|An Iron Lady Exits, For Now|
|May 16, 2008|
May 16, 2008
An omnipresent figure in Georgian politics won’t be on the ballot. But Nino Burjanadze doesn’t sound like a quitter.
When Georgians go to the polls next week, one of the country’s most prominent politicians will be absent from the ballot.
Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze’s surprise announcement last month that she would not seek another term after 13 years in office – seven as parliamentary leader – sent shock waves through Georgian politics. It also rattled the international community, for whom Burjanadze has been a beacon of stability and diplomatic grace in the country's often-turbulent transition from communism to democracy.
“Despite very serious, long, and complicated consultations, consensus was not reached in the process of formation of [a] proportional party list for the United National Movement,” Burjanadze said in a statement on 21 April, the deadline for submitting party lists. “I tried to put on the parliamentary list those new faces, who, in my opinion, would be truly very useful for the country, would enroll in even more important reforms, would make the reforms and the process of introducing new, more human policies. I am certain that without urgent and significant novelties in a number of directions it will be difficult to develop the country effectively.”
Burjanadze had given no indication of an impending exit from politics, although analysts say her displeasure with the government grew during the harsh crackdown on opposition protesters last November. She has declined to say more about her 11th-hour decision.
Foreign Minister David Bakradze has emerged as the leading figure in the party and is expected to replace Burjanadze if the United National Movement, as expected, wins. Under the Georgian constitution the speaker is the second most important person in government and is in the direct line of succession for the presidency.
The political drama comes at a critical time for Georgia. The rising tension with Moscow over Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia has put Saakashvili, Burjanadze, Bakradze and others on the front line in Tbilisi’s urgent call for international mediation to stop the Kremlin’s plans to increase the number of Russian troops in Abkhazia.
The departing speaker has denied that the domestic political friction would weaken the government’s resolve to deal with Russia. “Different opinions do not mean weakening of the authorities of our country and will not diminish the integrity of our government in significant and vital issues for the country,” Burjanadze said in her April statement.
IN THE FIRING LINE
Burjanadze is no stranger to stormy politics. First elected to Parliament in 1995 and then speaker in 2001, she was one of the pro-Western reformers whose triumphant Rose Revolution in 2003 ended the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze. In more recent months, she watched the reputation of the Saakashvili-led government sink over the November 2007 crackdown on demonstrators, and has spent time since fending off opposition attacks on the ruling party. In both periods of crisis, when the disgraced Shevardnadze left in November 2003 and Saakashvili briefly stepped down four years later, it was Burjanadze who was called in to serve as interim president.
Saakashvili lamented Burjanadze’s decision to leave office, saying in a televised statement shortly after her announcement that his close ally “is and will remain one of the greatest political figures of Georgia.”
Through it all, the young (Burjanadze will be 44 in July), stylish former international law professor has earned a reputation for being a balanced and principled leader. She is also one of the few women in a male-dominated political system given to cronyism. Women hold fewer than 10 percent of the seats in the Parliament.
But gender has not been an obstacle for Burjanadze. The portrait of Margaret Thatcher that hangs in her office (a gift from the British Iron Lady) offers a hint of whom Burjanadze sees as a role model. While not equal in stature to the former British prime minister, the speaker of the Georgian Parliament has made a successful political career at home that has been projected abroad in trying to move her country out of the Kremlin’s orbit and firmly into the West. Years spent in politics made her a skillful politician and diplomat who successfully managed the complicated relationship with the opposition as well as Saakashvili’s government, one that the opposition accuses of elitism and indifference to the country’s stubborn economic woes.
The multilingual Burjanadze has been particularly active in foreign affairs. In recent months she has traveled to Brussels in an apparent effort to reassure European Union and NATO allies that Georgia hasn’t wavered from its commitments to democracy and closer ties to the West. Her well-mannered behavior and adroit performance gives her clout on the international stage.
Indeed, her interest in foreign matters may have caused tensions with another prominent female in Georgian public life, former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili. Zourabichvili, who was sacked by Saakashvili in 2005, reportedly complained of parliamentary meddling in the foreign ministry.
On the domestic front, there have been daunting economic challenges – including a Kremlin-led blockade on some Georgian exports – and concerns that the promises of reforms and greater transparency heralded by the Rose Revolution were fading. Burjanadze has acknowledged she shared the responsibility for the shortcomings and failures of government policies, including the need for a more independent judiciary.
Still, the often fragmented opposition has accused her of not listening to their concerns, and earlier this year staged simultaneous hunger strikes in front of the parliament and in her office.
One of the biggest challenges she faced as parliamentary speaker came last November when police used water cannon, batons and tear gas to disperse tens of thousands of protesters calling on the president to resign. The use of force against civilians was televised live and provoked sharp reaction at home and concern in friendly Western capitals.
The events were a major blow for the popularity of the government, and Burjanadze reportedly was rattled by the president’s ham-handed handling of the protests. In the 5 January presidential election, which Saakashvili called to diffuse the mounting political crisis, Tbilisi residents voted heavily against him though his “Georgia Without Poverty” campaign resonated in the struggling rural areas.
IRON LADY INDEED
Levan Aleksidze, professor of international law at Tbilisi State University and a former university colleague of Burjanadze, says some of the speaker’s most respected characteristics also can get her into trouble. “She was distinguished for her ability to express things precisely and laconically. That is her character and it sometimes causes her problems. She is stubborn and defends her principles to the end. I don’t think this is always good but it helps her achieve political goals.”
“Burjanadze refused to play the role she took up four years ago,” said David Zurabishvili of the Democratic Front, a grouping of opposition parties. “She wanted to exercise more power and to bring more of her people to the Parliament. In other words, she decided to actually become the second person in the country. Of course, she met resistance, and faced a choice: either to play the same role she played over the past four years or to leave. She opted for the latter.”
Another prominent Democratic Front parliamentarian, Kakha Kukava, also believes Burjanadze had grown frustrated with her political allies: “I know this person well and over the past year I met her virtually on a daily basis. She was under great psychological pressure. So I can say that the issue with the party list exhausted the last drop of her patience.”
Saakashvili was quick to counter speculation of a fissure within the ruling party or a break with Burjanadze. In his comments on 21 April, the president called her “Georgia’s patriot” and “a symbol of stability, peace, political intellect and dignity.”
However, opposition lawmakers hope signs of a schism could affect the governing party’s performance in the upcoming elections.
“This decision of Burjanadze means that not everything is smooth in the National Movement and there is serious disagreement within the party. If you look at the party list, you will see that this is no longer the single, united team it once was. The retirement of Burjanadze just proved this,” Zurabishvili said.
It is difficult to say how much Burjanadze’s decision will affect the odds of the ruling party losing control of the legislature. In the last parliamentary contest, in March 2004, the United National Movement won nearly 68 percent of the vote and the Rightist Opposition 8 percent, with a smattering of lesser parties winning the balance. The opposition forces have once again failed to unite into a single coalition and it is not quite clear how successfully they can challenge the United National Movement.
But the next step for Burjanadze, a married mother of two children, is the subject of speculation. She has not commented on reports that she would like to be foreign minister or may run for president in the next election, scheduled in 2013.
But in announcing her exit, for now, Burjanadze did not sound like a quitter. “I will be guarding [the] interests of my country, as I did before, and wherever I find myself, whichever job I take, I will do everything for my country, for its future, and for the prosperity of my people. I will fully perform my human and civil duties [in] any position and give adequate response to people malevolent to my homeland, whether inside or outside the country. …
“I will stand wherever my country and my people need it.”
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