If Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze thought the gathering opposition had suffered a setback in the June 2 local elections, he will soon have many chances to test that conclusion. Shevardnadze looks to face one of his most strident opponents every day in the capital. Mikhail Saakashvili, formerly a Justice Minister and later a prominent reformist in Shevardnadze's ruling Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG) party, seems posed to capture the post of the Tbilisi city council chairman.
Shevardnadze might have hoped to avoid this confrontation after the Labor Party took first place in June 2 elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But on June 13, the Labor Party made a surprise offer to Saakashvili's National Movement. Labor leader Shalva Natelashvili met with Saakashvili and proposed to support Saakashvili's party if Saakashvili quit Parliament and agreed to chair the capital's city council. The two parties will effectively form a voting coalition. This deal ended a round of jockeying for the Labor party's 15 council votes, which began when Natelashvili declared after the elections that he would not run for the chairmanship himself. It also surprised most Tbilisi veterans, who considered an alliance between the parties impossible. Labor has, in the past, called for distribution of land to fugitives; Saakashvili's new party seeks to develop a more market-based model. Moreover, Natelashvili lambasted Saakashvili in pre-election campaigning, accusing him of posing as a reformer while maintaining covert ties to the government.
But the deal capitalizes on broader, less partisan discontent. Analysts have also noted that Saakashvili and Labor appealed to a similar base with similar populist, anti-governmental appeals. And they captured nearly equal voter sympathies 25.5 percent and 23.75 percent of the votes respectively. The dispute between Natelashvili and Saakashvili, which appears personal, will probably survive this truce. It may also make the personal animosity an ongoing factor in Georgian politics.
Natelashvili made his offer with as little friendliness as possible. "It is better to support him [Saakashvili], so afterwards people won't say that Saakashvili could have saved Tbilisi and Georgia and we did not give him a chance. The National Movement conducts large PR campaigns about all this," he said at a news conference on June 13, apparently trying to save face with his electorate. Saakashvili, the cabinet veteran, said he perceived this proposal as a "constructive" one and expressed reciprocal willingness to cooperate.
While Saakashvili's new post provides him with a perch and insulates Natelashvili from charges of pettiness, it offers little cheer to the president. Saakashvili was campaigning under the slogan "Tbilisi without Shevardnadze" and his flashy, media-savvy style could seriously undermine Shevardnadze's already-slashed credibility. Saakashvili clearly perceives the chairmanship of the 49-seat council as a platform from which to build support for the upcoming parliamentary elections of 2003. Many analysts also believe that the young politician maintains ambitions for the presidential race of 2005.
That scenario reveals the deal's potential to turn into a poisoned chalice for Saakashvili. The Georgian capital is home to some 1.5 million people and has multiple problems ranging from poor budgeting to collapsing infrastructure. At the same time, chief responsibility for executive affairs rests with Tbilisi 's Mayor a presidential appointee. Many observers expect that Shevardnadze would move to balance Saakashvili by replacing the unprepossessing Vano Zodelava with a more assertive mayor who might tussle with the new chairman. The new mayor could manipulate some of the council's political forces to neutralize Saakashvili. As he ponders his next move, Shevardnadze can rely on support from the New Rights Party and its leader Levan Gachechiladze, whose ambitions for council chairmanship have wilted after the Natelashvili-Saakashvili accord. The relatively young, pro-business New Right leadership has bitterly opposed Saakshvili since he and fellow reformist Zurab Zhvania pushed them out of the Citizens' Union core. Despite their pact, Labor members on the council will not necessarily feel enough party discipline to keep their coalition alive.
Nonetheless, Shevardnadze stands to lose much more than Saakashvili if the former Justice Minister heads the city council. Saakashvili's Nationalists already claim a critical level of support on the council. "Industry will Save Georgia," which finished the locals in fifth position, will be nominating its member for the chairman's post, but welcomed the Labor-National coalition. "Tbilisi voted for these two parties. Therefore, we will welcome these two jointly undertaking responsibility for situation in Sakrebulo. Of course, any kind of alliance was not good for us though," said Zurab Tkemaladze, one of the leaders of the Industrialists. In addition, Zurab Zhvania's Christian Conservative Party would provide Saakashvili with four reliable votes.
Dealing with problems of tax collection, sewer maintenance and central heating would sorely test Saakashvili's leadership and diligence. It would also provide him ample opportunity, though, to urge Georgians to blame Shevardnadze for their miseries. The president has already come under fire for failing to rein in corruption, and already faces thriving separatist movements in South Ossetia, Ajaria and Abkhazia. The appointment of Saakashvili would sorely test his ability to deliver tangible results and maintain popular support.
Jaba Devdariani is a Founding Director of the UN Association of Georgia and editor of Civil Georgia, an Internet magazine.