02/11/2003 - Analysis
On 2nd November next Georgians will be called to vote to elect a new Parliament for the fourth time since the country's independence. Fifteen political movements and nine electoral alliances have been recorded to be taking part in this general election, essential for this country that is undergoing a serious economic crisis and whose political system is still far from being able to offer the democratic guarantees demanded by the West.
A country in crisis
Georgia that was the first Soviet Republic to become independent on 9th April 1991 is undergoing a serious economic crisis. The country is bankrupt, its foreign debt totalling 1.75 billion dollars on 1st July 2003 (600 million of which were owing to the Club de Paris, an organisation that involves all the creditor States) and since the beginning of the year, 23 million dollars worth of obligations have not been honoured. The President of the Central Georgian Bank, Irakli Managadze, admitted that the country "was almost unable to pay because it could not accomplish its commitments according to the timetable established by the creditor countries".
The financial crisis is chronic in the Caucasian Republic. Georgia has witnessed unemployment en masse, terrible poverty and an inefficient taxation system because this is only partial. More than half of the population (52% according to Nodar Kapanadze, head of research at the statistical department) lives below the poverty line established at 65$ per month. Privatisation (particularly that of the major companies) is mostly unfinished and corruption is rife. Tbilissi has twice obtained a rescheduling of its foreign debt by the Club de Paris. The International Monetary Fund has just frozen its aid to Georgia after the failure of the attempts made by Parliament on 21st August last to agree on measures to restrict the budget. The existence of an IMF programme is however the condition imposed by the Club de Paris in order for a new schedule of the country's debt to be established.
Georgia is one of the most diversified regions in the world in terms of ethnicity (there are around fifty different languages) and is confronted by the separatism of two of its provinces (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and by numerous requests for autonomy (Adjaria and Samtskhe-Javakhetia).
Abkhazia, which was integrated into the Soviet Republic of Georgia in 1921, is an autonomous republic that answers to Tbilissi. It proclaimed independence in August 1992 and defended this right during a year long conflict that led to the death of thousands and the exile of 200,000 Georgians. South Ossetia is officially annexed to Georgia but behaves like an autonomous republic with a president, a government and a parliament. Nevertheless, since it has very little means it is obliged to join in with the central Georgian power and yet boasts having the constitution of a federal State.
Adjaria is theoretically integrated into the Georgian State but it does in fact enjoy wider autonomy and all the more since the province has some major resources (Adjaria is the country's richest province) of which it gives just a very small part to Tbilissi. The Adjarian President is Aslan Abachidze, leader of the Renaissance Party. Finally Samtskhe-Javakhetia is an area lying on the Turkish and Armenian borders and whose population is mainly of Armenian origin. Education is undertaken in Armenian, the legal tender is the Armenian dram and the Russian rouble (that is also legal tender in South Ossetia) but public services are managed by Georgian civil servants. Tbilissi divided the province and created an administrative unit bigger than Samtskhe-Javakhetia, embracing a population of 250,000, 60% of which are of Armenian origin.
The tension between Georgia and Russia on issues of territory is acute. Moscow granted Russian nationality to a number of Georgian citizens, hence three quarters of Abkhazian inhabitants and half of those living in South Ossetia have a Russian passport. Russia has also accused Tbilissi of being used by Chechen "terrorists" as a back up base particularly in the Gorges of Pankissi that are close to the border between Georgia and Chechnya. President Edward Chevardnadze, who is having problems with the USA, seems to have decided to seek support from his Russian neighbour given the general elections on 2nd November next. American Senator John McCain requested the head of State to ensure the satisfactory running of the election by modifying more democratically the composition of the electoral Commission so that opposition parties held more sway. Last Spring the American Department of State cooled its relations with Edward Chevardnadze saying that Georgia might drop shortly from being a second class developing country, i.e. those receiving financial aid from the USA, to third class of "failed States". This includes States that are more backward both politically and economically.
Georgia has witnessed a high rate of emigration. The Caucasian republic had 4.4 million inhabitants according to the last census, i.e. one million less than in 1989. Around 950,000 people have left the country since 1991, 600,000 of whom went to Russia.
