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A Georgian Crisis of Confidence

Stability was supposed to be the main theme in the days that followed the death of Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania on Feb. 3. But the leadership's insistence on maintaining "order and discipline in the country" did little more than betray its own concerns on this score.

In Tbilisi, the public and the political establishment were equally surprised by the federal authorities' rush to classify Zhvania's death as an accident. Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili's comments, made just minutes after certifying Zhvania's death, seemed to imply that the case was closed. Suspicions were bound to arise, so to nip them in the bud Merabishvili cited exact figures: The level of carbon monoxide in the blood of both Zhvania and his friend Zurab Usupov, deputy governor of the Kvemo-Kartli region, was 40 percent. This number would soon turn out to be pure fantasy. Across the country, people immediately began wondering if the figures weren't intended to hide something.

In my view, the authorities' rush to declare the case closed can be explained by the simple fact that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his young and very inexperienced team may have simply miscalculated. Their repeated assurances that Zhvania's death would not lead to instability in the country ultimately left many people with a sense of doubt. That may be all there is to it.

The fact that the young Georgian leadership lives with the ghost of instability should not be discounted. Revolutionaries often do. And so do heads of state in the former Soviet republics, often with good reason, because here conspiracy theories and allegations of intervention by the Russian security services often help to explain a lot. We should keep in mind that although Saakashvili and his inner circle were educated partly in the West -- a fact mentioned far too often -- they also live in this mental universe.

More importantly, it should be emphasized that the Georgian regime has a lack of visceral confidence in institutions. Just a few hours after Zhvania's death was announced, Saakashvili declared that he was assuming the duties of the prime minister. The government was "completely in control of the situation" and was conducting "business as usual," he stated. True enough. So why did he not allow the deputy prime minister to take over as provided for in the constitution? There was not much risk in any case because the president had a week to nominate a new prime minister.

Instead, Saakashvili once more demonstrated how little stock he puts in the law and institutions. There is no risk of him becoming a dictator. And he may have the best of intentions. But he seems incapable of allowing Georgia's political institutions to function normally and to control or correct the actions and gestures, the passions and errors of men. But that's what they're there for, isn't it?

By assuming the duties of the prime minister, Saakashvili may have intended to instill confidence in his government, but in fact he merely raised the specter of instability in a country that would be much better off without it. And in so doing, he kept alive one of the fundamental reasons for this instability.

In the year since he assumed the role of head of state in Georgia, Saakashvili has pushed through a number of laws contributing to this development. You may recall the constitutional amendments passed in February 2004 that increased the powers of the president at the expense of parliament. Nor should we forget how he took more or less personal control of the autonomous region of Adzharia after the fall of Aslan Abashidze.

Zhvania's death should not have set off a political crisis in Georgia -- not in the short term, in any case. Zhvania was a pragmatic politician, cynical in some ways, and a connoisseur of the inner workings of Georgian politics. He was generally seen as a stabilizing factor in the young and impetuous team in charge in Tbilisi, whether in domestic politics, the federal government's strained relations with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia or with Moscow.

It is still too early to know how much Zhvania's absence will affect Tbilisi's negotiations with the separatist regions and with its neighbor to the north. The distinction often made between the doves in the government, represented by Zhvania, and the hawks, ostensibly led by Saakashvili and his new defense minister, Irakly Okruashvili, is inane, but Zhvania nevertheless did exert a moderating influence on the president's team, notably during the crisis in South Ossetia last summer.

The nomination of Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli to become prime minister merely gives free rein to Saakashvili's inner circle. Nogaideli is not a political heavyweight. And in this sense, one could say that the Zhvania team is dead. In Tbilisi, many political analysts are predicting constitutional amendments that would get rid of the prime minister's post de jure or de facto.

Once emotions have cooled, Saakashvili and his team will resume their work without restraints. Zhvania may have been a minor restraint, but he was far from negligible. Now who will be able to control the hot heads in both camps? This may prove a veritable windfall for those who make their living from destabilization.

Regis Gente writes for La Monde Diplomatique and contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

(The Moscow Times 15.ii.05)

 
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