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Will Saakashvili survive politically?, CU Issue 12, December 1, 2008

Last week was not the best one for Mikhail Saakashvili. On November 23 a convoy carrying the Georgian President and his Polish counterpart Lech Kaczynski came under gunfire near the border between Georgia proper and the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. No-one was injured in the shooting, blamed on South Ossetian militias, but the incident, which occurred on the fifth anniversary of the ‘Rose Revolution’ which swept Saakashvili to power, was an inauspicious sign.

In his speech to mark the anniversary, President Saakashvili admitted that the revolution had “not met all of its expectations and hopes” and that the revolution would continue. The acknowledgement, and his call for national unity, seem like calculated moves to wrong-foot his political opponents, as his own position grows increasingly uncertain. Three events this week, and the backdrop of the revolution’s anniversary, are raising questions about the future of Georgian domestic politics.

Firstly, and most significantly, former parliamentary chairwoman Nino Burjanadze inaugurated her new political party, the Democratic Movement-United Georgia, on November 23. Mrs. Burjanadze had left the ruling party, President Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), in May this year after a dispute over party lists. It had been speculated that she would go on to form her own party, and the political aftershocks from the August war with Russia seems to have galvanised her into action. The period of national unity in the face of the Russian invasion, which strengthened President Saakashvili and muted the opposition, had long since begun to fracture from street rallies and calls for early elections. The launch of Mrs. Burjanadze’s new party is a sign that this unity has finally shattered, and that a new threat to the ruling party has emerged.

The President was occupied elsewhere, however, with the war commission set up to investigate the beginning of the August conflict. Tbilisi’s ex-ambassador to Moscow, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, heaped blame upon the Georgian government on November 25 for failing to avert the war, an accusation which provoked fury from the ruling party. President Saakashvili declared that Kitsmarishvili’s assertion that Tbilisi had approval from Washington to begin the conflict was “utter nonsense.” On November 28 the President himself was questioned by the hearing, and insisted that although he had launched the military operation, it had been in response to Russian provocations and the deployment of Russian armour.

Despite President Saakashvili’s denials, the assumption in the West that his invasion of South Ossetia was ill-judged adventurism has only grown this week, fuelled in part by a claim from Kitsmarishvili that a similar attack had been planned in April in Abkhazia – a claim that the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group had also made at the time. The chances of Georgia - or for that matter Ukraine - receiving a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at next week’s NATO summit are now next to zero. Many European states, which had been unenthusiastic about the proposal even before the August war for fear of provoking Moscow, are now guaranteed to put off the issue of Georgian membership. Even the US, hitherto one of the staunchest supporters of Georgian membership, has admitted that NATO membership is off the table for “some years to come”. Nonetheless, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has been allegedly engaged in a surprising diplomatic push to drop the list of conditions – on political and civil-military reform – that accompanies the formal process. This is very unlikely to get past sceptical European diplomats.

With NATO membership receding, a new opposition emerging, ongoing economic problems and the security situation around the borders with Abkhazia and South Ossetia still extremely tense, is President Saakashvili in danger of losing power? The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, no -  at least not at the moment. The reason for this is largely negative, rather than because of anything positive about the administration itself. The opposition is divided amongst itself, as Crisis Group reported this week, it is still not certain that Mrs. Burjanadze can create a unified and effective political movement. Her previous position within the government weakens her in the eyes of some opposition parties, particularly those which boycotted the new parliamentary session in protest against President Saakashvili. In time this may change. Speculation is already circulating that she may join with the New Rights party, which holds ten parliamentary seats, and the Republicans, who boycotted the poll. In any case, no party or coalition of parties could hold enough seats to counter the UNM’s vast majority (119 out of 134 seats). The only option to force early elections, barring any cracks in the ruling circle, would be another wave of street protests. In such a situation, Mrs. Burjanadze would be a formidable opponent, having been – along with President Saakashvili – one of the leaders of the Rose Revolution, which emerged from huge public demonstrations against the previous government.

Whether or not President Saakashvili can weather the gathering storm will depend on two factors. Firstly, whether or not he can defuse the fallout from the war. This is largely (although not entirely) out of his hands: NATO, the US, and Russia all have a role to play here. If the Alliance’s summit next week results in a severe blow for Tbilisi’s membership progress, it will be further evidence to his political opponents that he has doomed the country’s hope – shared by most of the opposition – of greater integration with the West. Similarly, if Barack Obama’s administration decides to slow down its supply of aid to Georgia, or makes it unequivocally clear that President Saakashvili no longer has Washington’s support, his credentials as a statesman will be damaged beyond repair. And if Russia chooses to antagonise him further over the winter, perhaps by staging provocations in the border regions, Saakashvili, rather than Moscow, will probably bear much of the blame in Georgia.

The second factor is whether or not he chooses to push through domestic political reforms – of the judiciary, the political process, and the media – which the opposition have demanded. Limiting social discontent will make Georgia more attractive to investors, which will boost its flailing economy and provide a chance to seriously deal with the problem of refugees, from the latest crisis and from the wars in the early 1990s. The refugees aside, the war with Russia did not create President Saakashvili’s domestic problems. But it has made tackling them far more urgent. Continued political instability in Georgia would benefit no-one, except the Kremlin.

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