Georgia's Destabilizing Crisis

 The Caucasian republic of Georgia is now in the third week of a destabilizing political crisis.


The Caucasian republic of Georgia is now in the third week of a destabilizing political crisis. It was sparked off by voters‚ who were outraged at the rigging of parliamentary elections on November 2 so as to assure President Eduard Shevardnadze maintained control of the legislature until the end of his presidency in 2005.

Since then, Georgians have been demonstrating, calling for Shevardnazde to resign or at least admit the elections were a fraud. He continues to refuse to do either. The 76-year old leader, who has been a dominant political figure in Georgia for three decades, said it would be irresponsible to resign and that the elections were "most democratic and fair."

The Central Election Committee, responsible for tallying the votes, has broken off counting them, but according to the partial results it put out, Shevardnadze's bloc of parties, For a New Georgia, is ahead of the three other major political groupings. These results, Georgians and international observers agree, were the result of intimidation and unsound voter lists before the election and stuffed ballot boxes during the voting. Richard M. Miles, the U.S. ambassador at Tbilisi, called the elections a mess.

One of the mysteries surrounding Georgian politics is what happened to the voter lists. Shevardnadze blames an international organization he does not name for adding people long dead to them and removing living ones. At least some opposition figures agree. The Interior ministry drew up hand written lists that were then put on a computer by the Washington-based International Foundation for Election Systems, a non-governmental organization set up in 1987. The result was many errors in the digital list, according to an opposition activist. How this happened, he says, is not yet known.  

A significant opposition weakness is that it is divided and that each of the leaders of the three major opposition parties wants to be president.

The most prominent opposition figure is Mikhail Saakashvili, a former Justice minister who leads the populist Nationalist Movement and is head of the Tbilisi municipal council. He has been urging on the demonstrations and calling for strikes. Burjanadze Democrats, named after Nino Burjanadze, the former speaker of the parliament, also promote the protests. She is supported by Zurab Zhvania, once considered Shevardnadze's political heir.

Opposed to the protests are For a New Georgia and the Revival party. Revival is based in Ajaria, a region run as a personal domain by Aslan Abshidize, who is ostensibly Shevardnadze's enemy but who supports him in the present crisis.

The third most important party, New Rights, led by David Gamkrelidze, and the small Labor party have distanced themselves from the protests, although they both deplore the way the election was conducted. New Rights, whose support comes from the middle and business classes, suspects that Saakashvili would like the demonstrations to turn into a revolution that would carry him to power. A revolution seems unlikely but might be provoked, a New Rights supporter told me from Tbilisi, by, say, security forces shooting down demonstrators. So far there has been restraint on both sides, but the risk of increased destabilization is there.

Fixing elections is a habit with Shevardnadze. He would have won without doing so in 2000 when he was still seen by many as Georgia's indispensable man. But he put the fix in that year, just to make sure he won his second five-year, and constitutionally final, term as president.

Two days before the November 2 voting, President Bush sent Shevardnadze a letter urging him "to conduct this upcoming election in a free, fair, peaceful and transparent manner" and avoid "violence and intimidation as a political tool." It was a reiteration of what American leaders have been telling Shevardnadze he should do since the early Clinton years.

In 1992, Shevardnadze returned from Moscow to take over his native land that was beset by civil war and separatist uprisings that wrenched considerable parts of the country from Tbilisi's rule.

Shevardnadze had joined the Communist Party and became an apparatchik at the age of twenty. That was in 1948 when another Georgian, Josef Stalin, was in the Kremlin. It appears that Stalin's dictum, "It's not the people's vote that counts; it's the people who count the votes," made a stronger impression on Shevardnadze than U.S. presidents or their emissaries, down to former Secretary of State James Baker, dispatched by President Bush to Tbilisi in July, Ambasador Miles or E. Lynn Pascoe, deputy assistant secretary of State for Eurasia who was due to arrive in Tbilisi this Wednesday.

A frustrated Miles has said the United States would like to see stronger leadership, but Shevardnadze is showing strong leadership, fighting to get a parliamentary majority, no matter how, and to stay in office. Of course, what Washington has in mind, apart from free and fair elections, is an end to pervasive corruption and securing Georgia from collapse into the arms of the Kremlin.

The most immediate security concern, apart from avoiding a civil war, is the safety of a pipeline that is under construction. If all goes well, it will be completed towards the end of next year. It is to carry oil from Baku, the Azerbaijani capital on the Caspian Sea, through Georgia and on to Turkey's Mediterranean port at Ceyhan. The geopolitical point of the $2.9 billion project, known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, is that it will be a major conveyor of oil from the Caspian basin, rich in hydrocarbons, to Western markets while avoiding Russian territory.

That means Moscow will not be able to cut off the flow of oil. The Kremlin has not shied from applying robust measures in seeking to restore its influence in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the former republics of the Soviet Union in the southern Caucasus.