Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has recruited a controversial media tycoon and a political heavyweight to invigorate the parliamentary campaign of the pro-presidential electoral alliance. The moves significantly boost the chances that Shevardnadze's allies can retain control of parliament in the November 2 election.
Shevardnadze confirmed September 8 that former state minister Vazha Lortkipanidze, a veteran political insider, would help direct the campaign of the Alliance for New Georgia. Lortkipanidze's appointment came three days after the Georgian president met with media baron Badri Patarkatsishvili, who reportedly agreed to help finance the alliance campaign on condition that Lortkipanidze run it.
Lortkipanidze is widely viewed as a trusted Shevardnadze ally. Previously, he served as ambassador to Russia during the mid 1990s and later was state minister from 1998-2000. In December 2002, Lortkipanidze was the president's preferred candidate to become parliament chairman, seeking to replace Zurab Zhvania who had split with Shevardnadze and who is now a prominent opposition figure. Nino Burjanadze eventually was named to the post.
After Lortkipanidze's unsuccessful bid for the parliamentary chairmanship, he drifted away from Shevardnadze and towards administration critics. In April of this year, for instance, he joined the opposition in walking out of parliament after Shevardnadze's State of the Nation address. His decision to head the Alliance for New Georgia campaign shows that Lortkipanidze is now firmly back in Shevardnadze's camp.
"I was sincere when I walked out with the opposition, and am sincere now when joining the pro-presidential bloc," he said. "I had good relations with this bloc and with the opposition. I certainly plan to meet the opposition parties ahead of elections. Together we can ensure that elections run calmly and fairly. November 2 is not the end, but the beginning of the new stage in saving Georgia."
In opening a dialogue with opposition leaders, political observers expect Lortkipanidze to try to exploit the lack of unity among government critics. He may even attempt to coax a political party that is now viewed as in opposition to join the pro-government alliance. While improbable, such a move could enable Shevardnadze to forge a new centrist governing coalition.
Already, Lortkipanidze's appointment has helped alter the domestic political balance.Tamaz Nadareishvili, the highly controversial head of the Abkhazia government-in-exile who recently voiced anti-Shevardnadze opinions, decided to join the alliance immediately after the announcement of Lortkipanidze's appointment. This gives Shevardnadze forces effective control over the Abkhazia agenda.
Like Lortkipanidze, Patarkatsishvili flirted earlier this year with the opposition. In April 2003, during the meeting of an influential business grouping - the Union of the Taxpayers - Patarkatsishvili stated unexpectedly he would support the United Democrats and the New Rights in the elections.
Patarkatsishvili has been a shadowy figure in Georgian politics. Once a top lieutenant to the Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, Patarkatsishvili is wanted in Russia on embezzlement and fraud allegations. He found refuge in Georgia, going on to build an extravagant portfolio of assets, including ownership of a soccer team and, most importantly, control of the Imedi Media Group.
Now that Patarkatsishvili has reversed course and endorsed Shevardnadze, political analysts are wondering about his motives. Some believe Patarkatsishvili wants Georgia to maintain its close ties to Russia and Russian business interests. Leading opposition parties including the United Democrats and New Rights are pro-Western in their orientation.
"Everybody needs finances on the eve of elections, but in this case foreign considerations have played a crucial role. Patarkatsishvili seems not to approve of the pro-American stance of the New Rights and the United Democrats. It seems that he gives preference to pro-Russian parties," said Ia Antadze, a Georgian political analyst.
The ascendancy of the Lortkipanidze-Patarkatsishvili team marks a political setback for incumbent State Minister Avtandil Jorbenadze, who had been in charge of revitalizing the electoral hopes of pro-presidential political forces. Over the past year, the public approval rating of the Citizens Union of Georgia, which for years served as Shevardnadze's power base, has hovered in the single digits. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Jorbenadze never succeeded in giving the pro-Shevardnadze alliance the administrative leadership necessary to revive its political fortunes.
The alliance's low public approval ratings fostered confidence among opposition leaders that pro-Shevardnadze forces were destined to lose the parliamentary election even if incumbent authorities attempted to stuff ballot boxes. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. With Lortkipanidze now in charge of the alliance's campaign, and Patarkatsishvili poised to provide financial resources, the opposition no longer views the election outcome as predetermined.
Jaba Devdariani is a founding director of the United Nations Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and Research Director of its program for applied research.