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After the sudden death of
the "Realo" of the Rose Revolution,
will Georgia collapse again?



Per Gahrton, TFF adviser

Member of the European Parliament, the Greens, Sweden


February 7, 2005

The first time I met Zurab Zhvania was at a Conference for Green Parliamentarians in Stockholm in 1990. He came from a distant and unknown country and told us that he had formed a successful Green Party - in the Soviet Union. We thought that was impossible - but Zurab did it! To overcome the impossible became his personal brand. However, at last, if available information is correct, he fell victim to one of the most mundane everyday aspects of the crisis of Georgia - the energy shortage. Nothing works as planned; everyone has to "make it for oneself", amateurish, with what is at hand. So it seems that Zurab Zhvania tragically died by a leaking gas fuelled heating device. Thereby becoming a symbol for the paradoxes of his country in life as well as in death.


Relations with Shevardnadze

Next time I saw him was in 1993. Georgia was on the verge of collapse because of the chaotic rule of the nationalist fanatic, Zvia Gamsakhurdia, which led to separatism and civil war. Zurab then had joined forces with Shevardnadze, to the dismay of some Greens. But he believed that Shevardnadze was the only one who could unite the ravaged country. He brought me from Tbilisi to Kutaisi. There I was introduced to 17 generals from he government forces supposed to mobilise against Gamsakhurdias counter-attacks."And how many soldiers do you have", I asked. The answer was, Maybe fifty. Zurab liked to tell this story over and over again whenever we met. He saw the absurd numerical relation between generals and soldiers as symbolic for Georgia.

Since I became the rapporteur for South Caucasus in 1999 we met once or twice annually. When I met him in his State Minister office the day after the landslide victory of his partner Mischa Saakashvili in the presidential election of January 4, 2004, I couldn´t help testing his patience by forwarding some of the criticism directed at him and his colleagues, for example the fact hat he had cooperated with the defunct president Shevardnadze for almost a decade. Zhvania just smiled mildly at my question.

- In 1992 we had a civil war, Shevardnadze was the only possibility and I am not ashamed of having brought him back, but proud of it. But I am also proud to be one of the very few politicians in a former Communist Country to have resigned from such a high position as I did in 2001 without any type of "parachute".

After his resignation from his position as Speaker and head of the ruling Citizens Union in the fall of 2001 because of Shevardnadze's inability and lack of will to take forceful action against corruption - a resignation that was triggered by physical attacks by the authorities against TV-station Rusavi 2 - Zhvania suddenly found himself in a political desert, even being barred from presenting candidates for the local election of June 2002. He was rather close to ending up in the dustbin of history.

He interrupted our conversation of January 4th 2004 for a short telephone talk with Nino Burjanadse, who was speaker of the parliament and still interim president. On the agenda was a rapid amendment to the Constitution in order to replace the post of State Minister with a real position as Prime Minister and Chief of Government. Some predicted that the new president would like to retain the American-style presidential power he had just been given by more than nine out of ten Georgians. But Zhvania had no doubt that the agreed change would take place. As a matter of fact it did, Zhvania was appointed Prime Minster on February 17.

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- We have no alternative but to keep together, he said. That is best for Georgia. And the people would not forgive anybody who would damage the new ruling coalition for personal gains. The voters have not given us eternal power. They have opened a unique window of opportunity. If we don´t use that with responsibility, we will be punished - and rightly so, he said.

I am convinced he was right. The new leaders have needed each other. What will happen now? When I met Zhvania last time, in September 2004, I confronted him with the mounting criticism against legal abuses during the fight against corruption, not only from small Georgian oppositions parties, like the Labour and his old partners in the Greens, but also from Amnesty and other Human Rights organisations. Saakashvili likes the dramatic style, arresting accused tax dodgers or smugglers in front of TV-cameras, then giving them a chance to get out after paying a handsome sum, not to anybody personally but to the state. Zurab admitted: The legal system is still too politised, we must change that.


