Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze has been disinclined to compromise during two weeks of protest over the contested results of the November 2 Parliamentary elections. So has his opposition. As of November 17, opposition leaders Zurab Zhvania and Mikhail Saakashvili have refused to accept any concession short of the president's resignation, and Shevardnadze has refused to entertain the idea of quitting. The opposition strategy, based on popular protests, could result in prolonged political conflict. Some analysts believe recent moves by Shevardnadze have bolstered his ability to survive the crisis.
Shevardnadze has forged links to crucial foreign governments as part of a broad campaign to discredit the opposition. His dispatch of Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia has reinforced his support in neighboring states. [See related story]. On November 17, he continued painting protestors as agents of chaos. It is "only one step from a civil confrontation to a civil war," he said in his weekly radio address. He also announced his decision to convene the parliament at the earliest possible date and submit a package of constitutional changes for review at its first session. It is widely expected that this package will contain provisions for establishment of the cabinet of ministers and, possibly, some changes in country's administrative setup. Many observers suspect that the president, known for his political savvy, feels he has weathered the opposition's first attack and is planning a counteroffensive.
Most analysts suspect that the job of parliament speaker will go to one of Abashidze's close allies, most likely Revival Union head Jemal Gogitidze. Abashidze himself is likely to seek official endorsement for his efforts to broaden his own power base in Ajaria with tax breaks and economic-policy impunity. The opposition has accused Shevardnadze of giving Abashidze too many favors. In an interview on privately-owned Imedi television on November 18, United Democrats chairman Giorgi Baramidze said: "Shevardnadze is currently busy criticizing us. Instead, he should point out to Abashidze that he has changed the Ajarian constitution, which now says that apparently the autonomous republic can have an army, he can appoint generals and, if any article of the Ajarian constitution is at odds with the Georgian constitution, apparently the Ajarian constitution takes precedence."
It seems unlikely, despite these brazen moves of Abashidze's, that Shevardnadze has made such severe concessions. Revival, the party Abashidze created, is unlikely to dominate the cabinet. Vazha Lordkipanidze, the leader of the pro-presidential For New Georgia (FNG) alliance, may emerge as a Prime Minister who suits both Shevardnadze and Abashidze. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The New Rights and Industrialists are likely to get rewards in the form of cabinet jobs for staying out of the opposition protests. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
By stoking this kind of speculation, Shevardnadze seeks to marginalize the opposition, making it more difficult for Saakashvili and Zhvania to maintain the momentum they have achieved in street protests. If street protests lose steam, Saakashvili might have to enter the new parliament as a loud but politically weakened backbencher. By moving to convene the new parliament as quickly as possible, Shevardnadze leaves the opposition with a very short window in which to act. Their primary objective now is to achieve Shevardnadze's resignation before or at least immediately after the new parliament convenes. However even these options pose difficult legal and practical questions.
If the President resigns before the first parliamentary session, the country will operate in a constitutional vacuum. According to the constitution, in such case the Parliamentary chairperson must announce new presidential elections within 45 days. To deny Shevardnadze a chance for mischief during that interval, the opposition may offer a compromise. One such deal might let the new parliament convene provided that Shevardnadze steps down immediately afterwards. This would make the head of parliament a neutral actor and might induce some parliamentarians to realign toward the opposition. But even in this scenario, resistance from the Revival Union will be formidable. And it is hard to see why Shevardnadze would agree to such a deal.
The opposition needs a long-term strategy, for which street protests make a risky basis. Protesters in Tbilisi have been remarkably organized and disciplined, and even Shevardnadze noted their peaceful behavior. They kept up nonviolent but vehement action as Revival officials branded their cause "fascist" and "stupid" and as Shevardnadze maneuvered away from them. On November 17, they began a civil-disobedience campaign, honking car horns outside the Parliament building for twenty minutes. This succeeded in drawing reporters, and may have succeeded in irritating the president.
Still, the chances for a violent incident or provocation are real. Should this happen, Shevardnadze will step up rhetoric he has already been testing, blaming the opposition for civil conflict. After the horn-honking episode, he pointedly said that "using force" would never serve as a legitimate means toward resolution.
With neither side seeing much reason to back down, international players may have to broker a resolution. But the reluctance of the international community to express their position now does not mean they are indifferent. For example, On November 17, United States Ambassador Richard Miles met with Shevardnadze, ahead of a visit from Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe on November 18. Pascoe met with Shevardnadze and the opposition leaders and emerged firmly refusing to take sides. Wire services quoted Pascoe as urging "compromise" as an alternative to violence.
Yet Western powers, if they have to choose, will have a hard time backing calls for Shevardnadze's resignation. Both Brussels and Washington remember his distinguished years as the Soviet Union's last Foreign Minister and his achievements in developing a fledgling democracy in Georgia. To back the opposition would require the Western powers to support the annulment of the last presidential election.
Moreover, the current administration is likely to hold out as long as possible, as most of its members are technocrats who gained their positions through personal loyalty to Shevardnadze. Some of these members may be more likely to step down if they receive reassurances that they will not face criminal charges. Among the opposition, Burjanadze and Zhvania are more likely to seek a compromise than Saakashvili, who talks about jailing corrupt officials. Such rhetoric may only frighten easily swayed officials and spur Shevardnadze to activate the next parliament.
Dr. Blanka Hancilova is an analyst of post-Soviet security based in Prague. Jaba Devdariani is a board member of the United Nations Association of Georgia (www.una.ge) and analyst of Georgian politics, currently working in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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