In mid-August, the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) parliamentary faction elected 28-year-old lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili as its chairman. That move is not simply the latest in Saakashvili's meteoric career; it could also prove crucial in determining the role of the SMK in Georgian politics over the next decade.

Saakashvili, who spent several years studying in the U.S. after graduating from Kyiv State University in 1992, returned to Georgia in 1995 at the invitation of parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania. Since then, he has played a leading role in reforming Georgia's legal system and relentlessly criticized corruption within the upper echelons of power. (He is simultaneously chairman of the parliamentary anti-corruption committee and recently proposed the lustration of government ministers.)

Saakashvili is one of very few leading Georgian politicians who embarked on their political careers only after the collapse of the Soviet system. As "Kavkasioni" correspondent Ia Antadze points out, this puts him at a certain disadvantage vis-a-vis older politicians who are skilled in the art of behind-the-scenes intrigue. In addition, Antadze argues, Saakashvili is a "revolutionary" to whom compromise does not come naturally. At present, however, both those relative "weaknesses" are compensated for by Saakashvili's widespread popularity (he was named Georgia's "Man of the Year" in 1997) and the fact that he has the unqualified support of both Zhvania and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Zhvania and Saakashvili are the most prominent representatives of the progressive wing of the SMK, which Shevardnadze created in late1993 as a personal power base. The SMK is a marriage of convenience between disparate elements--the Greens, whom Zhvania originally headed; former Communist Party regional apparatchiks and bureaucrats-turned-businessmen, and youthful and ambitious scions of the former Communist intelligentsia- -all of whom chose to hitch their wagons to Shevardnadze's. Not surprisingly, this heterogeneity spawned major policy differences within the SMK's ranks following its victory in the November 1995 parliamentary elections. Those disagreements were exacerbated by personal animosities, for example between Zhvania and Minister of State Niko Lekishvili.

It is, however, the young, reformist wing of the SMK that has dominated and directed parliamentary debate. In the process, it has frequently demonstrated its independence, for example by rejecting presidential nominees for various official posts. Its members have also criticized Shevardnadze's failure to act more decisively in replacing representatives of the corrupt "old guard" who still occupy senior posts. Moreover, Zhvania has consistently been more outspokenly critical of Moscow than has Shevardnadze. (Whether his role is that of stalking-horse for the president or sorcerer's apprentice is unclear. Alternatively, Zhvania could simply be capitalizing on most opposition parties' shared antipathy and profound mistrust of Russia in order to secure a power base extending beyond his own party.)

Speaking on behalf of his fellow reformers within the SMK in July, Zhvania warned that failure to reform the local administrative system and the concomitant erosion of the leadership's authority had brought Georgia to the brink of catastrophe. He threatened to resign and assume the role of "constructive opposition" within the parliament unless radical measures were adopted to kickstart the stalled reform process. That warning effectively precipitated the resignation three weeks of both Lekishvili and the government. But some observers argued that Zhvania's statements were hypocritical and that neither he personally nor the SMK as a whole could disclaim a share of responsibility for the situation in the country.

Assuming that the new cabinet succeeds in implementing measures to cure the present malaise, Zhvania and Saakashvili will be vindicated and their positions strengthened. But their respective futures will hinge on two factors: first, whether the SMK retains its majority in the November1999 parliamentary elections and second, how the political situation evolves in the post- Shevardnadze era. Under the Georgian Constitution, the parliamentary speaker assumes the presidency in the event of the president's sudden death. But a pre-term presidential poll would inevitably be a hard-fought and ugly battle, and its outcome at this juncture is impossible to predict.

By the same token, there is no guarantee that the SMK would survive the departure of its founder from the political scene. On the contrary, it might split into rival factions-- especially if Zhvania failed in his bid for the presidency. In such a case, Saakashvili would be better placed than Zhvania to head the reformist wing of the SMK in its next incarnation. Finally, Zhvania and Saakashvili may at some point cease to be allies. Saakashvili could conceivably regard Zhvania's less than spotless business reputation as reflecting badly on the SMK as a whole. Zhvania, for his part, may consider that Saakashvili's uncompromising approach makes him ill-suited to the political horse-trading that will be necessary if the SMK fails to secure a clear majority in the next parliament.

CHIRAC OFFERS SUPPORT TO UKRAINIAN REFORMS. French President Jacques Chirac arrived in Kyiv on 2 September to offer support to Ukraine's efforts to reform its economy and boost ties with the EU, Reuters reported. "We understand and support with all our force your desire to tie yourself to Europe, which is your family," Chirac said at a dinner given by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Several agreements on the use of nuclear energy and bilateral cooperation are to be signed during the two-day visit. French business leaders accompanying Chirac are expected to encourage Ukraine to expand trade with France. French investments account for only $50 million of the $2 billion foreign investment in Ukraine since its independence in 1991. JM

UKRAINIAN CENTRAL BANK TO RESUME SELLING DOLLARS. Ukrainian National Bank Chairman Viktor Yushchenko on 2 September said that the bank will soon resume selling dollars on Ukraine's Interbank Currency Exchange to meet demand on the street, Reuters reported. "The central bank declares that it will not limit exchange operations," he said. The National Bank exchange rate of the hryvnya was 2.25 to $1 on 2 September, while in interbank trade it was quoted at 3.1 to $1. The unofficial exchange rate is even higher, at 3.7 hryvni to $1. Yushchenko's pledge is seen as a move to avoid a hryvnya plunge as Ukraine waits for the IMF to decide on granting the country a $2.2 billion loan. Meanwhile, an IMF mission is in Kyiv to assess the financial situation there before making its final decision on 4 September. JM

FORMER CZECHOSLOVAK PREMIER TO BE CHARGED OVER CHORNOBYL? Lubomir Strougal may face charges over having withheld information on the danger posed by the Chornobyl nuclear catastrophe in 1986, AP reported. Strougal, now 74, is suspected of having intentionally provided false or incomplete information on radiation levels measured on former Czechoslovak territory shortly after the explosion in Chornobyl. The Office for Investigation and Documentation of Communist Crimes, which has the power to prosecute, is investigating the case. A spokesman for the office said investigators hope to decide within a month whether to press charges. Strougal has denied the accusations. MS