Theatre of the Absurd in Ajara

My most intense experience with Zurab was on the day of the repeated parliamentary elections in March 2004. He invited me to go with him to the autonomous Ajara, where the local feudal leader Aslan Abashidse was still ruling. We arrived with a few cars, the local guards let us in - it was very tense. We visited many polling stations where people were astonished, but happy, to see the leader of the Tbilisi-government in their province. Zurab feared violent actions from Abashidse later in the evening; he expected him to try to destroy ballot boxes when it would turn out that he had lost. So Zurab had a meeting with him in the afternoon.

It was like a scene from the threatre of the absurd. And it went on for more than twelve hours. Abashidse at one moment showed a video with small armed boats from his personal factory, at another moment cried that Tbilisi "Speznaz" fighters, disguised as election observers, were tracking him to kill him. He even claimed that Georgian airplanes were hovering over his palace at night (which nobody else could observe) in order to drop bombs on him.

It was the opinion of some observers that Abashidse was mad. In any case Zurab acted as a psycho therapist in order to save the elections in Ajara from too much fraud and violence. He actually succeeded, and set an example for the two other recalcitrant provinces. If his policy should rule, Tbilisi would use anything but violence to restore the unity of the state.


It doesn't bode well...

With Zhvania gone, who knows what actions will be taken? Just some weeks ago Saakashvili suddenly fired Minister of Defence Baramidse who was one of Zurab's loyal friends. In came instead a "hawk", former minister of the Interior, Okruashvili. Saakashvili immediately gave him the order to reinforce the army and give highest priority to the reintegration of separatist regions.

The nomination of Okruashvili took place in the middle of night in front of the entire Kodori Brigade that had been put on alert with short notice. And, of course, in front of TV-cameras. That is not the way Zurab Zhvania would have done it.

Some say that the Rose Revolution was a US-sponsored action to safeguard American interests in a sensitive region at the frontier of the "clash of civilisations". But those who suspect the new Georgian leaders of establishing a US satellite forget several facts. For example, Zhvania was one of very few state leaders outside Russia's circle of closest allies to welcome the outcome of the Duma elections in December 2003 (See Svobodnaja Gruzia Dec 8th, 2003). Not because he found those elections commendable, but because he is a realo. Zhvania told me that he was sceptical about a rapid NATO-membership for Georgia. But on that point he apparently had to give in to stronger forces.

His relation to the US is as "realo" as the one with Russia. In September 2002, arriving back home after a CIS summit in Astana, where he also met with Vladimir Putin, he complained that the Russians have difficulties not to behave as an imperialistic power. "Just like the U.S.", he added. And he compared the Russian exploitation of Shamil Basajev against Georgia in Abkhazia with the US-exploitation of Usama bin Laden against communists in Afghanistan. Both cases had fired back against the sponsor! Usama bin Laden in Manhattan, Basajev in Beslan.

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My impression is that Zurab wanted genuine Georgian independence from both the U.S. and Russia, but cooperation with both of them. With Europe it was a different matter. He was not satisfied with balance, he always emphasised that Georgia is heading for full membership of the European Union.


The Rose Revolution - still a long way to go

The peacefulness of the Rose Revolution has created a unique situation, without the hatred and bitterness and revengefulness that makes so many bloody revolutions deteriorate into brutal prisons that "eat their own children". But the problems of the country remain enormous. Fourteen months after the Rose Revolution the country is still divided, millions of people are very poor, the economic growth is not bad, but far from sufficient for the needs. Patience is running out. In late January this year, Russian Izvestia commented on the visit of President Saakashvili to the Council of Europe by reminding readers that "Georgia´s honeymoon with Europe is over" because CoE observers have criticised Human Rights abuses by the new regime. And in International Herald Tribune a disappointed Georgian activist from November 2003, Tinatin Khidasheli from Young Lawyers Association complained: "The Rose Revolution has wilted" (Dec 8, 2004).

Thus, the political Saakashvili-style theatre will not be enough. More down-to- earth actions are needed. Maybe that is what Schevarnadse had in mind when he admitted that he had voted for Saakashvili (!) as president on January 4, 2004, but added: "He should talk less, act more".

Saakashvili probably understood that. He has made good use of the acting realo at his side, Zurab Zhvania. Nobody knows what will happen now. In Georgia the distance between hope and desperation has often been extremely short.

Per Gahrton



© TFF & the author 2005  



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