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Georgia: Violence, Recriminations Overshadow Election Campaign

Georgia is holding parliamentary elections on Sunday, and during the final weeks of the campaign, policy issues have been almost totally eclipsed by squabbling. Party leaders accused each other of malpractice, the Central Electoral Commission refused to register hundreds of would-be candidates, and parts of the campaign were marred by violence. RFE/RL's Caucasus analyst, Liz Fuller, examines the two major blocs in the Georgian campaign.

Prague, 29 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As in previous Georgian parliamentary polls, in 1992 and 1995, several dozen parties and blocs signaled their desire to participate in Sunday's elections. More than 30 were registered by the Central Electoral Commission.

And as in previous polls, parties with very similar programs mostly chose to run individually, rather than join forces. Several parties or blocs represent Communists and Stalinists, and three aim to revive Georgia's moribund industrial sector. Those electoral alliances that did emerge tended to unite parties with diverging, or even conflicting, orientations. This is especially true of the two front-running blocs.

The first of the two blocs supports President Eduard Shevardnadze. It is made up of the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), which is the largest faction in the outgoing parliament, and the recently created Party for the Liberation of Abkhazia. But those two parties differ on a key issue: the SMK advocates resolving the conflict in the separatist region of Abkhazia through peaceful negotiations, whereas the Party for the Liberation of Abkhazia favors bringing the region back under Tbilisi's control by force.

The second major alliance is the Union for the Democratic Revival of Georgia. It is headed by Aslan Abashidze, leader of the region of Adjaria and head of the second largest faction in the outgoing parliament. The bloc unites four parties: Abashidze's Union for Democratic Revival, the Socialist Party, and two parties that supported the late president Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

Those two blocs are believed to have the greatest chances of winning the 7 percent of the vote needed to gain a share of the 150 seats that will be allocated under the proportional system. The remaining 85 seats will be contested in single-mandate constituencies.

The SMK was founded in late 1993 by Shevardnadze, who was at the time parliamentary speaker. It took the largest number of seats in the 1995 elections, when Shevardnadze was elected president.

At that juncture, the mood in Georgia was one of cautious optimism. After three years of civil war and economic decline, a modicum of political stability had led to a modest economic upswing. But despite millions of dollars in credits from international financial organizations, that upswing was n-o-t sustained. Impatience and dissatisfaction impelled several prominent young members of the SMK to threaten in the summer of 1998 to form a "constructive opposition" to the SMK faction within parliament. When the Labor Party surprised observers with a strong showing in local elections, however, the dissenters within the SMK closed ranks to present a united front.

The threat to the SMK from Abashidze's bloc is hard to gauge. In contrast to the rest of Georgia, the region of Adjaria under Abashidze could appear an oasis of stability and relative prosperity. But that stability is maintained by suppressing any expressions of dissent. And many analysts believe that Adjaria's economic success is at least partly due to its misappropriation of millions of lari in taxes that it should have paid to the central government in Tbilisi. In addition, Abashidze is widely regarded both in Georgia and abroad as an ally of Moscow, which still maintains a military base in Adjaria.

One poll conducted this month put support for Shevardnadze's SMK at 27 percent, and for Abashidze's Union for Revival at 18 percent. But a Russian newspaper had Abashidze's support at 46 percent, compared with only 22 percent for Shevardnadze's party.

Shevardnadze recently described the election as a "struggle for power." Such statements, coupled with uncertain poll numbers, fuel a widespread perception that the SMK will resort to underhanded means, including falsification of the vote, to ensure victory. One regional governor reportedly warned local administrators that they will be fired if they fail to ensure that the SMK receives at least 65 percent of the party list vote.

Other developments have contributed to apprehension that the poll will be less than free and fair. The Central Electoral Commission refused to register a total of 476 candidates, saying their applications contained errors. Several opposition and independent candidates have been attacked and injured. Buses transporting Abashidze's supporters to a rally in Tbilisi were intercepted by police and forbidden to proceed for several days. And some Labor candidates say that power supplies are cut in rural areas when they appear on state television.