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The Shevardnadze Era

After his return to Georgia in March 1992, Eduard Shevardnadze constantly stressed the temporary nature of the new power structure and called for elections as soon as possible. But the leadership postponed balloting until October 1992 because it lacked effective political control over many regions of the country and because of factional wrangling over the new election law. Registration of political parties, which had been suspended by Gamsakhurdia in 1991, resumed early in 1992. Among new party registrants was the Democratic Union, a group consisting mostly of former members and officials of the communist party. Claiming a broad mass following, this party had organizations in most regions of the county. Although wooed by the Democratic Union and other parties, Shevardnadze avoided party affiliation in order to maintain his independent position. The parliament that would be elected in October 1992 clearly would be an interim body given the task of writing a new constitution. Accordingly, the term of office was set for three years.

After a series of last-minute changes, the electoral system for October 1992 was a compromise combination of single-member districts and proportional voting by party lists. To give regional parties a chance to gain representation, separate party lists were submitted for each of ten historical regions of Georgia. In a change from the 1990 system, no minimum percentage was set for a party to achieve representation in parliament if the party did sufficiently well regionally to seat candidates. Forty-seven parties and four coalitions registered to participate in the 1992 election. For the first time, the Central Election Commission accepted the registration of every party that submitted an application.

The largest of the electoral alliances, and one of the most controversial, was the Peace Bloc (Mshvidoba). This broad coalition of seven parties ranged from the heavily ex-communist Democratic Union to the Union for the Revival of Ajaria, a party of the conservative Ajarian political elite. Ultimately, the strong programmatic differences among the seven parties would render the Peace Bloc ineffective as a parliamentary faction. The Democratic Union filled as much as 70 percent of the places given the coalition on the party lists. In the 1992 election, the Peace Bloc draw a plurality of votes, thus earning the coalition twenty-nine seats in parliament.

The second most important coalition, the October 11 Bloc, included moderate reform leaders of four parties. Members typically had academic backgrounds with few or no communist connections, and the median age of bloc leaders was about fifteen years less than that of the Democratic Union leadership. The October 11 Bloc won eighteen seats, the second largest number in the 1992 election.

A third coalition, the Unity Bloc (Ertoba), lost two of its four member parties before the election. Many of the leaders of the Liberal-Democratic National Party, one of the two remaining constituent parties of the Unity Bloc, were, like the leaders of the Democratic Union, former communist officials who continued to hold influential posts in the Georgian government and mass media. Both the Peace Bloc and the Unity Bloc put prominent cultural figures at the top of their electoral lists to gain attention.

Shevardnadze's actions were crucial in building the foundation for the 1992 election. From the time of his return to Georgia, Shevardnadze enjoyed unparalleled respect and recognition. Because of his unique position, the State Council acted to separate Shevardnadze from party politics by creating a potentially powerful new elected post, chairman of parliament, which would also be contested in the October elections. Because no other candidate emerged, Shevardnadze was convinced to forego partisan politics and grasp this opportunity for national leadership.

The elections took place as scheduled in October 1992 in most regions of the country. International monitors from ten nations reported that, with minor exceptions, the balloting was free and fair. Predictably, Gamsakhurdia declared the results rigged and invalid. Interethnic tensions and Gamsakhurdia's activity forced postponement of elections in nine of the eighty-four administrative districts, located in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and western Georgia. Voters in those areas were encouraged to travel to adjoining districts, however, to vote in all but the regional races. Together, the nonvoting districts represented 9.1 percent of the registered voters in Georgia. In no voting district did less than 60 percent of eligible voters participate.

An important factor in the high voter turnout was the special ballot for Shevardnadze as chairman of the new parliament; a large number of voters cast ballots only for Shevardnadze and submitted blank or otherwise invalid ballots for the other races. Shevardnadze received an overwhelming endorsement, winning approximately 96 percent of the vote. In all, fifty-one of the ninety-two members of the previous State Council were elected to the new parliament. The four sitting members of the State Council Presidium (Shevardnadze, Ioseliani, Sigua, and Kitovani) also were reelected.

