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Review & Outlook - 11/24/2003

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ELECTION TURMOIL AND POST-ELECTION TRAUMA IN GEORGIA

Armenian News Network / Groong
November 24, 2003

By Asbed Kotchikian


After elections concluded in Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia held its
parliamentary elections on November 2. The three countries of the
South Caucasus came under immense scrutiny by international observers
for violating a set of rules and for holding unfair and fraudulent
elections. It should be noted that in all three countries, the
government and pro-government parties and presidents have witnessed an
increase in activism by their respective oppositions. What varied in
the three countries was the method by which the oppositions were
handled. Thus, in Armenia, the opposition parties were ignored, and in
Azerbaijan, they were suppressed.  Georgia offered a third model in
dealing with the opposition, which is a characteristic of Georgian
President Eduard Shevardnadze -- to engage in a dialogue with the
opposition leaders to reach a compromise.

While the official preliminary results of the elections in Georgia was
not surprising (showing the win of pro-establishment parties), the way
the Georgian opposition handled those results varied from those of
Armenia and Azerbaijan. Unlike the two neighboring countries, Georgia
has a very active and vocal opposition with a tradition of taking to
the streets with some relative success. The best example of this were
the mass demonstrations of 1990-91 - along with the government's
inability to exercise control over the military - which forced the
popularly elected president Zviad Gamsakhurdia to resign.


GEORGIAN POLITICAL LANDSCAPE

Similar to most of the former Soviet republics, Georgia does not have
well-institutionalized political parties, and the country has
witnessed the surge and `demise' of political parties from one
election to another, leaving the same leaders to head the same but
renamed and restructured political parties.

The expectations from the latest parliamentary election in Georgia
predicted that the opposition `United Democrats,' led by the former
Speakers of the Parliament Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania, was
poised to win at least the majority of votes while the
pro-establishment faction or Shevardnadze's party - `For a New
Georgia' - was predicted to barely make it past the 7 per cent mark
which would qualify it to have seats in the parliament. In this
standoff, two other players were expected to make gains. One was Ajar
leader Aslan Abashidze and his `Union for the Democratic Revival of
Georgia' party and the other one was the more nationalist opposition
leader Mikhail Saakashvili with his `National Movement.' It is worth
noting that Saakashvili and his party made impressive gains in the
2002 local government elections, and Saakashvili himself was elected
the Chairman of the Tbilisi City Council.

Many observers predicted that the two main opposition parties - the
`United Democrats' and the `National Movement' -- would be able to
obtain a combined control over the parliament and use the legislative
branch of government as a means to check and balance President
Shevardnadze's political powers.

As Georgians started voting for their parliament, exit polls showed
that the opposition was heading for an overwhelming victory and would
be in comfortable control of the parliament. However, the opposition's
heightened sense of victory started dwindling when the preliminary
results started being published by the regional offices of the
Georgian Electoral Commission. The fact that vote was progressing at a
very slow pace made the opposition uneasy and suspicious that the
government supporters on the regional electoral commissions were
trying to `doctor' the results to give the `For a New Georgia' party a
competitive edge, which the exit polls predicted that they lacked.

With a high threshold to qualify to enter the parliament (7%), the
number of Georgian political parties in the parliament was apparent to
be a handful, which might have caused more intense competition between
the pro- and anti-government groups. The biggest upset of the
preliminary elections (based on the final results released on November
20) was that the Burjanadze-Zhvania alliance was barely able to pass
the 7 per cent threshold by gaining 8.8 per cent of the total votes,
while Shevardnadze's `For a New Georgia' party was in the lead with 21
per cent followed by Abashidze's party, which received 18.8 per
cent. The `National Movement' party had 18 per cent of the votes,
thereby placing third in the parliament. There were two other parties
- nominally opposition but in reality pro-government - the Labor
party, which received 12 per cent of the votes and the new Right
Party, which received 7.4 per cent, placing fourth and sixth,
respectively.


