President Eduard Shevardnadze's allegiance to a pro-Western political course has been questioned in Georgia following the collapse of a US-backed plan to promote a fair parliamentary election. Critics say Shevardnadze is more concerned about securing his own political future than in fostering civil society in Georgia. The president has dismissed such criticism as "single-minded demagogy."
In early July, James Baker, the former US secretary of state, visited Tbilisi and secured the tentative support of all major political forces in Georgia for a plan designed to reduce the chances of electoral fraud in the November parliamentary election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The blueprint, labeled "the Baker plan" called for the adoption of a new electoral code and for opposition parties to receive greater representation on election commissions, which will be responsible for running the vote and counting the ballots.
There was early optimism that the Baker plan would undo Georgia's political stalemate. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Those hopes were dashed, however, when parliament, currently dominated by pro-Shevardnadze forces, approved rules on the composition of the Central Election Commission (CEC) that appear to run contrary to the vision embodied in the Baker plan.
Under the guidelines approved by parliament, the four main opposition parties including the United Democrats, Labor, New Rights and National Movement, led by Mikheil Saakashvili would be entitled to one seat each on the CEC. The pro-Shevardnadze For New Georgia bloc would gain five CEC seats, and parties that are supporters of government policies the Revival of Georgia and the Industrialists would receive three and two CEC seats respectively. Under the Baker plan, which Shevardnadze originally endorsed, opposition parties would have held a majority of the CEC seats. Gigi Tsereteli, an opposition MP from the United Democrats, denounced the legislature's CEC plan, saying it "contradicts to the very cornerstone of Baker's plan parity between major political forces through ensuring that no side would control two-thirds of the CEC."
Government control of the CEC significantly raises the probability of electoral fraud, ballot-box stuffing in particular, opposition activists and independent political analysts say. On August 8, the head of the OSCE mission in Tbilisi, Roy Reeve, met with Shevardnadze and other top officials, seeking assurances that the government remained committed to holding a fair election. Given the low public approval ratings of the incumbent government, rigging the parliamentary vote is the only hope for pro-Shevardnadze forces to retain power, political observers contend.
"When Shevardnadze had to face the dilemma between the stability of his own position and the future of Georgia and the prospects for Georgia's peaceful development, he unfortunately, really unfortunately for this country, chose his own position," Zurab Zhvania, a prominent opposition leader said in an early August television interview broadcast by Rustavi-2.
Representatives of the For New Georgia block, Revival and Industrialists claimed that the parliamentary blueprint did not violate the spirit of the Baker plan, offering a different definition of what constitutes an opposition party. Concerning the CEC's composition, Revival and the Industrialists supposedly qualify as opposition parties in that they are not directly identified with the government. Under the Baker plan, nine seats would be held by opposition parties, while the government would control five. The inability of any side to wield a two-thirds majority was intended to promote cooperation. "This document [the parliamentary blueprint] is a victory of Baker's principles' victory over Saakashvili's and Zhvania's attempts to dominant the commission" Jemal Gamakharia, a representative of the Revival of Georgia bloc, asserted.
The parliamentary decision, along with recent government moves that enabled Russian companies to obtain a controlling interest in Georgia's energy sector, have prompted opposition leaders to suggest that Shevardnadze intends to adjust the country's geopolitical orientation to a course more to Moscow's liking. Shevardnadze, speaking during his weekly radio interview August 11, rejected the notion that he was abandoning pro-Western policies.
"All the current allegations that Georgia's president, and correspondingly, the state has changed course and orientation are either single-minded demagogy ... or simply the demonstration of fundamental ignorance," Shevardnadze said.
Even if Shevardnadze does turn to Russia for political support, a few opposition activists contend that a fair parliamentary vote remains possible. Some believe government control of the CEC can be counterbalanced by an initiative mounted by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to conduct a parallel vote count. Others say the opposition's ability to organize popular protests could also bring pressure to bear on the government to refrain from ballot-rigging. "The decisive battle is still ahead," said Tsereteli, the United Democrat MP.
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.