Washington saw old faces of the Georgian politicians in a new capacity.
An all-star political team formerly affiliated with the ruling Citizens Union of Georgia visited the United state in a new capacity – as the leadership of Georgia’s new opposition. While the status of the “ruling” politicians no longer applies, most of these politicians chose to step down from the highest ministerial posts and parliamentary chairmanship; hence, all carry a special status slightly higher than any ‘ordinary’ opposition member.
This special status and a pro-West image of the team allowed them to put the highest priorities of the Georgia’s political agenda on the table of discussion with the highest-ranking US counterparts.
Internal situation in Georgia and the Pankisi crisis – these are the two main points discussed by the delegation of the ‘reformers team’ during the visit to the United States. “We are in opposition and we were visiting the United States as the representatives of the opposition” – said Mikheil Saakashvili, member of the Parliament, former Justice Minister, on February 19.
Leaders of the ‘reformers’ – Mikheil Saakashvili, ex-Parliamentary Chairman Zurab Zhvania, Revaz Adamia and the former Minister of Tax Revenues Mikheil Machavariani visited the US on February 9-16. The visit was supported and organized by the National Democratic Institute for International Affiars (NDI).
“Throughout the years Georgia was fully identified with the name of Eduard Shevardnadze. Therefore in light of disappointment with the Shevardnadze’s policy that exists in the West, Georgia was discredited as well and it is more and more refereed in the Washington as a failed state”- said Saakashvili on the February 19 press conference, dedicated to the visit.
Saakashvili announced that the aim of the visit was to show that Georgia is not only a corrupted government, but also “a serious opposition, which is able to implement more effective policy.” “We achieved this goal,” he claimed.
During the visit the reformers had meetings with the representatives of the Department of State, Senate and various research centers.
Zurab Zhvania stated on February 21, that the main recommendation of the US experts and officials to Georgia is to defeat corruption. Georgian Government could not deal with the problem, “that is why we are not in President Shevardnadze’s team any more,” Zurab Zhvania announced on February 21.
And they are not formally in one team as well. Zurab Zhvania still is a power figure behind the CUG, which significantly decreased in numbers, but still maintains a significant parliamentary representation and tries to form a moderate centrist coalition. Mikheil Saakashvili leads the radical “New National Movement” which attracted many arrows from the government camp, while Saakashvili was holding the meetings in Washington DC.
Shevardnadze and his government boosted criticism of what they call “excessive politicizing of the society.” In plain words, Shevardnadze cracked down on “New National Movement” initiatives to endorse and spearhead mobilization of the various interest groups, from teachers to students. Eduard Shevardnadze says, “Politicizing of the society, especially students, is unacceptable.”
One week after this statement of the President, at the Government Meeting of the February 13 Education Minister opposed meeting of the independent labor union of the teachers. He said that the “New National Movement” and its leader Mikheil Saakashvili stand behind this union.
After these statements, President dismissed several governors and gamgebelis [heads of the provincial districts], formally under charges of corruption. But the opposition believes the dismissals touched upon those whose loyalty towards Zurab Zhvania was suspected.
Defensive stance of the government was picked upon by Mikheil Saakashvili who says Shevardnadze fears independent opinion and, in particular the independent unions, which would defend interests of the citizens. In the United States civil society and support for democratization were high on opposition agenda. “The [US] support to organize free and fair elections is extremely important for us” – says Saakashvili.
The second most important issue was support of the United States in improvement of Georgia’s defense capability. A special emphasis was made on the situation in Pankisi. In this respect the members of the delegation underline importance of meeting with Paul Wolfowits, Deputy Secretary of Defense of the United States.
“Americans realize that the problem of Pankisi is not a problem created by the Georgian side. This is a result of policy implemented by Russia in Chechnya. The United States considers that Pankisi must not become a discrediting factor for Georgia” – says Zurab Zhvania, former Chairman of the Parliament.
“When we talk about a fight against international terrorism, Georgia will definitely need assistance of the United States. Unilateral actions by Russia will only worsen the situation further” – Saakashvili says. According to Zhvania’s words, the United States pay great attention to the solution of national security problems in Georgia. “The USA plans to render significant assistance to the Georgian law enforcers” – said Zurab Zhvania in his interview to the Rustavi 2 TV on February 18.
Reformers are satisfied with results of the visit to the US. Saakashvili says that the reformers enjoy strong support in the United States. “High-level meetings [in the USA] vividly show the backing that reformers’ team has in the States” – says Saakashvili. Reformers are planning to pay the similar visits to the western European states in the nearest future.
The reformers, sidelined from the government have started to affect the national agendas and seem determined to expand their base of support through active international diplomacy. The government and the president would need to think of something better than just dismissing the reformer statements right across the board if they are to maintain at least minimal credibility versus the ambitious, young and resourceful opposition.
By Jaba Devdariani, Giorgi Sepashvili, Civil Georgia