The list of former lieutenants who are rising to challenge President Mikheil Saakashvili keeps growing in Georgia. Former Georgian prime minister Zurab Noghaideli seems set to become the latest high-profile politician to announce the establishment of an opposition party. The chief motivation for Noghaideli's action appears to be Georgia's August war with Russia, an event that he characterized as "a huge mistake."
Noghaideli, who served as both prime minister and finance minister under Saakashvili, becomes the fourth former high-ranking Georgian official to break with the administration. Among those preceding Noghaideli in going into opposition against Saakashvili is former parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze, one of the leaders of the 2003 Rose Revolution. She left her post last spring over a disagreement with the ruling United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia's party lists for the May 2008 parliamentary elections. After keeping a low profile for several months, she announced in September that she was returning to politics. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Other erstwhile Saakashvili allies turned enemies include former foreign minister Salome Zourabichvili and defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, whose departure from the administration in November 2006 arguably started a chain-reaction of instability in Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Once one of Saakashvili's closest associates, Okruashvili accused the government of crimes ranging from corruption to murder when he announced the formation of his "Movement for a United Georgia," last September. Okruashvili is now living in France, but has indicated that he intends to return to Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Meanwhile, public defender Solzar Subari has also hinted that he may be leaving office. In September, Subari set up the Public Movement for Freedom and Justice, an association that unites key opposition figures and non-governmental organizations.
Political scientist Koba Turmanidze argues that political figures are moving to distance themselves from Saakashvili because they sense an "opportunity," with popular support for Saakashvili weaker now than before the war with Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Nana Sumbadze, the co-director of Tbilisi's Institute for Policy Studies, noted that seasoned politicians like Noghaideli can sense that Saakashvili's days in power could be numbered. "I think he is thinking about his career," Sumbadze said, in reference to Noghaideli. "He sees that there will be a change and he wants a place in this new hierarchy."
Officially Noghaideli has not yet announced his return to politics. Instead, the ex-prime minister says that he is "building up" a sense of support before he clarifies his political ambitions and platform.
"I do not want to discuss plans. I am coming back to politics, yes, and when it will be time to announce it, I will do it," he said in an October 21 interview with EurasiaNet. "I am just building it up: I am not looking for a particular situation and I am not . . . like the Olympics . . . I am not interested in participation only."
Noghaideli, whom President Saakashvili removed as prime minister after last year's November 7 protests, downplayed the notion that any special "circumstance" in Georgia's political environment prompted his return to politics nearly a year after his departure from government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. However, he added that the war forced him to give up his "comfortable life" as the chief executive officer of Kala Group, a Georgian investment boutique financed by soccer player Kakhi Kaladze.
"The one thing that has gotten me back into this business [is the war]," he said. "That was such a huge mistake for our government to get entrapped into this war. It is just unbelievable. I still can't believe it has happened."
The former prime minister, who oversaw privatization and major economic reforms during his two-year tenure in office, would not specify his platform or particular political plans. He described the philosophic outlook of his proto-party as "right-wing liberal." Noghaideli said that he plans to cooperate, but not to "couple" with former colleagues such as Burjanadze.
The Institute of Policy Studies' Sumbadze, however, contends that Noghaideli poses a relatively small political threat to Saakashvili. Better known as a numbers-cruncher than as a charismatic politician, Noghaideli, Sumbadze said, is not particularly popular among Georgians. "I think he is only a sign that the Saakashvili regime is weakening," she said. "I don't think the opposition will be stronger with Noghaideli."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.