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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.