An immediate goal after Shevardnadze's return was to avoid repeating the one-man rule imposed by Gamsakhurdia while keeping a sufficiently tight grip on central power to prevent regional separatism. The newly elected parliament convened for the first time in November 1992. The lack of dominant parties and the large number of independent deputies ensured that Shevardnadze would dominate parliamentary sessions. The precise role of Shevardnadze was not clear at the time of the elections; on November 6, the parliament ratified proposals on this subject in the Law on State Power. Instead of reestablishing the post of president that had been created by--and was still claimed by--Gamsakhurdia, parliament gave Shevardnadze a new title, head of government. In theory, parliament was to elect the holder of this office, although in practice the position was understood to be combined with the popularly elected post of chairman of the parliament. Thus an impasse between the executive and the legislative branches was avoided by giving the same person a top role in both, but the division of power between the branches remained unclear in early 1994.

The government team selected by Shevardnadze, called the Cabinet of Ministers, was quickly approved by parliament in November 1992. Sigua returned as prime minister. Four deputy prime ministers were chosen in November 1992, including Tengiz Kitovani, former head of the National Guard and minister of defense in the new cabinet. In December 1992, the Presidium of the Cabinet of Ministers was created. This body included the prime minister and his deputy prime ministers as well as the minister of agriculture, the minister of finance, the minister of state property management, the minister of economics, and the minister of foreign affairs.

In December 1992, the Georgian government included eighteen ministries, four state committees, and fifteen departments, which together employed more than 7,600 officials. Many appointees to top government posts, including several ministers, had held positions in the apparatus of the Georgian Communist Party. Although Shevardnadze's early appointments favored his contemporaries and former associates, by late 1993 about half of the top state administrative apparatus were academics. Less than 10 percent were former communists, about 75 percent were under age forty, and more than half came from opposition parties.

In September 1993, the cabinet included the following ministries: agriculture and the food industry; communications; culture; defense; economic reform; education; environment; finance; foreign affairs; health; industry; internal affairs; justice; labor and social security; state property management; and trade and supply. Each of the five deputy prime ministers supervised a group of ministries.

In practice, the Cabinet of Ministers was a major obstacle to reform in 1993. Pro-reform ministers were isolated by the domination of former communists in the Presidium, which stood between Shevardnadze and the administrative machinery of the ministries. In 1993 Shevardnadze himself was reluctant to push hard for the rapid reforms advocated by progressives in parliament. The cabinet was superficially restructured in August 1993, but reformers clamored for a smaller cabinet under direct control of the head of state.

In 1993 some twenty-six parties and eleven factions held seats in the new parliament, which continued to be called the Supreme Soviet. The legislative branch's basic powers were outlined in the Law on State Power, an interim law rescinding the strict limits placed on legislative activity by Gamsakhurdia's 1991 constitution. Thus in 1993 the parliament had the power to elect and dismiss the head of state by a two-thirds vote; to nullify laws passed by local or national bodies if they conflicted with national law; to decide questions of war and peace; to reject any candidate for national office proposed by the head of state; and, upon demand of one-fifth of the deputies, to declare a vote of no confidence in the sitting cabinet.

Activity within the legislative body was prescribed by the Temporary Regulation of the Georgian Parliament. The parliament as a whole elected all administrative officials, including a speaker and two deputy speakers. Seventeen specialized commissions examined all bills in their respective fields. The speaker had little power over commission chairs or over deputies in general, and parliament suffered from an inefficient structure, insufficient staff, and poor communications. The two days per week allotted for legislative debate often did not allow full consideration of bills.

The major parliamentary reform factions--the Democrats, the Greens, the Liberals, the National Democrats, and the Republicans--were not able to maintain a coalition to promote reform legislation. Of that group, the National Democrats showed the most internal discipline. Shevardnadze received support from a large group of deputies from single-member districts, aligned with Liberals and Democrats. His radical opposition, a combination of several very small parties, was weakened by disunity, but it frequently was able to obstruct debate. The often disorderly parliamentary debates reduced support among the Georgian public, to whom sessions were widely televised.

In November 1993, Shevardnadze was able to merge three small parties with a breakaway faction of the Republicans to form a new party, the Union of Citizens of Georgia, of which he became chairman. This was a new step for the head of state, who previously had refrained from political identification and had relied on coalitions to support his policies. At the same time, Shevardnadze also sought to include the entire loose parliamentary coalition that had recently supported him, in a concerted effort to normalize government after the Abkhazian crisis abated.