IMMEDIATE REACTIONS

With the announcement of the preliminary election results and the
apparent `win' of the `For a New Georgia' party, the opposition took
to the streets demanding recounts and, more importantly, the
resignation of President Shevardnadze on the grounds that he supports
widespread corruption and is incapable of leading the country out of
the fragmentation and ethnic conflicts that have devastated Georgia
since independence.

The main speaker on behalf of the opposition was Mikhail Saakashvili,
due to the fact that his party (even with governmental estimates) came
in third position, thus making it the largest party in opposition and
shadowing the `United Democrats' party of Burjanadze and Zhvania.

In Georgia's post-independence history, protests have been an
ever-present feature in political life. So it was not surprising that
over 10,000 people responded to calls from the opposition to take to
the streets and demand recounts of the elections and the resignation
of the President. Contrary to the fears of bloody suppression by the
state security forces, the protests were mostly uneventful and
President Shevardnadze even went to the streets to talk with the
protesters - a strategy that he has used numerous times in the past
despite several assassination attempts on his life - and plead with
them to disperse.

The opposition's cause was bolstered by international criticism - from
both OSCE elections observers and the United States (US) Department of
State - that the elections were marred with serious irregularities and
that vote rigging was widespread. However, this situation did not
prevent pro-government parties - which are technically considered to
be in opposition - comprising Abashidze's `Revival,' the
`Industrialists,' and the Labor Party to oppose the National Movement
and United Democrats and to announce joint statements opposing the
claims of electoral fraud. In his turn, President Shevardnadze asked
the opposition for a meeting to be held outside Tbilisi to try to
resolve the problem in a peaceful way. The dialogue between
Shevardnadze and the opposition did not reach a positive outcome, and
Saakashvili, emerging from the meeting, announced that the opposition
stands firm on its demands that Shevardnadze must either resign or
concede defeat.


THE ABASHIDZE FACTOR

During this election turmoil, the leader of Ajaria, Aslan Abashidze,
came under the spotlight when his `Revival' party suddenly appeared to
hold the majority of votes in the elections. Although based mostly in
Ajaria, Abashidze does have supporters among voters in Western Georgia
and Tbilisi and has been viewed by many as the most serious challenger
to Shevardnadze's authority. During the 2000 presidential elections ,
Shevardnadze reached a deal with Abashidze to gain the latter's
support in his bid for presidency in return for wider autonomy to
Ajaria.

Since the independence of Georgia from the USSR, Aslan Abashidze has
been able to run Ajaria as his personal fiefdom (which many people
call `Aslandia') and, because of the region's border with Turkey and
the presence of a Russian military base in Batumi, has been able to
cultivate good relations with both countries. Hence it was not
surprising to see that Abashidze's `Revival' party was able to obtain
more than 98 per cent of the votes in Ajaria and, along with its
support in other parts of Georgia, was able to be the frontrunner of
the parliamentary race.

There are two issues that also need to be kept in mind when talking
about Ajaria in general and Abashidze in specific. The first is the
electoral law in Georgia, according to which regional parties cannot
take part in national elections unless they have national
representation. This law was passed to exclude the Abkhaz and South
Ossetian regional parties from taking part in national politics and
has effectively left out other regional parties in Javakheti
(containing Armenians) and Marneuli (containing Azeris). Abashidze was
able to circumvent this ban by making his party a national one through
his personal appeal as well as by acting as a `beacon' for some
followers of former President Gamsakhurdia. The second issue relevant
to Ajaria is that, although predominantly Muslim, the religious card
does not have any significance in Georgian identity. In fact, for
Georgians, what qualifies a person to be Georgian - other than her/his
Georgian ancestry - is the person's ability to speak the Georgian
language. This circumstance is also true in the case of the Abkhaz and
South Ossetians, where both nationalities have a substantial number of
practicing Muslims.

