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Georgia: Lack Of Tradition Hampers Political Maturity

Georgians are increasingly dissatisfied with the government, but in recent parliamentary elections, the party of President Eduard Shevardnadze did well. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Gallant reports from Tbilisi that political parties could not muster the cohesion necessary to produce a strong alternative.

Tbilisi, 18 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia's recent parliamentary elections suggest the country has a long way to go before reaching political and electoral maturity.

As in much of the former Soviet Union, corruption is rampant and the economy is in shambles. With frustration growing, many Georgians point the blame at President Eduard Shevardnadze.

The latest vote does little to dispel such talk, even though Shevardnadze's party, the Citizens Union of Georgia, retained its relative majority in parliament, winning about 42 percent of the vote. Overall, 32 parties and electoral blocs competed in the election, reflecting a disunity that worked to the Citizens Union's advantage. The election took place on October 31, with a second-round runoff for some seats last Sunday.

As in elections in 1992 and 1995, many parties with similar priorities and programs opted to run individually rather than join forces. And electoral blocs that did emerge often joined parties with diverging or even conflicting policies.

One of the few things that many Georgian political parties did agree on was that the results of the poll were tampered with. International monitors concurred with that assessment but generally endorsed the results as reflecting the overall will of the voters.

Ivlian Khaindrava is the chairman of the Republican Party of Georgia, a member of the National Democratic Alliance opposition bloc. The bloc bills itself as a "Third Way," an alternative between Shevardnadze's party and the opposition Union for the Democratic Revival of Georgia. His bloc failed to gain the 7 percent of the vote required to win seats in parliament.

In an interview with RFE/RL in Tbilisi, Khaindrava charged that the international monitors had a strong political motive to pronounce the elections legitimate. He says that, for outside observers, Shevardnadze's government represents stability.

"Altogether, if the regime of Shevardnadze is acceptable for Western countries, it means the results of the elections -- which are in the favor of Shevardnadze's party -- are okay and they are acceptable as well."

In assessing the vote, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) did voice criticisms, particularly of the tone of the campaign and the refusal of the country's Central Electoral Commission to register hundreds of candidates. The OSCE also cited ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation.

The Revival bloc finished second, about 15 percentage points behind Shevardnadze's party. The bloc, headed by Aslan Abashidze, is viewed by Shevardnadze's government as being pro-Russian.

A party called "Industry Will Save Georgia" was the only other party to enter parliament, barely breaking the 7 percent barrier.

Khaindrava says voters largely supported a one-party system in a country where there is no room for other political forces. He says Shevardnadze's party created the impression that its main rival was "even worse" and said the choice for the voters was between "bad and worse."

Khaindrava says the results reflect a continuing Soviet-era mentality.

"Either we have a one-party system or we have a normal, European type, with five, six, seven, eight parties. The voters supported a one-party system. The level of political culture is not high in this country. How could it be high? We have no traditions of elections, multiparty systems, pluralism and so on."

Revaz Adamia is a member of the ruling party who was chairman of the committee on Defense and Security in the last parliament. He says the large number of parties is a sign that civil society is not well developed.

"The development of civil society is not accomplished yet. It is still in development. Still quite a [number] of politicians have the illusion that they can be elected and be president. [The] seven percent threshold is a big threshold. Even [a] 5 percent threshold is high. This is the time of all these guys learning what democracy is and how the system works."

Khaindrava agrees:

"We have to establish some traditions here, traditions of political pluralism, traditions of a multiparty system. Certainly it will take time, but we have not so much time. We have not centuries as European countries had. We have maybe decades, maybe not even decades."

He says it may take a very long time before Georgia's voters become politically sophisticated.