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Shevardnadze Turns Back on Reform

The Georgian president looks to have made a decisive break with would-be reformers
By Jaba Devdariani

With his dramatic decision to resign as head of the ruling Citizens' Union of Georgia, CUG, last week, President Eduard Shevardnadze has stolen a march on the coalition party's ambitious young reformers led by the parliamentary chairman Zurab Zhvania.


Shevardnadze has sent a signal that he wants nothing to do with the progressive wing of the party. The CUG, which has long been divided between reformists and conservatives, is now likely to split. The former, who now realise their influence on the president has been lost, are already quitting the cabinet one by one, leaving Shevardnadze with a government composed of conservatives - ex-communist nomenklatura - his real power base.


The events show that Georgia is not ready to tackle widespread corruption problems nor deal with chronic economic problems. "The president has chosen corruption over reforms," said Koba Davitashvili, a former CUG member.


The parlous state of the economy and the high level of graft have been a big source of the conflict between Zhvania-led reformers and conservative old-timers in the CUG. The former have sought to address the problems, while the latter appear to have been content to maintain the status quo.


When the party was launched in 1993, Shevardnadze appointed Zhvania party secretary-general. He was instrumental in building the prestige of the Georgian legislature both internally and abroad. At the same time, younger, reform-minded politicians began to emerge within party ranks. Their influence grew, supplanting that of the party's conservatives.


But Shevardnadze allowed the "reformists" only limited access to executive powers. Zhvania's role was largely restricted to brokering political compromises in the assembly. And while the president promoted four reformist parliamentarians to ministerial positions, their influence was small.


The president, meanwhile, remained strongly supportive of two arch conservative allies - the ministers of the interior and state security, Kakha Targanadze and Vakhtang Kutateladze, respectively, despite the fact that both faced media and NGO accusations of bribe-taking and human rights violations.


Since the end of April 2001, the "young reformers" sought to pressure Shevardnadze into making decisive changes. The president seemed to yield. He proposed the creation of a cabinet of ministers to replace the existing arrangement, whereby power is concentrated purely in the president-chaired government. The last such cabinet had been scrapped in 1995 on grounds that it was inefficient. Zhvania was to be offered the position of prime minister.


But the proposal was sidelined because conservative nervousness over the move led to a wave of criticism of Zhvania and ministers loyal to him - justice minister Mikheil Saakashvili, revenues minister Mikheil Machavariani, finance minister Zurab Nogaideli and agriculture minister David Kirvalidze. Shevardnadze's loyalists clearly felt threatened by the president's plans.


By late summer, it became clear that Zhvania's team was failing in its bid to secure substantial reforms. Angry at the president's failure to deal with the twin evils of corruption and economic crisis, opposition parties briefly forgot their differences, united and precipitated a parliamentary crisis by boycotting assembly sessions. The public were equally incensed - and reformist ministers had to share the burden of popular discontent.


With voters support for government policy at an all-time low of six per cent, the reformists started pushing Shevardnadze into making a choice between them and the conservatives.


But the president opted to continue backing his old colleagues - ministers the reformists believed to be utterly corrupt.


Zhvania went public with his grievances and addressed the president with an open letter on August 28, demanding urgent action on corruption. By then Machavariani had quit his post and Saakashvili soon followed. "Reform of the government from within is impossible," said the latter. It is expected, that the remaining reform-minded ministers will resign in the near future.


Meanwhile, the CUG is likely to collapse, giving way to two main political groupings, already dubbed "reformers" and "conservatives". Former coalition members will dominate both of these factions, and each will seek supporters among members of the main opposition bloc, the United Opposition, which fell apart due to internal disagreements last week.


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


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