Finally in terms of human rights the situation is far from satisfactory. A group of observers from the Council Europe were in the country in February this year and were extremely critical, notably emphasising the violence undertaken against the political opposition and religious minorities. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) promised to send at least 500 observers to monitor the general elections on 2nd November. During the local elections on 2nd June 2002 major fraud (intimidation, theft of ballot boxes, attacks on polling stations etc) was noted by international observers who also complained about the pitiful state of the electoral lists and the lack of material means.
The Georgian Political System
The Sakartvelos Parlamenti comprises 235 MP's and is the only chamber in Georgian parliament. The country is divided into 25 single member constituencies and 10 multi member constituencies, who elect between 5 and 24 MP's depending on their population. MP's are elected for four years, 25 of them by majority vote and the 150 others are elected by proportional vote. A political party has to win at least 7% of the votes cast in order to enter Parliament. Moreover if in one constituency no candidate wins at least 33% of the vote another round of voting takes place between the two leading candidates. Finally half of the electorate enrolled in each of the constituencies must vote in order for the election to be declared valid.
Since the last general elections on 31st October and 14th November 1999 the Georgian political arena has changed greatly, some new parties have emerged and new alliances have been forged.
The country has eight major political parties:
New Georgia was created in April 2003 by Edward Chevardnaze, President of the Republic for the general elections this autumn. This party succeeds the Union of Georgian Citizens (SMK), the majority party in parliament that has dominated national political life since 1991. National independence, the country's integration into Europe, closer relations with the USA and NATO, the liberalisation of the economy and increases in salaries comprise the main points of its electoral programme;
The New Rights Party led by two men, Levan Gotchetchildze and David Gamkrelidze (founder of the insurance company Aldagi, one of the country's leading companies), lies to the right of centre on the political chessboard and is very much pro-Western. It is supported by a number of Georgian business men. This party, that is popular amongst the young electorate, suffers from an oligarchic image;
The Renaissance Party, led by the President of the Autonomous Republic of Adjaria, Aslan Abachidze, who is thought of by many as being Moscow's man - won seats during each general election taking 90-97% of the vote in Adjaria;
The Labour Party led by Chalva Natelachvili, is a Social Democrat party that developed recently from a position in favour of the country's military neutrality to supporting integration into NATO;
The Entrepreneurs Union, led by Guiorgui Topadze and Zourab Tkemaladze, was created by business men during the last general elections in 1999;
The National Movement or Reformers led by Mikhail Saakashvili, is an opposition party;
The United Democrats is a more radical opposition party than the previous one. Its leader, Zourab Zhvania, is a former member of the Union of Georgian Citizens and succeeded in taking along with him the powerful infrastructure of his former party;
The Traditionalists' Party, led by Akaky Assatiani, is an assembly of royalists.
Recent political developments witnessed the alliance, on 18th August this year, between Zourab Zhvania (United Democrats) with the present President of Parliament Nino Bourdjanadze. At the beginning of April she openly demonstrated her opposition to President Edward Chevardnadze and the government, qualifying their political line as "dictatorial". Nino Bourdjanadze who clearly is a pro-Western politician enjoys great popularity in the country's intellectual circles. On 22nd August the two leaders launched their electoral campaign in Zougdidi in the north of the country with the general elections of 2nd November in mind. Later they were joined by Akaky Assatiani (Traditionalists' Party). Together the three have an in depth political experience (all three leaders have been president of parliament) and are considered by many political analysts as the most credible and most threatening opposition to President Edward Chevardndze's party, New Georgia.
On 9th October last Irina Sarichvili-Chantouria, spokesperson for New Georgia started a polemical debate by announcing that she had transferred over to the Minister for National Security documents confirming links between Nino Bourdjanadze and Zourab Zhvania and the Russian Secret Services. According to the spokesperson both leaders had had regular telephone conversations with the former Georgian KGB leader, Igor Guiorgadze, who is suspected by the government of having been behind a failed assassination attempt on President Edward in 1995 and who is at present in hiding in Moscow. In the face of these accusations Nino Bourdjanadze asked the minister to make the accusatory documents public and to respond rapidly to allegations against Zourab Zhvania and herself accusing them of being Russian secret service agents.
The general elections on 2nd November are a vital time for the young Republic of Georgia for two main reasons. On the one hand this election will be the first in the country's recent history where opposition parties will be able to play a true role and on the other hand they also comprise the first stage for the country's transition "after" Edward Chevardnadze.
Reminder of the general election results of 31st and 14th November 1999:
Participation rate: 67,6 %
Source: Georgian Parliament