy may remain unfilled.

The weakness of the conservatives dates back to 1991 when the government of former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia ended in a violent civil confrontation that left Tbilisi's city centre in flames. The bloodshed that ensued discredited the nationalist agenda that dominated Georgia's first years of independence.

Economic deprivation ensured the continuing appeal of centre-left policies, a situation that persisted until recently. Even Eduard Shevardnadze's CUG flaunted its credentials by joining the Socialist International in 1995.

The National Democrats, the party with the most consistent centre-right ideology, have to date fared badly.

But there is evidence that the pendulum is swinging the other way. Modern rightist movements in Georgia are trying to combine market-based, reform programmes with a strong element of protectionism.

Industry Will Save Georgia, 'The Industrialists', were the first to blend national business interests with rightist ideology. Led by beer baron Gogi Topadze, the newly formed alliance entered parliament with 14 deputies at the last elections.

The Industrialists' success was based on sound financing and the appeal of its leaders' personalities, rather than party ideology. Topadze is popular for his business skills, a certain political innocence - and the good beer he manufactures.

The alliance he heads also includes former Republican Party leader Vakhtang Khmaladze, a well-known figure in intellectual circles, and the ultra-nationalist, Guram Sharadze.

Though the Industrialists' representation in parliament is negligible for now, opinion polls say 15 per cent of voters approve of their policies. The party flexed its new-found muscles by spearheading the recent challenge to the CUG's dominance of the parliamentary agenda (see CRS No. 87, 18-Jun-01).

Analysts say the NRP has little chance of rivalling the Industrialists' achievements. Personalities matter in Georgian politics, but the NRP's leader, Levan Gachechiladze, carries less weight.

Gachechiladze owns Georgian Wines and Spirits, the Aldagi insurance company and the Georgian Glass and Mineral Water Company. But he is no "self-made-man" in the style of Topadze, who sells his beer in a chain of restaurants across the country. Gachechiladze's manner is also stilted in comparison to his rival's seasoned patter.

Gachechiladze's defection from the CUG has also generated hard feelings with parliamentary chairman Zurab Zhvania that may yet impact on his once privileged business status with the government.

"I do not know their programme," commented Revaz Adamia of the Citizens Union Faction. "But the faces in the leadership tell me that their main platform is to fight against the CUG and Zhvania."

The NRP consciously positions itself as an alternative to the CUG's "young reformers", who are viewed as increasingly veering to the right. The National Democrats also agreed on a major review of policy at their recent conference which could create further competition for the new party.

The NRP has had some good news, however. Irakli Batiashvili, a well-known Industrialist, recently joined the party's governing board though he is yet to become an active member.

Once a dandy of the national movement, Batiashvili brings a recognisable face to the NRP. More significantly, the party has been endorsed by Temur Basilia, Shevardnadze's personal advisor and the architect of Georgia's economic policy.

"I have a good relationship with the new party's leadership," Basilia told IWPR, "though I have no plans for direct involvement right now. But I would appreciate a broad, right-wing alliance."

The rumoured support of leading conservative Niko Lekishvili has increased speculation that the NRP is being groomed by Shevardnadze as a tool to use against the executive ambitions of Zurab Zhvania, a CUG 'young reformer' - or the growing threat of a united opposition from the Right.

The NRP's emergence coincides with the forthcoming local elections. Analysts say that Shalva Natelashvili's Labour Party is best positioned to fill the opposition seats in local government, where the Right has had a weak presence.

Right-wingers are a growing force in Georgian politics, but it remains to be seen how responsive the region's voters will be to the new slogans.

Jaba Devdariani is a board member of the UN Association of Georgia

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