In the latest parliamentary elections in Georgia, Abashidze proved to
be an indispensable ally for President Shevardnadze. Thus, as
protesters demanded Shevardnadze's resignation, the president paid an
unexpected visit to Batumi on November 10. After a meeting with
Abashidze, the two leaders announced that they would do everything in
their power to resist destabilization of the country. The most
shocking event came the following day when Abashidze started a tour in
the region and made surprise visits to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and
Russia. The fact that the Ajar leader seldom leaves his autonomous
republic and suddenly went on a tour of regional capitals raised many
eyebrows. For many people Abashidze was acting as a spokesperson for
Shevardnadze, since the latter could not leave the country under
increasing pressures by the opposition. Consequently, Abashidze's
visits were made for gathering regional support for Shevardnadze, and
considering the Ajarian leader's good relations with Russia, he was
the natural choice to become a presidential envoy.

Many see President Shevardnadze's alliance with Abashidze as a pact
with the devil. Abashidze is well known for his autocratic regime and
intolerance for any opposition. Shevardnadze's association with him
makes the opposition's case even stronger when it points out that if
Shevardnadze was willing to `bow' to demands from a regional leader
then it is indeed time for him to step down as the leader of the
country. Moreover, a possibility also exists that Abashidze has been
acting as his own personal - rather than Shevardnadze's - envoy in his
negotiations in Yerevan, Baku, and Moscow and is trying to establish
regional support for his rule in Ajaria, and even expanding it to
include Javakheti and Western Georgia.


REGIONAL SUSPENSE AND THE SUSPENSE FROM GEORGIA'S REGIONS

The facts that Georgia is a multiethnic society and already has
several regions that have achieved de facto autonomy from Tbilisi make
the post-election situation in the country even more volatile. Thus,
excluding Ajaria, Javakheti, and Marneuli all regions had widespread
electoral fraud and the `For a New Georgia' party gathered the most
votes. Although there were ethnic Armenians and Azeris elected from
the pro-government list, the Armenians of Javakheti and Azeris of
Marneuli have both claimed that their demands and issues have been
neglected not only by the government but also by the opposition.

Although Javakheti and Marneuli remain under Tbilisi's control and
have not followed the path of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to completely
break away from Tbilisi's control, ethnic tension and demands for more
autonomy are strong in both regions (especially in Javakheti). The
widespread socially and economically poor circumstances - very common
in all over Georgia - are widely translated along ethnic fault lines
in the two regions and, as such, help fuel ethnic tensions.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are careful not to antagonize the official
Tbilisi government, since in case of Azerbaijan, its energy pipelines
pass through Georgia, and in the case of Armenia, the fact that
Georgia provides Armenia's only outlet to the Black Sea and a land
route to Russia.

>From an Armenian perspective, some duality exists as well. From a
more nationalist standpoint, the current situation in Georgia might be
the perfect opportunity for Armenians in Javakheti to raise their
voice and demand autonomy from Tbilisi in return for their support for
Shevardnadze.  On the other hand, the official Armenian government's
reaction is that it is very attentive that any escalation of tension
in Javakheti would not take place, and in return for such silent
cooperation Armenia might receive preferential treatment when and if
the situation in Georgia in normalized.  One such preferential
treatment would be to ease transportation of goods to and from the
Black Sea for Armenia and, at the same time, to provide more
opportunities for Armenia to help alleviate the socioeconomic
situation in Javakheti.

On its part, Russia has been watching the situation in Georgia
carefully.  There is no question that Russia and Georgia have very
uneasy relationships, considering the fact that Russia has military
bases in three of Georgia's problem areas - Gudauta in Abkhazia,
Batumi in Ajaria, and Akhalkalaki in Javakheti. These bases have been
one of the most contested issues between the two countries, and for
many observers, they act as pressure points that Russia uses against
Georgia whenever the Georgians' try to break away from Russian orbit.

Considering the existing tensions between Georgia and Russia, as well
as Georgians and non-Georgian minorities in the country, there is an
unexpected and silent - and maybe even an agreed upon - understanding
by Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to support Georgia's stability. Any
breakdown of the central authorities in Tbilisi or the coming to power
of a more nationalist leader might aggravate the existing tense
situation between Georgia and its neighbors (mainly Russia) or even
between, the ethnic groups within Georgia (specifically in Javakheti).


