The Republican Party's split with Georgia's ruling party emphasizes the National Movement bloc's transformation into guardians of the political status quo.
While Saakashvili-Victorious Ajaria's overwhelming landslide in Ajaria's June 20 parliamentary elections prompted the schism, the division has been long in the making. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since the November 2003 Rose Revolution, the National Movement has shed its revolutionary past to focus on preserving Georgia's political stability and building a strong, central government. The Republican Party, better known for its intellectual credentials than its political moxie, has hence found itself increasingly isolated.
The party's disappointing showing at last week's Ajarian polls appeared to put a seal on that isolation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. With only two of the regional parliament's 30 seats held by Republican Party members, the impetus for governance in Ajaria now lies firmly with Saakashvili. Republican accusations of electoral fraud will do little to change that scenario.
But while the fallout over election results prompted this division, the disagreement does not depend on the vote count alone.
Ridding Ajaria of ex-strongman Aslan Abashidze has long been the Republican Party's primary political objective. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In large part, personal ties to the region shaped this priority. The family of Republican Party leader David Berdzenishvili hails from Ajaria and strongly opposed Abashidze's rise to power a stance that resulted in their persecution and eventual departure from the breakaway Black Sea region. When Berdzenishvili returned to Ajaria to campaign for the June 20 elections, he was, in effect, speaking to a home crowd as his party's relative popularity revealed.
To secure a footing in a post-Abashidze Ajaria, the Republican Party has proven willing to swallow some bitter political pills. Saakashvili's alliance with United Democrats leader Zurab Zhvania a centrist figure long derided by the Republican Party as a Shevardnadze collaborator was among the first. Berdzenishvili also withheld his criticism when a Zhvania appointee, Eduard Surmanidze, was named to head the anti-Abashidze alliance Democratic Ajaria.
But after Abashidze's rule crumbled on May 7, the Republicans took part in a bitter behind-the-scenes battle to represent the central government in Ajaria. Again, their hopes were disappointed when Saakashvili appointed Levan Varshalomidze - a former classmate -- to lead Ajaria's interim government. Another setback came when Saakashvili officially endorsed "Our Ajaria" a weaker anti-Abashidze faction opposed to the Republicans for the June 20 parliamentary elections.
The rationale behind this snub was clear. With tensions escalating over South Ossetia, the Saakashvili administration does not wish to encounter any fresh defiance from Ajaria particularly in the form of a political leader who, until recently, has ranked as a National Movement ally.
Already Tbilisi has begun to tighten its control over this strategic territory. Under the government's draft bill on Ajarian autonomy, the president would be able to disband the Supreme Council, the Ajarian parliament, as well as the Ajarian prime minister's cabinet. The prime minister would be appointed by the Georgian president and approved by the Supreme Council. The Georgian parliament would also be able to overwrite legislation passed by the Ajarian legislature. With all but two of the Supreme Council's seats held by Saakashvili-Victorious Ajaria, little room has been left for independent political figures to emerge upon the scene. During parliamentary debate, Republican Party deputy Ivliane Khaindrava denounced the bill for imposing "direct [presidential] rule . . . [it] has nothing in common with [Ajaria's] autonomous status," Civil Georgia reported. The bill was passed in its first reading on June 25.
From the start of its alliance with the National Movement in 2002, the Republicans' partnership with Saakashvili has been doomed to failure.
The Republican Party first captured public attention in the 1980s as Georgia headed toward independence from the Soviet Union. The party, dominated by intellectuals, became known for its various proposals on constitutional law and an overhaul of the legal system.
Yet its support has never been particularly broad-based. Long seen as the party of Georgia's intellectual elite, the Republicans have naturally gravitated toward ideologically motivated alliances, which have often fallen apart.
In the Shevardnadze era, the Republicans had tried to shape what was referred to as a "third force" a group opposed both to the Shevardnadze old guard, and to such "young reformers" in the former president's Citizens' Union of Georgia as current Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and Saakashvili. Only when Saakashvili began advocating a complete change of government did the Republicans look on him afresh. By contrast, the Republicans did not see Zhvania as an acceptable political partner for his willingness to work with the Shevardnadze government. Following the Rose Revolution, Berdzenishvili reportedly attempted to convince Saakashvili to stay clear of Zhvania's United Democrats, but without success.
With only six members of parliament, the loss of the Republicans would not place Saakashvili's bloc at a particular political disadvantage. The party's two committee heads -- Levan Berdzenishvili for education, culture and sport, and Roman Gotsiridze for budget and finance -- command respect primarily as seasoned public servants. It is unclear whether the party could form an opposition faction, which requires a minimum of 10 members of parliament. Support for such an endeavor is unlikely to come from Saakashvili's most outspoken critic, parliamentary deputy and former presidential ally Koba Davitashvili, who is a strong advocate for an end to Ajaria's autonomy a position opposed by Berdzenishvili. Without an obvious ally in its protest over Ajaria, the Republicans' chances for raising an alternative voice to Saakashvili appear uncertain at best.
As the National Movement shapes itself into a ruling coalition, allies from its more radical past no longer carry the same political weight on the national stage. In a June 25 interview with Rustavi-2, Saakashvili stated that "a part of my heart" would have liked to have seen more Republican Party representatives elected to the Ajarian parliament. But, the president added, "I am talking about the democratic part of my heart. [A]nother part is, of course, loyal to the National Movement."
Jaba Devdariani is a Human Rights Officer with the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina and a longtime journalist in Georgia.
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