GEORGIA: Late premier leaves big shoes to fill
Vladimir Beron «View Bio

February 17, 2005

After a year widely seen as the most politically stable in Georgia`s post-Soviet history, the young administration of President Mikhail Saakashvili abruptly found itself faced with its toughest test as a result of the sudden death of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. In the early hours of February 3, the Prime Minister`s bodyguards found Zhvania and an aid he was visiting dead from apparent carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty gas heater. Given the country`s history of political violence, the premier`s death sparked broad speculation about possible foul play, as well as serious concerns for the future of the nascent stability that had eluded the Caucasus` state before Saakashvili`s came to power.

Zhvania was regarded as one of the country`s most astute leaders, admired abroad and respected at home. He enjoyed a sound working relationship with Saakashvili, despite some well publicized differences the two have had along the road to becoming the two key politicians in Georgia. The late premier was elevated to political prominence in the mid 1990s by former President Eduard Shevardnadze, who`s ousting on November 23, 2003 he aided by playing a major role in the so-called rose revolution, spearheaded by Saakashvili in the wake of the fraudulent November 2, 2003 parliamentary elections. 

Although Shevardnadze made him the leader of the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), which was the former president`s powerbase, which propelled him to the second most powerful post in the government as parliamentary speaker in 1995, Zhvania remained openly critical of government corruption that contributed much to the chronic volatility.  In 1998 he threatened to resign and join the opposition unless reforms were implemented.  The same year, his ally Saakashvili became the leader of the SMK parliamentary faction.  The two spearheaded the push for the reformist agenda that Shevardnadze was reluctant to pursue, as well as for an unusually tough stance on Russia.

After Shevardnadze succeeded in forcing Zhvania`s resignation following mass street protests in November 2001, triggered by a government crackdown on the popular Rustavi 2 television channel, he formed the United Democrats parliamentary faction in May 2002.  Subsequently, it joined forces with a political bloc led by parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze to contest what became the infamous November 2003 elections. Zhvania`s initial reluctance to form an alliance with Saakashvili and his National Movement was purportedly because he considered Saakashvili too radical. However, as it became apparent that the political bloc that Shevardnadze used instead of SMK was behind widespread fraud that undermined the parliamentary elections, the three leaders united in heading the intense mass demonstrations that led to Shevardnadze`s resignation. What followed was a landslide victory in the presidential ballot for Saakashvili, who duly appointed Zhvania as premier, with Burdjanadze retaining the parliamentary speaker post.

Given this history of hard-won trust between Saakashvili and Zhvania, the main issue following the latter`s untimely demise was for the young president to choose a credible successor to the premiership while avoiding a rift between his National Movement and the United Democrats or the Burdjanadze supporters, which would halt Georgia`s revival. 
Saakashvili`s coalition partners apparently did not make things easy, given comments made by Burdjanadze in the media suggesting that the president had made misleading statements regarding his choice in deliberations between the two. The United Democrats purportedly threatened to go into opposition in the event the new premier was not chosen from among their ranks. Saakashvili apparently caved in, tapping Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli from the United Democrats to head the cabinet, a compromise choice given that it was coldly received among members of his National Movement.

Although a seasoned politician with previous experience as Finance Minister during the 2000-2002 period, Nogaideli has a reputation of being abrupt and acting rashly. He is also criticized for excessive expenditures. The official reasoning for his removal in 2002 from his first stint as a Finance Minister was his failure to remain within the budget. Indeed, the choice of Nogaideli as premier has come under attack both from the ruling coalition and the opposition. According to the head of the United Democrats-National Movement parliamentary group, Maya Nadiradze, Nogaideli is unacceptable for the entire faction, although it remains willing to back the president`s choice. The New Rightists leader, David Gamkrelidze, said he deems Nogaideli least appropriate in terms of available choices among candidates for the premiership. The Conservatives have also stated their decision not to support Nogaideli, criticizing his drafting of a new Tax Code.

This broadly hostile reception for the president`s choice for a new premier is bound to further complicate Saakashvili`s already tough job of pushing ahead with reforms. In early February, the parliamentary bureau rejected a package with constitutional amendments proposed by the president, asking Saakashvili to revise them. Among the draft amendments were proposals for granting the president authority to appoint all members of the Supreme Court and reducing the number of parliamentary deputies from 225 to 150. On February 15, Nogaideli submitted a three year government action plan, which the right-wing opposition charged was based on the same programs developed by the Shevardnadze regime before the latter was ousted in November 2003.

It is clear that the Saakashvili administration is facing a tough road ahead on the way to implementing reforms, and Nogaideli`s appointment appears to have made the job harder.  

Vladimir Beron is an International Security Analyst based in Washington, DC.