(Washington, DC--October 9, 2002) A respected Georgian political observer told a recent RFE/RL briefing audience that, although the Georgian presidential elections are not scheduled to take place until April 2005, the political elite there fears that the struggle to succeed President Eduard Shevardnadze may result in a return to the "warlordism" prominent in the early 1990's.
Dr. Ghia Nodia, a political scientist who serves as chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, said that Shevardnadze's popularity has "plummeted" since 2000, as several negative trends in Georgian society--including a slowing economy, rampant corruption and the tension of dealing with secessionist movements in Abkhazia and Adjaria as well as the warfare north of Georgia's borders in Chechnya--have taken hold and many Georgians now suffer from what Nodia termed "Shevardnadze fatigue."
The nadir of Shevardnadze's popularity came during the June 2002 local elections in Georgia, Nodia said, when former Justice Minister Saakashvili and other reformers opposed to the current government tried to outdo each other with negative statements: "no one dared to say anything good about Shevardnadze." That election also marked a return to "public politics," as many Georgians began to believe that they may have a say in some of the big decisions they used to assume were made behind closed doors.
Shevardnadze's popularity has rebounded since the June elections, in large part because of Russian attacks in Abkhazia and threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. These have caused Georgians to rally around their leader. Increased support for Georgia by the U.S., in the form of the "train and equip" program instituted to help Georgia deal with the Pankisi crisis has also played a role. Nodia warned, however, that this support could quickly evaporate if Shevardnadze were to show himself to be weak or indecisive.
Of the various scenarios mentioned for Georgia's future transfer of power, Nodia felt that the most likely was one in which political power coalesces around several "oligarchic" poles that engage in political violence as a means of gaining advantage over other contenders. The possibility of a more public and democratic succession has faded since the weakness of opposition candidates and parties was exposed by the June local elections. On the other hand, Nodia said, a "catastrophic succession"--which seemed very possible after widespread anti-government protests in October and November 2001--has become less likely as Georgians have considered the potentially frightening consequences of a sudden change in their government.