A confrontational mood is settling over Georgia, as the country's political leaders get an early start on campaigning ahead of the November parliamentary elections. The acrimony marking the political debate raises concerns that the election will be a source of instability for the country.
The parliamentary vote stands to be a key test for Georgia's state-building efforts. Georgia aspires to integrate into the Western security framework. For that to happen, however, Georgia must first improve its civil society credentials. During his recent tour of the Caucasus, NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson said Atlantic alliance members expected Georgia to conduct a free and fair vote. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Current indicators show popular support for President Eduard Shevardnadze's administration to be flagging. Accordingly, the newly created pro-Shevardnadze political movement, For New Georgia, appears to face an uphill struggle to secure a parliamentary majority in the November 2 elections. The low popularity of pro-government forces is fueling fears about possible voting irregularities. Opposition leaders announced May 13 they intend to pool resources to create an "anti-crisis center" that will aim to reduce the chances of the election being marred by fraud.
Opposition and pro-government politicians have already traded accusations that the other side harbors un-democratic intentions. During a May 9 interview broadcast by Rustavi-2 television, David Gamkrelidze, head of the opposition New Rights Party, accused President Eduard Shevardnadze's administration of a plot to declare a state-of-emergency in order to retain power.
Under the scenario outlined by Gamkrelidze, pro-government forces realize they stand little chance of winning at the polls, and thus are seeking alternate ways to retain power. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Because it is unimaginable for them [Shevardnadze loyalists] to lose the election and, consequently, cede their positions, the only way to avoid it [electoral defeat] will be to declare a state of emergency and thwart the elections," Gamkrelidze said.
Gamkrelidze, citing "information that became available to me," went on to assail Shevardnadze and "his odious entourage," alleging that they intended to curtail basic rights, muzzle the media, and possibly use the military to enforce a curfew. He claimed that the question of imposing a state of emergency had been discussed at a recent National Security Council meeting.
Avtandil Jorbenadze, minister of state and one of Shevardnadze's chief lieutenants, immediately dismissed Gamkrelidze's accusation as "a sheer lie," and said it was "dangerous." Jorbenadze also denied that the government would attempt to rig the parliamentary vote, state television reported May 9.
A representative of For New Georgia, Irakli Gogava, riposted on May 10, claiming that two prominent opposition leaders Zurab Zhvania, leader of the United Democrats, and Mikheil Saakashvili, head of the National Movement had established paramilitary units and intended to utilize them to destabilize the political atmosphere. Other members of For New Georgia attacked Gamkrelidze's character, calling him "irrational," the Kavkasia-Press news agency reported May 10.
For New Georgia brings together several pro-Shevardnadze elements, including the Citizen's Union, which has traditionally been the president's main power base. The coalition also includes the Socialist Party, National Democratic Party and the Green Party.
Some local observers believe opposition worries about the government's ability to manipulate the election may be overblown. Lord Robertson's comments, they said, underscored the fact that the Georgian government is under unprecedented international pressure to conduct fair elections.
"Fairness and transparency of the upcoming elections are of extraordinary importance for Georgia. A very serious responsibility rests personally on president Shevardnadze for assuring this" British Ambassador to Georgia Deborah Barnes Jones said at a recent diplomatic gathering.
Meanwhile, there are signs that the election campaign is providing the impetus for a new wave of student protests. In mid April, the official formation of the For New Georgia prompted hundreds of students to take to the streets in Tbilisi. The chief slogan adopted by the students is "kmara," which means "enough" in Georgian.
"The recent consolidation of the pro-government block [For New Georgia] featuring figures directly related with corruption makes us think that the upcoming elections are likely to be falsified again" said one of the student leaders Akaki Minashvili.
Giorgi Kandelaki is a senior at the Department of Political Science at Tbilisi State University. He is a member of the Youth Atlantic Council of Georgia.