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Dusk of the Moderates: Zhvania to Build Own Political Future

“For me, Citizens Union is dead,” said Zurab Zhvania on May 28, addressing his supporters. Zhvania finally cut ties with his political past, the one intrinsically connected with Shevardnadze. Now, this young, but influential politician would have to seek the career of his own right, and both optimistic and pessimistic scenarios are valid as of yet.

On May 20, Tbilisi District Court ruled that Zurab Zhvania is denied participation in the local elections as a representative of the Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG). An internal confrontation between pro-presidential and reformist factions of the CUG was thus legally concluded. The right of representation was granted to Levan Mamaladze, governor of Kvemo Kartli region and his followers understood as a pro-presidential team.

Divide within the CUG has a long history, with Zhvania and his supporters gradually drifting into opposition to the president. Shevardnadze’s stepping down from the party chairmanship in September, last year rendered a fatal blow to the party that was frequently portrayed as a “the guarantee for country’s stability.”

Zurab Zhvania in fact was declared Shevardnadze’s mignon and successor after the presidential elections of 2000. It is remarkable, that Zhvania seemed quite happy with such circumstances, for he was indeed enjoying awesome influence in the Parliament. His closest allies, and most of all held almost all key positions in the Parliament, Zhvania and his friends enjoyed de facto monopoly over the status of “pro-western” politicians.

But within executive government, Zhvania’s influence was traditionally insignificant. However, if we look at developments from 1995, when Zurab Zhvania took the post number 2 in the country, through October 2001, we would see members of his political team gradually coming to the executive power.

Zurab Zhvania’s activities in the Parliament can be split into to parts: establishing the Parliament as efficiently functioning governmental institution is closely connected with Zhvania’s name. This process started in the first Parliament elected in 1995. And even in Autumn 2001, when Zhvania resigned from chairmanship, the Parliament maintained political weight and keeps playing important role in country’s political life. But in the current Parliament, Zhvania looked more as a steady, self-satisfied successor who has secured his place on the political Olympus.

Two distinct features of Zhvania’s career are characteristic. For one he was always confronting the state ministers. In fact the state minister has rather limited rights and duties and acts as a coordinator for the executive government. But Zhvania preferred to direct criticism towards the executive (headed by the President) at the state ministers rather than Shevardnadze. It is widely believed that resignation of two political heavyweights – Niko Lekishvili and Vazha Lortkipanidze that still remain loyal to Shevardnadze and maintain significant political influence – is on Zhvania’s account.

The second feature and, probably, his biggest mistake, is that Zhvania always refused to directly criticize the President and remained in his shadow. Notably, even now, when Zhvania’s team was denied participation in the locals, he met Shevardnadze several times, hoping to settle dispute with the President until the last minute.

“For me, as for a politician, main goal is to avoid emergence of the new confrontations” -Zhvania told Rustavi 2 TV commenting on consultations with the President. This statement also confirms that Zhvania prefers steady, evolutionary changes. Revolutionary slogans and actions, which are widely popular among disgruntled body the citizens, are usually foreign for Zhvania.

Many think that Zhvania is bureaucratic type of leader. His opponents say that Zhvania is a master of backstage politics. At the same time, no one can argue his talent of relations with the media. Despite his resignation, he is always attracts attention. He has distinctively clear way of speaking his speeches are always based on logic and argument, rather than emotional appeal.

This is in stark difference with former member of his team, Mikheil Saakashvili, who claims, more or less successfully, wide popular leadership and addresses citizens with simple slogans. Saakashvili’s “New National Movement” has a slogan of “Tbilisi without Shevardnadze” for the locals, and is expected to garner wide popular support.

Zhvania with his steady talk and manners has a narrower base of support. This was clearly seen during public unrest of the last fall, from the reaction of the protesters to Zhvania’s statements and speeches.

Experts think that Zhvania should have left CUG and formed own party even earlier. But the opponents say Zhvania could not leave vast party infrastructure and tried to take it over. In any case, divorce with the CUG would definitely help Zhvania to step out from Shevardnadze’s shadow and start shaping his own political image.

Zhvania will participate in the locals under the ticket of an obscure Christian-Conservative party, chairman of which has conceded Zhvania right to submit the party list, as per Zhvania’s words: “in expression of civil solidarity”.

Zhvania has almost no time left to come up with election program and popularize Christian-Conservative party before the locals. But, political battle of the last 10 days and special attention of the media provided him with invaluable service. Besides, Zhvania and his supporters fully understand that the image of the ‘offended-by-the-president’ will only invoke more sympathy among the voters.

“We declare that in response to this violence we will become even more united, more consolidated, more organized. We are sure, that more offence [by the President] will bring more allies to us” – said Zhvania on May 21 news conference.

Fact that Zhvania and his ally, former Justice Minister Mikheil Saakashvili, participate in the locals separately caused much confusion in the society. Many think that this is because of incompatibility of their ambitions. However, in his interview to the Rustavi 2 TV on May 21, Zhvania said: “It is very important for me that Saakashvili collects as many votes as possible”.

Meanwhile, the moderate leader would have to play a careful game to survive in a rapidly radicalizing political climate of Georgia, where he has to compete both with his political opponents and the allies, like Mikheil Saakashvili, whose popularity is growing rapidly.

Zhvania says that battle with Shevardnadze and oligarchs will not end on June 2. The main objective is formation of even more serious and powerful democratic coalition for the Parliamentary elections of 2003, which would certainly be a major test for Zhvania’s political maturity.

By Revaz Bakhtadze, Civil Georgia

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