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Georgia: Shevardnadze's Party Fares Well, But Rival Looms

Parliamentary elections have concluded reasonably peacefully in the Caucasian republic of Georgia. That's a welcome sign of normalcy in a region scarred by violence and instability. To Georgia's immediate north, there's fierce fighting going on in Chechnya, while just to the south, Armenia is still in shock over last week's terror attack which killed the prime minister and other top ministers. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at the Georgian election and what the result means.

Prague, 1 November 1999 (RFE/RL)) -- A jubilant Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has claimed victory for his Citizens' Union party in the country's parliamentary elections held at the weekend.

Final results from the election have not yet been issued, but preliminary estimates today (Monday) show Shevardnadze's Citizens' Union well ahead of its nearest rival, the Georgian Democratic Revival Union, headed by Aslan Abashidze. The Citizens' Union looks likely to retain its majority in parliament.

Shevardnadze, whose own job was not at stake in the election, welcomed the result as a victory for all Georgians, and he called it a vindication of his pro-Western and market reform policies. In keeping with the bitter rhetoric of the campaign, Shevardnadze had earlier said a Democratic Revival win would be the same as a parliamentary "coup," and that Abashidze was being financed from "abroad" -- a clear reference to Russia.

For his part, even before voting ended yesterday, Abashidze accused the Shevardnadze camp of vote rigging. He was not the only opposition politician to make such claims, and an independent judgment of these accusations will have to await a report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had 150 election observers stationed around the country.

At any rate, if it is judged largely fair, the election will rate as a positive step in Georgia's political maturity, and thus an event also of value to the entire region. Despite the high apparent support for the ruling party, however, some regional analysts see Georgian voters as harboring a large degree of discontent, particularly in view of the country's continuing economic problems and persistent corruption.

Anna Matveeva is a research fellow at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs. She says the vote was not for Shevardnadze, but against the others.

"I would say that it is rather a vote in which people see no better alternatives, I think it is a vote which expresses a fairly pessimistic side of Georgian society, because people do not trust Shevardnadze. But they perhaps trust his rivals even less to deliver the agenda which people need, which means fighting corruption, delivering economic recovery and jobs."

Matveeva views Democratic Revival's performance as strong, even though it was outpolled by the Citizens' Union by a ratio of about two-to-one. Revival is a coalition uniting a wide array of groups from populists and nationalists to socialists and monarchists. It has gained support from people unhappy with the widespread poverty that has persisted under Shevardnadze. Matveeva says:

"It is definitely a very strong performance for a bloc which has been formed very recently. It does not have an electoral history like the Citizens' Union has, in this sense it is a success."

The main party in the Revival bloc, however, Abashidze's All-Georgian Union for Revival, does have an electoral history. It was the second largest faction in the parliament elected in 1995.

Revival's showing sharpens the presidential race between Shevardnadze and Abashidze, who has already said he will run in next year's election. Matveeva casts doubt, however, on the extent of the benefits this election result has brought for Abashidze's presidential ambitions. That's because, as leader of the autonomous Black Sea region of Adjaria, Abashidze is widely viewed as a regional politician rather than a national figure like Shevardnadze.

"Shevardnadze, of course, has a strong lead in this because many people would say he (Abashidze) is somebody who comes from a rather separatist corner of Georgia."

The two men differ markedly in their foreign policy orientations, with Shevardnadze favoring the West and courting eventual membership of Western structures including NATO, and Abashidze saying that he looks much more towards Moscow. But that's another contest to look forward to.