Shevardnadze's Political Balancing Act

Zurab Zhvania seems the most likely candidate for the newly created prime minister's job - but it may turn out to be a poisoned chalice

Shevardnadze's Political Balancing Act

Zurab Zhvania seems the most likely candidate for the newly created prime minister's job - but it may turn out to be a poisoned chalice

Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze has announced plans to appoint a prime minister and reconvene the notorious Cabinet of Ministers - a body which he once described as a "nest of corruption".

The draft legislation - which will be submitted to parliament for approval this autumn - could usher in radical changes to Georgia's political landscape and significantly dilute the president's own authority.

However, most observers agree that the move marks an attempt by Shevardnadze to appease the "young reformer" wing of the ruling Citizens' Union of Georgia (CUG) which continues to flex its political muscles. (See CRS No. 77)

According to the existing constitution, executive powers lie exclusively with the president who appoints a state minister to coordinate the work of his ministers. The state minister, however, has no real political influence.

By naming a prime minister, Shevardnadze will legitimise the position of his political "number two" whilst shifting some of his authority on to the incumbent.

It is widely thought that Zurab Zhvania, parliamentary chairman and leader of the "young reformers", is the most likely candidate for the job.

Zhvania, 37, has chaired the Georgian Parliament since 1995. Over the past six years, the former Green Party leader has carved himself a reputation as a talented and ambitious politician. Supported by a team of young parliamentarians - many of whom have been educated in the West -- Zhvania is seen as the figurehead of the pro-Western political faction.

Earlier this year, the "young reformers" scored two major political victories when Mikhail Saakashvili was appointed justice minister and Mikhail Machavarani took charge of the taxation ministry.

In the wake of this success, most analysts believed Shevardnadze would be wary of granting Zhvania's faction any further political influence.

And earlier this month, the president openly voiced his support for a member of the old guard -- interior minister Kakha Targamadze who had been accused of staging an unethical takeover of the Dinamo Tbilisi football team. The move was seen as another example of the political balancing so characteristic of Shevardnadze's leadership style.

Internal discord has haunted the CUG since it was founded in 1993. Created as a political platform for Eduard Shevardnadze, the CUG comprises an eclectic alliance of Soviet nomenklatura, intelligentsia and young technocrats.

Both Shevardnadze and Zhvania were keen to maintain this fragile balance, which secured them a second consecutive parliamentary majority in 1999.

But recently there have been signs that support for the CUG is waning both at home and abroad.

Against a backdrop of persistent economic crisis and poor state management, a part of the electorate has thrown its weight behind the Communist Party. And, sensing the voters' discontent, the opposition parties left outside the Tbilisi Parliament have made concerted efforts to unite their forces.

Non-partisan opposition has also been mounting. Recently, international organisations including the US State Department published reports on vote rigging during the parliamentary and presidential elections.

And meanwhile local NGOs and media have been conducting independent investigations aimed at unmasking government corruption. Society itself has also expressed growing dissatisfaction with the slow progress of democratisation and the growing influence of ultra-nationalist and communist forces.

As a result, the affiliation between the CUG and the government lost much of its political charm. Wary of losing their own credibility, the "young reformers" of the CUG openly attacked the government and voiced an unprecedented critique of President Shevardnadze.

The crisis reached its peak following an article by Peter Baker published in the Washington Post. Baker quoted Ivane Merabishvili, head of parliament's economic policy committee, as saying that it was impossible to do business in Georgia unless you were a relative of the president. Merabishvili added, "As a member of his [Shevardnadze's ] party, I feel he does not have the political will to change anything."

To the president's surprise, leading "young reformers" such as the justice minister, Mikhail Saakashvili, not only refused to criticise their renegade colleague but even endorsed most of his statements.

Shevardnadze was forced to make a tough decision. He could either enforce party discipline and risk the gradual disintegration of the CUG or he could avoid a direct attack by shifting some of the responsibility.

As a result, many see Shevardnadze's decision to appoint a prime minister as an attempt to give Zhvania enough rope to hang himself. Charged with direct executive responsibilities, Zhvania could easily become a political scapegoat.

On the other hand, Zhvania can play for higher stakes: with Shevardnadze due to retire in 2005, the incumbent prime minister will undoubtedly be named as his heir apparent.

There is no doubt that Shevardnadze has once again proved his unsurpassed political acumen and has managed to steal the march on the ambitious elements of his CUG party. Feeling in control of the agenda, he has recently hinted at the concessions that he expects in return for his favours. According to the proposed changes in the constitution, the President will gain the right to dissolve parliament - a power which he currently lacks.

Interestingly enough, the proposed changes could help Georgia to make some positive steps towards building democratic institutions.

Under the draft law, the prime minister is appointed by the ruling coalition. As a result, political parties can legitimately expect to secure ministerial positions through successful campaigning. This arrangement will not only strengthen the parties institutionally, it will also increase the impact voters can have on the composition of their government.

The widely predicted success of the liberal, pro-Western lobby is also seen as a positive step against the backdrop of the recent communist backlash in Moldova and growing instability in Ukraine - Georgia's political ally.

Of course, the optimism of the liberal elite is unlikely to be shared by the population at large. The economy is stagnant and living standards continue to plummet. And, while everyday life remains an unremitting struggle, changes in the political landscape seem no more pertinent than a scene from a TV soap opera. However, if nothing else, this coming summer and autumn promise some intriguing episodes.

Jaba Devdariani is the founder of the United Nations Association of Georgia and a fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA

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