Tbilisi Balancing Act

Shevardnadze is looking for a successor to maintain the balance of power between conservatives and reformers.

Tbilisi Balancing Act

Shevardnadze is looking for a successor to maintain the balance of power between conservatives and reformers.

Wednesday, 14 November, 2001

The election last week of Nino Burjanadze to the key post of parliamentary speaker represents a victory for reformers in their battle with ex-communist conservatives.

The power struggle between the two factions has been running for months now. The crisis came to a head at the beginning of this month when President Shevardnadze sacked the entire government. The move was a face-saving measure after public protests in late October led to the resignation of two of his key conservative supporters in the cabinet.

Since then all manner of horse-trading has been going on to decide whom parliament would elect to the post of speaker - an important position as the incumbent takes over the duties of the president if he resigns, according to the constitution.

Burjanadze's main rival was the conservative Vazha Lordkipanidze, now being tipped as a possible prime minister should Shevardnadze push for the creation of such a post.

It is in the president's interest to do so - the appointment of a conservative premier would continue the political balancing act, between his ex-communist allies and reformers, that he has managed so well over the years.

The power struggle is strongly linked to the critical issue of presidential succession. Though elections are due in 2003, it is believed Shevardnadze wants to quit before then. Shevardnadze is looking for a successor who will protect the balance of power between conservatives and reformers

"Shevardnadze wants to stand down," commented one Western diplomat. "But first there are three things he wants to guarantee. He wants to be sure of his successor, he wants himself and his family well looked after and protected and he wants to get Abkhazia back."

For a long time it was plain that Shevardnadze wanted his staunch ally and former interior minister Kakha Targamadze to follow him. Quite clearly this would be an immensely unpopular decision, as the latter is alleged to have his fingers in all manner of dubious enterprises. In street protests last week, it was Targamadze's resignation most protesters were calling for.

But he is probably not even that keen to fill the position - content as he is to run his business empire.

An unlikely, but nonetheless serious, presidential contender is Mikheil Saakashvili, whose decision to quit his post as justice minister back in August sparked the current political crisis. The former de facto leader of the government's reformists, Saakashvili said he resigned because the fight against corruption was impossible under the current regime.

His departure set in motion the dissolution of the country's ruling coalition, the Citizens Union of Georgia, and began polarising deputies into the reformist and conservative camps. Elected to parliament at the end of October, he has sought to champion the anti-corruption crusade while staying out of the limelight.

This modest behaviour, contrasting sharply with the egotism of many government officials, has scored him much public sympathy.

But how could this 34-year-old, one-time Shevardnadze nemesis, suddenly become a presidential hopeful?

It should be stressed that while Saakashvili has criticised just about everyone of the president's allies in parliament he has never, directly or indirectly, pointed the finger of blame at Shevardnadze himself.

Saakashvili's position has also improved dramatically after the events of the last couple of weeks as the president is obviously aware of a shift in the public mood.

The demonstrations held here last week were a long time coming and though they may have been sparked by a raid on the Rustavi 2 television station (which is highly critical of the government) they were actually motivated by the depressing social and economic conditions.

Corruption is the root cause of the problems and sooner or later needs to be tackled in some form or another. Or seen to be. Since personal interests take precedence over regional and national interests in Georgian politics, it is conceivable for a reformer like Saakashvili to take over the presidential mantle as long as individuals benefiting under the current regime are not penalised.

Saakashvili was conspicuous at first by his absence and then by his appearance at the recent protests. "This was very clever," said an EC representative. "Away in Moscow when things erupted he could return to join the demonstration and save Georgia. Saakashvili is one of the few guys who is able to think strategically. The others are typically Georgian - emotional and acting before they think."

It may just be that Shevardnadze recognises in Saakashvili the sort of individual who can manage the Byzantine game which the next Georgian president will need to continue.

Others do not believe this to be the case and see the former justice minister as an upstart with little aptitude for running the country. "If Shevardnadze steps down," said Gia Nodia, who works with the Caucasian Institute for Peace Democracy and Development, "there is no-one to replace him and that is a recipe for a real mess."

Philip O'Neil is IWPR assistant editor

Georgia, Abkhazia
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