Building domestic pressure in Georgia has eased following the acceptance by political leaders of US proposals designed to ensure fair parliamentary elections later this year. Georgia continues to be buffeted by political turbulence, however, with the recent flare-up of Russian-Georgian tension over potential American surveillance flights.
An early July visit to Tbilisi by former US secretary of state James Baker played a crucial role in resolving the confrontation between President Eduard Shevardnadze's administration and leading opposition parties. The two sides had been stalemated over disputes involving revision of the country's electoral code and the composition of election commissions that will oversee the November parliamentary vote. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Opposition leaders, citing the Shevardnadze administration's low public approval rating, had voiced fears that incumbent authority would rig the vote to retain power. Baker, acting as a special US envoy, brought with him an American blueprint to reduce the chances of electoral fraud. By the end of his two-day stay, Baker who as secretary of state worked closely with Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, in handling the geopolitical challenges arising from Communism's collapse in the early 1990s secured support for the plan from major political leaders, including the Georgian president.
Among the key points of the US plan is a provision mandating the adoption of a new electoral code by August 2 and the implementation of a fixed ratio for the composition of election commissions. At each level, election commissions would comprise nine representatives of opposition parties, five from the pro-Shevardnadze For New Georgia bloc and one independent monitor appointed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In addition, the US plan seeks to make the ballot counting process as transparent as possible, calling for the computerization and on-line display of voter registration lists by September 1. The American blueprint also calls on the Georgian government to facilitate an independent monitoring of the ballot-tallying process. In connection with the plan, all political parties and movements in Georgia are to pledge to refrain from violent tactics before, during and after the parliamentary vote.
During a July 8 meeting, Shevardnadze, along with top political supporters and opponents, agreed that a new electoral code should be adopted to meet "American standards," the Prime-News agency reported. Presidential aides characterized the meeting as "very constructive."
Political observers say that in a free and fair electoral environment, opposition forces stand a good chance of winning control of parliament from Shevardnadze supporters. A fair election, along with a peaceful transition of power, would mark a rare instance of a ballot-box transition in a former Soviet republic. How such an electoral development would impact the Georgian democratization process remains open to debate, however. Giga Bokeria, a prominent human rights activist affiliated with the Liberty Institute, said a change of power in parliament would not in itself ensure Georgia's democratic evolution.
Opposition leaders hailed the adoption of the US plan as a political victory in their struggle against Shevardnadze's administration. Zurab Zhvania, leader of the United Democrats, said July 6 that the plan provided "proof of the United States' very special interest in the democratic and stable development of Georgia." The National Movement's leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, said: "Shevardnadze's bragging that his old friends [in the US administration] would forgive him anything [such as rigging the vote] has proved to be a total bluff."
Leaders of the pro-Shevardnadze For New Georgia bloc were muted in their enthusiasm for the Baker plan, but indicated that they would go along with it. "To be honest, we are not really happy with this proposal. However, we will do our best to ensure free and transparent elections," said one of the bloc's leaders, Vakhtang Rcheulishvili.
Speaking in a July 7 radio interview, Shevardnadze in expressing satisfaction with the election plan emphasized that his administration had established the foundation for a special relationship with the United States. Baker's "special mission has once again confirmed the importance the current Washington administration
Giorgi Kandelaki is a senior at the Department of Political Science at Tbilisi State University. He is a member of the Youth Atlantic Council of Georgia.