ROAR: Saakashvili starts “a dangerous game”

The Georgian leader may have launched a campaign for political survival as he changes his foreign policy course and promotes the current mayor of Tbilisi in local elections.

President Mikhail Saakashvili will use the election of the capital’s mayor to tighten his grip on power, the Russian media say. He met with the members of the ruling Georgian United National Movement party on May 21, devoting his speech to the local elections due to be held in a week.

These polls may become a general rehearsal of the parliamentary and presidential elections that will take place in 2012 and 2013, Kommersant daily said.

At the same time, local elections “in many respects will determine political future of Saakashvili himself,” the paper noted. The president has launched an operation “Successor” to make his man president, the daily opined.

His address to the ruling party has been the most important action of the president’s team during the entire election campaign and may become the last one, as polls will be held on May 30, the paper said. In the speech, the president sharply criticized the opponents and hailed the merits of the party.

“The unusual activity of the president who uses every possibility to campaign for his party is quite explainable,” Kommersant said. The local elections will influence the outcome of the next parliamentary and presidential elections.

Nine candidates were registered in the first direct mayoral elections in Tbilisi, considered to be the most important in the struggle between the authorities and opposition. The current mayor, Gigi Ugulava, backed by United National Movement, enjoys the support of 57 per cent of respondents in the polls. Among his rivals, former ambassador to the UN, Irakli Alasania, has the best result in the surveys with 17 per cent, the daily said.

To win, a candidate has to receive the majority of the vote. The protest electorate may ignore the election because the opposition has not fulfilled its promises “to overthrow the president,” the paper added.

Meanwhile, Ugulava positions himself as a good manager and avoids speaking about “big politics,” the daily noted. Also, he is considered practically the only candidate who has “no presidential ambitions.”

However, many analysts doubt that after winning the mayor’s election Ugulava will not run for president, the daily noted. The mayor is considered one of the closest allies of the president, who, unlike Saakashvili’s former favorites, is “faithful” to the president, it stressed.

Saakashvili will not be able to take part in the presidential elections because his term expires in 2013. And Ugulava is believed to be the most eligible candidate of the entire presidential team, the paper said.

“Analysts think that after conducting the ‘Successor’ operation, Saakashvili may use the experience of his foe Vladimir Putin, and become prime minister,” Kommersant said. Moreover, a package of amendments of the constitution has been prepared to turn Georgia into a parliamentary republic. If the ruling party wins according to the new rules, it may propose any candidate for prime minister, including Saakashvili, the daily added.

However, the realization of this plan will not help Saakashvili to feel confident, as he recently “has deteriorated relations not only with Russia, but also with the main sponsor of the Georgian economy, the US,” the paper said, adding that Brussels and other EU countries are pursuing the same line.

“In these conditions Tbilisi has started a dangerous game,” the paper noted. On May 22, a memorandum on the co-operation in the media sphere was signed between Georgia and Iran. Ramin Mehmanparast, the spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, who visited Tbilisi, stressed among other things that his country supported "Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The Georgian-Iranian commission on the development of the economic cooperation will take place soon, where the issue of visa-free travel may be solved. Tehran has also promised to invest in Georgia’s economy.

The Iranian foreign minister is expected to arrive in Tbilisi in June. “After him, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may visit Georgia. An invitation has already been sent,” Kommersant said. According to the paper’s information, Iran has several times raised the issue of the president’s visit to Georgia, however, the invitation was sent to Tehran a week ago.”

Saakashvili wants to demonstrate his friendship with Iran to attract Washington’s attention, observers say. But it could be also a strategy against Russia, political scientist Ervand Bozoyan told Regnum news agency.

Tehran and Tbilisi have been making their ties closer since Russia made concessions to the US in the Iranian nuclear issue, he said. Moscow and Washington reached several compromises, and recent developments are a sort of response to Russia,” the analyst added.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in a recent interview that Moscow is “in no way going to meddle with the internal political affairs in Georgia.” The meetings between the Russian leadership and representatives of the Georgian opposition are “necessary to build at least normal interstate relations,” he noted. “We consider the Georgian people friendly to Russia and the Russian people,” Putin stressed.

Russian media recently speculated that former Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov may spearhead efforts to restore normal relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, but there has been not official confirmation.

Many think Moscow relies on the Georgian opposition, which is not true, said Aleksandr Krylov of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. “The opposition is not so strong as to achieve much, and the authorities have enough resources to suppress protests,” he was quoted by Regnum as saying.

However, the economic situation in Georgia may undermine the current regime, the analyst said. The West renders assistance not only as grants but also as loans, and it would be difficult for Georgia to repay them, he noted.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s private airline, Airzena Georgian Airways, is starting charter flights on the Tbilisi-Moscow-Tbilisi route on Monday, RIA Novosti news agency reported. The air link between Moscow and Tbilisi was interrupted after the August 2008 events in the North Caucasus.

Sergey Borisov,
Russian Opinion and Analysis Review