Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Georgia’s Irakli Alasania’s Political Zigzags: from Running for President to Running for Mayor

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

Irakli Alasania, a moderate politician commonly called by his first name within the Georgian political establishment a-la Mikheil Saakashvili who became known as Misha – a peculiar tradition of Georgia’s adolescent political culture – faithfully served his country and president in various capacities before joining the opposition in late 2008.

Before and during the war that Russia waged against pro-Western Georgia in August 2008 Alasania had been a powerful voice of Georgia in the United Nations, defending his country’s cause by standing up to Russia’s diplomatic maneuvers. Although his duty was to simply deliver the position of the Georgian government and President Saakashvili himself, even his current opponents in Georgia’s governing circles agree that Alasania’s communication abilities, excellent diplomatic skills and personal charm played a significant role in Tbilisi’s successful attempts to break through diplomatic sieges that Moscow incessantly orchestrated around Georgia.

With Russian troops just a few miles from Tbilisi during the acme of Moscow’s military aggression on August 11, 2008, the entire country watched as Ambassador Alasania appealed to the UN Security Council and accused Russia of wanting “to erase Georgian statehood from the surface of the earth.”

Nonetheless, few were surprised when just a few months after the end of open hostilities between Russia and Georgia, on December 4th, Alasania resigned as Georgia’s permanent representative to the UN.

This move could have been easily predicted given the rumors broadcast by Georgian media about a irreparable schism between Alasania and Georgia’s ruling United National Movement Party on one hand and the growing strength of the opposition in the aftermath of Georgia’s post-war losses on the other.

During his first press conference after resignation, Alasania himself tried to explain the reason behind his move, saying that “the fundamental differences between his and President Saakashvili’s views on Georgia’s internal and external development, including issues related to conflict resolution,” contributed to his decision.

Soon afterwards Alasania established his own political party, Our Georgia-Free Democrats, and entered into the Alliance for Georgia, a consensus-based political amalgamation which also includes the Republican and the New Rights Parties.

But there was one significant event before the creation of a new political organization when in February 2009 the Alliance of Georgia’s two other leaders Davit Usupashvili and Davit Gamkrelidze named Alasania as their presidential candidate even though the next presidential elections were due in 2013.

The events that unfolded in April-June showed the reason behind this rash decision. Mass rallies that the radical opposition organized for several months were meant to force President Saakashvili to resign, and naming Alasania as a presidential candidate well in advance of other possible nominees could have given him some advantage both in terms of time and space.

As it turned out, the radical opposition’s mass functions failed to achieve their coveted goal and President Saakashvili survived the roaring crowds and tents in the heart of Tbilisi, in front of the Parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue, occasional gatherings on other plazas, at the National Stadium and the Holy Trinity Cathedral Church – the culminating moment when the radical opposition hoped that the nationally respected Patriarch Ilia II, head of the Georgian Church, would come up with an appeal to President Saakashvili, directly or indirectly requesting his resignation for the sake of Georgia’s present and future. He did not do so.

During the rallies, Alasania mostly stood in the back and unconvincingly advocated moderation and a need for dialogue with the government.

But the ultimate moment of truth for Alasania and many other opposition leaders in Georgia came when in June U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden visited Tbilisi at the heat of yet another wave of Russo-Georgian confrontation and, among other things, called for calm and political dialogue and unequivocally denounced any attempts to use extralegal methods to oust the government. Even more importantly, Biden highly praised the 2003 Rose revolution whose acclaimed leader was Saakashvili.

Addressing the Georgian Parliament, Biden said the Rose revolution “started a new waive of freedom that the whole world heard” (http://www.parliament.ge/, June 23, 2009). The strong support for Georgia’s current leadership by the new U.S. Administration and for a timely and a duly processed constitutional succession in Georgia became more than obvious.

But Biden’s visit apparently influenced not only the opposition. Saakashvili’s decision to organize local elections six months ahead of time, on May 30, 2010, and to allow for direct election of mayors in big cities, including the capital Tbilisi, should be put in proper political context and seen as motivated by both domestic and international considerations.

On September 22nd the Alliance for Georgia once again nominated Alasania, but this time for Tbilisi Mayor. At the press conference dedicated to the nomination Alasania said that his political alliance wanted “to carry out fundamental changes and come to power in local elections.” Some influential figures in the radical opposition voiced criticism about Alasania’s decision, noting that a lack of political confidence in the country and the poor election code would not guarantee equal opportunity for all political parties and fair competition.

The mercurial leader of Georgia’s Labor Party and long-time presidential hopeful Shalva Natelashvili who strongly opposes Saakashvili and advocates Georgia’s neutrality instead of NATO membership has long called Alasania Misha-2, claiming that “Alasania is Washington’s new project, being groomed to replace Saakashvili.” Other radicals, namely, ex-Speaker of the Parliament Nino Burjanadze and ex-Prime minister Zurab Nogaideli as well as Levan Gachechiladze, who came in second in the last presidential election in January 2008, do not show a particular liking toward Alasania either.

Alasania’s political alliance includes at least one entity, the New Rights Party, that, like Natelashvili, was against the Rose revolution and, the other one, the Republican Party, has long distanced itself from Saakashvili’s government and has in its ranks several high-profile personas, such as the former security chief of Georgia Irakli Batiashvili, who also fiercely opposed the Rose revolution.

Many analysts believe that Alasania would be better-off without some notorious personalities in his Alliance for Georgia, namely those associated not only with Shevardnadze but also with radicalism, corruption and cronyism. Others argue that Alasania would only benefit if he duly assessed the importance of the Rose revolution and, instead of attempting to start his own new agenda for Georgia, built trust with Saakashvili’s United National Movement Party in order to achieve consensus similar to that practiced in Western democracies between the governing and opposition entities.

Notwithstanding some figures in his entourage, 35-year-old Alasania is widely considered as a pro-Western moderate politician who arguably can find his niche in Georgia’s political spectrum which usually prides itself with radicalism and antagonism to political compromise. It is usually considered normal for a Western politician to be first nominated for the mayor and then for president. In Georgia, at least for now, it is the other way around. Time will tell if Irakli Alasania is capable of a proper balance between his principles and political expediency.

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