Opposition Leader Asserts Georgia Faces "Criminalization" of Government
The Union of Citizens of Georgia (CUG), the political movement that until recently served as President Eduard Shevardnadze's power base, will not be able to participate in the June 2 elections, following a ruling by a Tbilisi district court.
The CUG has been riven by internal divisions since late 2001. One faction remains loyal to Shevardnadze, while the other, led by former parliament Speaker Zurab Zhvania, has announced its opposition to the president.
The Tbilisi court's May 3 decision to suspend the CUG registration was the result of a lawsuit filed by Levan Mamaladze - the governor of the Kvemo Kartli region, and a member of the pro-Shevardnadze faction - seeking to prevent Zhvania's bloc from fielding candidates in the local vote.
Subsequently, the Georgian Supreme Court postponed an appeal hearing, thus failing to resolve the case before the May 8 deadline for political parties to register. Zhvania, a leading political rival of Shevardnadze's, has maintained that the judicial system's decisions were politically motivated.
Meanwhile, Zhvania's faction has reached agreement with the Christian Conservative Party, under which members of the CUG opposition faction will be able to run in the elections. Zhvania spoke to EurasiaNet on May 15 about domestic political developments in Georgia. The text of his comments follows:
EurasiaNet: A lot has happened with the CUG in the past two weeks, but the actual problems started last year, after President Shevardnadze resigned as president of the party and you stated your intentions to make the CUG into an opposition party. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Can you give us a little background about those events and why you decided to form an opposition party?Zhvania: The resignation of [Shevardnadze] was considered by my friends and I as being his response to the open letter that I published on the 28th of August. This was an urgent appeal to the President by the chairman of the parliament, describing the dramatic situation in Georgia; describing that public confidence in [his] authority had totally eroded. This caused people to question the President and the parliament and all the elected institutions of the Georgian government.
Unfortunately the President, in response to this open letter, decided to resign from his position within our party. After this, the situation was even more aggravated and that led, in end of October, to the direct attack against the main independent TV station Rustavi-2 [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Tens of thousands of people gathered in front of the parliament and made sure that freedom of speech was defended. I decided to resign from my position within the government because all the sources to move the country forward on the way to reforms, on the way to positive changes by being inside the government, were exhausted. By moving outside the government, we could create another power and could gain much more support from the people.
On the 22nd of December, in the presence of Shevardnadze, the congress unanimously voted on the basis of my report that CUG would not remain a presidential party and should start the process of dramatic reconstruction and reorganization to cleanse ourselves of those who were spoiling our reputation. Shevardnadze's speech [after the vote] supported this decision and said that the party should start a new stage of development.
EurasiaNet: So when did the problem arise with Levan Mamaladze?Zhvania: Problems arose for us really all of a sudden. In March, Mamaladze started his scandal. He came to one of the meeting of the organization committee and demanded that all members express their opinion whether CUG is an opposition party or not. We explained that the decision over the new platform and new program for the CUG would be made at the congress during the first part of May.
After this, really unexpectedly for us, pressure from all levels of the administration started on members of our party connected with any position, even very minor positions in villages, etc, that they should sign some protest letter against Zhvania.
EurasiaNet: And this started directly after the incident in March?Zhvania: Yes. That is why we are saying that this was definitely very well prepared, coordinated and designed. Very high ranking people were directly involved in this: Badri Khatidze, who was dismissed due to charges of corruption, and State Minister Avtandil Jorbenadze. And none of them could have done all this without the approval of Shevardnadze.
The real problem started on the eve of the Easter holidays. When I finished this conference [with Shevardnadze on the future of CUG] at 7 pm, I went back to my office in the parliament and within five minutes we got the news that the district court of Tbilisi decided to put a halt on the registration of CUG. The point is this was Friday. The next three days were Easter holidays, including Monday. Tuesday at 6pm [May 8] was the deadline to present lists [to participate in the elections].
What was interesting was the petition went to the city court on the 23 of April. On the 29 of April, the court had a hearing but did not invite us. This was a very strange combination. For five days no one informed us. Only when all chances to go through normal court procedure had expired...this was how the court, which we considered one of the most beautiful results of our judicial reforms, behaved under government pressure.
Thousands of people, even those who were never sympathetic to us, are now supporting us because they consider whatever it is that has been happening during the past 10 days in Georgia is an insult against them personally. They understand that it is concerning the most basic principles of our constitution... It is about depriving them from the most basic right to make their choice during elections.
Unfortunately the Supreme Court refused our petition as well. I went personally and told them that within two hours we would be deprived of the right to run in the election. They refused. So what is the essence of this story? The essence is that the roots are the same that were behind the decision to attack Rustavi-2.
This is a new mentality for Georgia that the government can no longer tolerate different opinions. The fact is the basic principles of the Georgian constitution, the main freedoms which were guaranteed by this constitution, are threatened now.
EurasiaNet: How are you going to be involved in the elections now?Zhvania: All of a sudden, when we found ourselves in such a deadlock, with actually no chance to run for election, we were approached by a few small political groups. One of them was the Christian Conservative Party. The chairman of party came to me on Monday [May 7], the day before the deadline, and said we could use their registration for elections and they would withdraw all their people as a gesture of civil solidarity. We were very grateful for his very generous gesture. From this moment we understood that many people interpreted these events in the correct and proper way: it was against them. It has nothing to do with one or another party. It has to do with the main spirit and main foundations of the young and fragile Georgian democracy.
EurasiaNet: You have been closely allied with Mikhail Saakashvili for a long time. Why did you not join together when this all started?Zhvania: We discussed this but there are some important differences between us. We are close allies and we will be much closer in the future, but now it is important to give people the chance to support Zurab Zhvania, his team and the principles of his format.
EurasiaNet: Shevardnadze has been reported as saying that he hopes the CUG stays intact but both you and Mamaladze have said you will not stay in the same party. Are you planning on leaving the CUG?Zhvania: Immediately after the elections. I was thinking of calling a convention to start our own political movement before the elections, but I was afraid this would make things even more confusing. Immediately after elections we will start a very close cooperation with Saakashvili and I am quite optimistic. Georgians are fed up. We are facing the process of the criminalization of the Georgian government.