Zaal Anjaparidze and Peter Rutland
24 May 2004
Six months after the "Rose Revolution" that toppled Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili continues to surprise observers and energize his supporters. There are grounds for optimism but also cause for concern in respect to Saakashvili's accomplishments. Saakashvili is using a nationalist rhetoric that does not necessarily sit easily with the liberal values for which he is known in the West.
The bloodless ouster of Aslan Abashidze, the renegade leader of Adzharia, on May 6 has changed the geopolitical map of the Caucasus. It showed that the conflicts that erupted in the early 1990s need not and should not stay "frozen" indefinitely. Even more surprising, Moscow seems to have gotten the message, and cooperated in the removal of Abashidze, its erstwhile ally.
Saakashvili has no intention of resting on his laurels. He has made it clear that his priority is the restoration of a strong and unified Georgian state. He has even invoked the legacy of controversial former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who fled the country in 1992 after his nationalist policies triggered a civil war and rebellions in Adzharia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The next step will be restoring Georgian sovereignty over the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These will be far tougher nuts to crack than Adzharia. The Adzharians are Muslim Georgians, whereas the Abkhazians and Ossetians have distinct and proud ethnic identities, including separate languages. After fighting a bloody war with Georgia, they have lived for a decade with de facto independence. And unlike Adzharia, these regions have a direct border with Russia and most of their residents have now been given Russian citizenship.
Moscow's role is therefore crucial. There are now reasons for believing that President Vladimir Putin may be willing to help Saakashvili restore control over the secessionist provinces. First, Putin has little choice but to deal with Saakashvili, who has the authority that comes from his sweeping victory in the January presidential election, now reinforced by the victory over Abashidze.
Second, Saakashvili has the undivided support of the United States, which this year will pour $160 million in aid into Georgia (one-fifth of the budget), and which has just renewed its military training program in the country.
Third, Saakashvili has shown his political acumen in moving beyond the stale foreign policy rhetoric of his predecessor. He does not believe that construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline will magically solve all of Georgia's problems. Nor does he want to get bogged down in dead-end negotiations over the removal of Russian bases from Georgian territory.
This flexibility has enabled him to establish a good personal relationship with Putin, whose main concern is preventing Chechen terrorists from operating out of Georgia. Saakashvili has pledged full cooperation on this important issue, including joint border patrols. The Chechen Ichkeria representation office in Tbilisi was closed in 2002.
Still, the drive to absorb Abkhazia is a high-stakes gamble. Abkhazia has strong supporters among the Russian military and in the State Duma, so Putin may not have his customary freedom of maneuver over the issue.
Saakashvili's crusade to unify Georgia is not without its costs: The Rose Revolution has some thorns. The drive for national unity has dovetailed with a strong concentration of power in the hands of the president. If the unification campaign falters, Saakashvili may turn to more political coups on the domestic front to retain his momentum.
Saakashvili's energetic campaign against corruption sent some dishonest officials to jail, but unfortunately it also involved some squaring of accounts with personal and political foes. The fact that some of those arrested were set free after they handed over large sums of money sent a mixed message to society, as did Saakashvili's abrupt declaration of a tax amnesty without parliamentary approval.
The constitutional changes initiated by Saakashvili were regarded by much of the civic sector as a setback in democracy-building. The new constitution allows the president to dissolve parliament and considerably weakens the legislature in its relations with the executive.
Saakashvili has publicly stated that he does not see the need for a parliamentary opposition. The promising political leader Zurab Zhvania was rewarded with the post of prime minister, but had to merge his United Democrats party with Saakashvili's National Movement. The March 28 parliamentary elections went ahead under rules that set a 7 percent threshold for parties competing for seats. As a result, only two parties made it into the legislature. The National Democrats won 135 seats and the Industrialists-New Rights coalition won 15. (In addition, there are 85 deputies elected in single-mandate races last November who kept their seats.)
Saakashvili's authoritarian leanings recently produced an unseemly spat with the Council of Europe. The council warned Georgia that the corruption campaign should stay within the law and expressed concern over the concentration of power in the hands of the president. Saakashvili bristled at this criticism, and his anger boiled over when council Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer complained on May 2 that Tbilisi was failing to maintain a dialogue with Abashidze. Saakashvili castigated Schwimmer, saying on May 9, "It was not a statement of a true European; it was a statement of an impudent and well-paid bureaucrat." Georgia moved to expel Plamen Nikolov, the Council of Europe representative in Tbilisi, accusing him of misinformation, but in the past week the conflict has quieted down.
Given Georgia's strategic location and the daunting array of unsettled domestic problems, Tbilisi's foreign policy for the foreseeable future will be a tricky balancing act between Russia, Europe and the United States. Thus far, Saakashvili and the ruling party are reaping the rewards from bold policies and a still high credit of trust from the population. But this trust might shrink if ordinary citizens doubt the legitimacy of the new government's policy, especially during the anticipated redistribution of the proceeds from the anti-corruption drive. Georgian society pins great hopes on Saakashvili and his team. But the greater their hopes, the more bitter will be their disappointment should he fail to deliver.