SHEVARDNADZE OUSTED

The current post-election crisis seems to have been developing and
escalating consistently. Tbilisi has been witnessing pro- and
anti-Shevardnadze protests (akin to the protests that Tbilisi
witnessed in the early 1990s when Gamsakhurdia was president).
However, there are some differences between the anti-Gamsakhurdia
protests in 1991 and the current anti-Shevardnadze movements. The main
difference between then and now is that unlike the early 1990s,
weapons and militias are not readily available. One of the reasons why
the protest in 1991 turned into a bloody civil war was that the pro-
and anti-Gamsakhurdia factions were armed and had access to
weapons. The situation now is different. The Georgian army and
internal security forces are the only real armed entities in Georgia
proper (not counting the breakaway regions), and the chances that
those armed forces might be used by Shevardnadze to quell the
protesters are very slim, since it might take away whatever support
Shevardnadze has with the Georgian populous.

One development that concluded the fate of President Shevardnadze was
his gradual loss of the support of his associates and their either
joining the opposition or keeping their distance from the president -
one such event took place on November 19 when the state broadcasting
chief Zaza Shengelia resigned from his post. Another major voice heard
in this turmoil was of Tedo Japaridze, who is the secretary of the
powerful Georgian National Security Council, when he announced that
the parliamentary elections were accompanied by widespread
irregularities and that Shevardnadze was `isolated from information
sources.' This statement might have been translated to mean that
Japaridze does not support president Shevardnadze and, consequently,
distanced himself from the turbulence in which Shevardnadze was
engulfed.

These political desertions had a tremendous impact in boosting morale
and the confidence of the opposition parties, which on November 22
(only a day after Japaridze's announcement) stormed the parliament
building and announced that they have formed a new interim government
headed by Burjanadze as a provisional president.

It seems that Moscow - which for two weeks has been silent about the
situation in the country - finally took active measures by sending the
foreign minister Igor Ivanov to Tbilisi to try to mediate between
Shevardnadze and the opposition. As surprising as it seems, Mr. Ivanov
was welcomed with cheers by the opposition protesters who had earlier
taken over the parliament building. This warm welcome by the
opposition might have played an instrumental role in changing the view
of Moscow that the Georgian opposition is vehemently anti-Russian and
that anyone other than Shevardnadze as president would create problems
to Russia. Moreover a day after Ivanov's arrival to Tbilisi and after
his attempts to mediate talks between the president and the
opposition, Shevardnadze announced his resignation as president.

The resignation of Shevardnadze might not end the turmoil that Georgia
has been facing over the past several weeks. The opposition is now
faced with the difficult task of establishing legitimacy of the state
and organizing new elections to transfer the authorities to a
legitimately elected parliament and president. The challenge for the
opposition is to be able to keep a united front and after the
establishment of a new government to deal with the issues that brought
them to power in the first place - namely social and economic
problems. Moreover if the current opposition leadership is not able to
establish the rule of law all over Georgia then the amount of
disillusionment and mistrust that the population will have towards
political processes will increase.

With the ouster of Shevardnadze, Aslan Abashidze might find himself
under increasing pressure to reform the political situation in Ajaria
and provide more political freedoms. However if the opposition chooses
to collide with the Ajar leader the chances of a separatist war
erupting in southern Georgia might be a reality. Such a separatist war
might also fuel separatist tendencies among the Armenians of
Javakheti.

No matter how things develop and culminate, the current post-election
fiasco in Georgia served another blow to the process of strengthening
power in Georgia and pushed the country further into the failed state
category. If the situation in Georgia ends up being such that it is
`catch as catch can,' the chances of stability and progress to resolve
conflicts in the Caucasus could be set back years and the region might
be left out from international and regional processes. With the latest
developments of the opposition taking control of the parliament,
fear of yet more infighting within the opposition might lead to further
damage to Georgia's international credibility as well as the domestic
trust of national institutions, pushing the country further into
chaos.


--
Asbed Kotchikian is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Boston
University and an instructor at Wheaton College. He spent two years
(2000-02) in Armenia and Georgia conducting research and teaching at local
universities. Comments to the author may be emailed to asbed@bu.edu.

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