Georgia: Presidential Preview

The Nov. 2 parliamentary elections were, depending on your perspective, either a model of democratic procedure or blatantly rigged. A week after the vote, however, the opposition was raising the stakes, conducting mass rallies throughout the country to push for the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister who has governed Georgia for most of the past 30 years.

The new Parliament will sit until 2007, two years past the next presidential election, in which Shevardnadze is constitutionally barred from standing as a candidate. If he decides to follow the Yeltsin-Putin scenario by appointing his successor (or if the opposition hopes to prevent this), winning a parliamentary majority is very important indeed.The parliamentary majority appoints the legislature’s speaker, who takes over for the president if the latter steps down before his term ends.

The elections pitted the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia (FNG) against an array of opposition parties: Mikheil Saakashvili’s National Movement; the Burjanadze-Democrats, led by Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania, present and past parliamentary speakers, respectively; the Labor Party; and Revival, the governing party in Ajaria, an autonomous republic. Official results put Saakashvili’s party in third place, but an exit poll identified National Movement as the clear winner.

Zhvania declared that the election was manipulated in incredible ways, according to Akhali Taoba (Nov. 4). But Svobodnaya Gruziya drew a different conclusion. In an attribution later denied by the U.S. Embassy, the newspaper quoted U.S.  Ambassador Richard Miles as saying, “The election that has been conducted in Georgia should become a model for the region.” Those words sounded strikingly similar to the statement uttered days later by Shevardnadze in Ajaria, which had given the regional ruling party Revival (now in alliance with Shevardnadze) an improbable 95 percent of the vote. “These days, Ajaria shows an example to all of Georgia,” Shevardnadze declared, according to Svobodnaya Gruziya (Nov. 10). Voter lists (omissions or the inclusion of deceased persons) were a source of alleged irregularities. Diana Petriashvili of Komsomolskaya Pravda v Gruzii (Nov. 7) claimed that she managed to vote three times at one precinct. “The people don’t know how easy it is to get away with this,” Petriashvili wrote.

The National Movement and Burjanadze-Democrats staged daily protests in the center of Tbilisi to compel the government to accept the “real” (unofficial) results and force Shevardnadze’s resignation. Nino Targamadze of Mtavari Gazeti (Nov. 6) identified three presidential hopefuls from the opposition: Saakashvili, Burjanadze, and Labor’s Shalva Natelashvili.

Some saw a coup attempt in the protests.  “The opposition is strongly backed by influential Russian political circles,” wrote Zviad Pochkua in Tribuna (Nov. 5). “Besides, the Georgian opposition maintains close ties with American financial and political circles that are in opposition to President Bush. Among these are the Soros Foundation and the National Democratic Institute.”