The 1992 Law on State Power gave Shevardnadze power beyond the executive functions of presidential office. As chairman of parliament, he had the right to call routine or extraordinary parliamentary sessions, preside over parliamentary deliberations, and propose constitutional changes and legislation. As head of state, Shevardnadze nominated the prime minister, the cabinet, the chairman of the Information and Intelligence Service, and the president of the National Bank of Georgia (although the parliament had the right of approval of these officials).

Without parliamentary approval, the head of government appointed all senior military leaders and provincial officials such as prefects and mayors. Additional power came from his control of the entire system of state administration, and he could form his own administrative apparatus, which had the potential to act as a shadow government beyond the control of any other branch. Key agencies chaired by Shevardnadze in 1993 were the Council for National Security and Defense, the Emergency Economic Council, and the Scientific and Technical Commission, which advised on military and industrial questions.

In response to calls by the opposition for his resignation during the Abkhazian crisis of mid-1993, Shevardnadze requested and received from parliament emergency powers to appoint all ministers except the prime minister and to issue decrees on economic policy without legislative approval. When the Sigua government resigned in August, parliament quickly approved Shevardnadze's nomination of industrialist Otar Patsatsia as prime minister. Although Shevardnadze argued that greater central power was necessary to curb turmoil, his critics saw him setting a precedent for future dictatorship and human rights abuses.

After surviving assassination attempts in August 1995 and February 1998, then-President Shevardnadze consolidated his leadership and declared an ambitious reform agenda. Elections on November 5, 1995, described at the time as the freest and fairest in the Caucasus or Central Asia, gave him the presidency and resulted in a progressive parliament led by sophisticated reformers. Since 1998, however, the reform process encountered serious obstacles and made limited progress.

The political status of the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is unresolved. Isolated outbreaks of violence continue to erupt in Abkhazia. About 300,000 people displaced by these conflicts have yet to return to home.

Renewed fighting in neighboring Chechnya (Russia) in late 1999 generated concerns that the conflict would spill over into Georgia. Several thousand Chechen refugees moved into Georgia's Pankisi Gorge in late 1999, adding to the refugee/internally displaced population. The Abkhaz separatist dispute also continues to absorb much of the government's attention. While a cease-fire is in effect, about 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were driven from their homes during the conflict constitute a vocal lobby. The government has offered the region considerable autonomy in order to encourage a settlement, which would allow the IDPs, the majority of whom are ethnic Georgians from the Gali region, to return home, but the Abkhaz insist on independence.

Currently, Russian peacekeepers, under the authority of the Commonwealth of Independent States, are stationed in Abkhazia, along with UN observers. Their activities are hampered by land mines and guerrilla activity. Years of negotiations have not resulted in movement toward a settlement. Working with France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Russia and through the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United States continues to encourage a comprehensive settlement consistent with Georgian independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. The UNOMIG observer force and other organizations continue to encourage grassroots cooperative and confidence-building measures in the region.

The parliament has instituted wide-ranging political reforms supportive of higher human rights standards, including religious freedoms enshrined in the constitution. Problems persist, however, largely as a result of the unwillingness of law enforcement and criminal justice officials to support constitutionally mandated rights. Violence against religious minorities and mistreatment of pretrial detainees are significant and continuing problems, as is corruption.

Georgia's armed forces have conducted operations against suspected international terrorists, Chechen fighters and criminals who have taken refuge in the Pankisi Gorge. US troops are in Georgia helping train counter-terrorism forces against Chechen separatists suspected of using Georgia to launch attacks inside Chechnya.

Parliamentary elections were held in October 1999. Thirteen electoral blocs and 34 political parties fielded candidates for 150 proportional and 75 majoritarian seats. The Citizens' Union of Georgia (CUG), chaired by President Shevardnadze, won an outright majority. International observers judged the conduct of the elections throughout the country to be a step towards compliance with OSCE commitments, but noted that the election process did not meet all commitments. A number of irregularities were noted, including restrictions on freedom of movement, which on occasion prevented political parties and observers from exercising their rights. A second round was held on November 14, which OSCE observers described as well-conducted in some districts but marred with irregularities in others. The OSCE cited in particular intimidation of members of precinct election commissions and instances of ballot stuffing in Tbilisi, Abasha, and Chkhorotsku. The OSCE noted problems such as the election law's provision permitting the ruling party to dominate all levels of the election administration, the CEC's insufficiently transparent vote tabulation, and the CEC's poor handling of election complaints. In the Autonomous Republic of Ajara, dominated by Ajaran supreme chairman Aslan Abashidze, fraud was widespread. There was no voting in these elections in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remain outside government control. Ten Members of Parliament from Abkhazia elected in 1992 had their terms extended.

