Shevardnadze's PM Plan Draws Mixed Response

TBILISI, Georgia Ч Veteran Georgian leader Edward Shevardnadze may be aiming to find a successor by creating the post of prime minister Ч or he might simply need a future scapegoat for deepening economic ills.

Political analysts said Tuesday that either reason could be behind the move, announced by Shevardnadze in parliament this month as a key constitutional overhaul.

Respected abroad for his role in ending the Cold War as Soviet foreign minister, Shevardnadze is increasingly unpopular in his native Georgia, where living standards have plummeted since independence 10 years ago.

But Georgians see no serious alternatives to the 73-year-old leader, and analysts fear a period of instability when, in accordance with the constitution, he steps down in 2005 after his second elected term in office.

Creating the post of prime minister would allow Shevardnadze to build public confidence in his anointed successor, the analysts said.

"The post of prime minister gives the country a chance for a smoother transition to a new leader," said Gia Nodia of the Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development think tank.

Shevardnadze became leader in 1992 after a separatist uprising in the northern region of South Ossetia. He immediately faced another rebellion in the northwestern region of Abkhazia.

Some analysts warn the country could descend into chaos if Shevardnadze leaves a power vacuum behind.

By changing the 1995 constitution, which names the president as both head of state and head of government, Shevardnadze would hand some of his authority to a prime minister who would head a cabinet and be answerable to parliament. The incumbent would then be well placed to run as a presidential candidate in 2005, analysts say.

"Certainly the post of prime minister would be a good jumping-off place to the presidency," said Ivlian Khaindrava, an independent political analyst.

Shevardnadze told parliament the new post would make the government more accountable to the people.

"This move will help solve state problems, deepen democratic processes and increase governmental responsibility," the president said.

But analysts see little hope that a new political post would improve living standards in the country of 5.5 million people where half the population lives below the poverty line. They say Shevardnadze simply wants to shift responsibility for Georgia's problems onto another politician's shoulders.

"The president's initiative is just an attempt to transfer attention of people from their problems rather than a wish to solve these problems," Khaindrava added.

Parliament will not debate the president's proposal until its autumn session, but already 37-year-old speaker of parliament Zurab Zhvania is seen as the clear favorite for the job.

One of the founders of the ruling Citizens Union of Georgia, Zhvania has been parliamentary speaker since 1995.

He has created a powerful pro-Shevardnadze majority in parliament, uniting former Communists and younger pro-business reformists. He is regarded as a figurehead for pro-Western reform.

Zhvania has already said he would accept the post if offered, but observers say he may risk his political future by accepting the job a full four years before the next election.

"This is a very risky game for Zhvania. He could easily fail in that time and his political career would be over," said Nodia.