Public anger with President Shevardnadze over his government's economic policies was growing, as the standard of living continued to plummet and the level of corruption hits an all-time high. By late November 2003 Georgia was under a state-of-emergency and had two leaders claiming to be president. The political turmoil in Georgia has caused concern in foreign countries, including the United States, due to its potential impact in the volatile Caucasian mountain region as a whole.

Most international observers and foreign governments, including the United States, questioned the fairness of the 02 November 2003 election. The United States said the election was flawed, describing the official outcome as the result of "mass manipulation" by Georgian election officials. Some Western election observers condemned the balloting as spectacularly flawed. Opinion polls before the elections gave opposition parties a decisive lead. The State Department urged all sides to compromise to avoid what Mr. Shevardnadze has said could escalate into a "civil war." Although rigid in their positions, all sides continue to say they want to avoid bloodshed and are open to discussion. The 75-year-old President Shevardnadze rejected the demand that he step down and has repeatedly offered to hold talks with his opponents, which they declined. He insists he will serve out his current term of office, which expires in 2005.

Opposition charges that Mr. Shevardnadze rigged the November 2003 parliamentary elections set off the wide-scale discontent over what the opposition sees as a decade of corruption and misrule. Georgia's political opposition staged three weeks of protests to call for the second parliamentary election to be annulled and for President Shevardnadze to resign. The leader of Georgia' s main opposition party -- the National Movement -- said nothing short of new elections will do. Meanwhile, President Shevardnadze vowed to stay on.

Shevardnadze announced the parliament would meet after the official results of the 02 November 2003 election were released on 21 November, showing the main government party had won the election with around 21 percent of the vote. The Revival Party came in second with about 19 percent, while the leading opposition National Movement party was third with 18 percent. National Movement's leader Mikhail Saakashvili denounced the results, saying they prove that the government rigged the election. Government supporters from the regional Revival Party have vowed to halt what they say are "anti-constitutional moves" to interfere with the parliament, setting the stage for a showdown, after nearly three weeks of street protests.

In a surprise statement on 21 November 2003, the head of Georgia's Security Council, Tedo Dzhaparidze, said irregularities in the parliamentary election were great enough that there should be a new election. He said the new parliament should convene as scheduled, but only in a temporary capacity, until a new election can be held. Mr. Dzhaparidze also warned that Georgia faces "a real danger of bloodshed," as thousands of people gathered in the capital city, Tbilisi.

Shevardnadze declared a 30-day state of emergency after thousands of protesters demanding his resignation took charge of parliament. In a televised address, he vowed that order will be restored, "and the criminals will be punished." A crowd of opposition protesters stormed the parliament in Georgia on 22 November 2003, forcing President Eduard Shevardnadze to flee. The fast-breaking turn of events prevented President Shevardnadze from addressing the inaugural session of the new parliament as scheduled. He was rushed out the back, just as hundreds of opposition protesters rushed in, overturning desks and chairs, and seizing the speaker's podium. The streets of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, quickly descended into chaos as armed interior ministry troops rushed President Shevardnadze to safety. President Shevardnadze vowed to stay on, and called the opposition actions a coup.

Georgia's main opposition leader, Mikhail Saakashvili of the National Movement, warned his supporters that it was too soon to celebrate following the opposition's seizure of parliament on 22 November 2003, and he urged the people to remain in the streets outside parliament to protect their gains. The opposition installed Nino Burjandaze as interim president and promised new elections in 45 days.

On November 23, 2003 President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned. Nino Burjanadze, as Speaker of the Parliament, assumed the duties of Interim President. As a result, National Movement and the Burjanadze-Democrats emerged as the leading parties in Georgia. The former pro-government coalition For a New Georgia effectively dissolved. The Revival Party led by Jemal Gogitidze was overwhelmingly based in Ajara and is firmly under the control of that region's governor, Aslan Abashidze. Revival, New Rights, the Labor Party, and the Industrialist were significant opposition parties.

Shevardnadze, as foreign minister of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, made an enormous contribution to the transformation of world politics, and later, as the President of the Republic of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze exhibited wisdom, courage, and nationalism in stepping down from the presidency rather than using force to maintain his leadership;



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