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Georgia: Election Not Likely To Solve Basic Problems

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is considered certain to win re-election in Sunday's vote. But RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller reports victory will not reflect approval of Shevardnadze's leadership.

Prague, 7 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- There is little doubt that incumbent President Eduard Shevardnadze will be re-elected for a second term in Sunday's (April 9) presidential poll in Georgia. But many of those who cast their ballots for Shevardnadze will do so less because they approve of his policies than because they fear a victory by any one of six other candidates would result in greater economic hardship and a return to instability.

In addition, the manner in which the election campaign has been conducted highlights numerous problems and weaknesses in the political system Shevardnadze has proved unable to solve. These problems include tensions between the central government and the regions, widespread corruption, and the marginalization of all but a handful of political parties.

Equally serious are the economic problems Georgia faces. Most important are an external debt of $2.39 billion (amounting to about 85 percent of the size of the economy), massive unemployment, and pensions and wage arrears running to millions of dollars. Last month, Shevardnadze said paying pensions arrears would raise his share of the vote by 20 percent.

The result is a foregone conclusion. Only two rival candidates stand even a remote chance of polling over 10 percent of the vote. They are Shevardnadze's successor as Georgian Communist Party first secretary, Djumber Patiashvili, and Aslan Abashidze, chairman of the Supreme Council (parliament) of the autonomous region of Adjaria. Both men are leaders of the Batumi Alliance of five opposition parties, which constitute the second-largest parliamentary group.

Patiashvili's election program focuses on reducing budget spending and abolishing what he terms the "anti-constitutional" institution of regional governors appointed by the president. His foreign-policy program combines continued cooperation with the West and improved ties with Russia. But in the view of many Georgians, Patiashvili remains compromised by his still unclear role in the attack by Russian troops on demonstrators in the capital Tbilisi 11 years ago.

The authoritarian Abashidze, widely regarded as working on Russia's behalf, has not campaigned beyond his native turf and is reported to be considering withdrawing from the race.

Of the remaining four candidates, one, Tengiz Asanidze, is in jail in Batumi, Abashidze having refused to release him despite an amnesty from Shevardnadze. National Political Union of Georgia "Mdzleveli" leader Avtandil Djoglidze is a political unknown. So too is Vazha Zhghenti, chairman of the obscure Progressive Party, who believes Georgia should turn its back on imported economic and political models and create a new "national" ideology and laws.

The seventh candidate, chairman of the Corporation of Lawyers of Georgia Kartlos Gharibashvili, is by contrast a presidential election veteran: in 1991 he failed to collect the requisite number of signatures to run against Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and in the 1995 election, he placed fourth in a field of six with less than 1 percent of the vote.

Gharibashvili told RFE/RL this week his program has nothing in common with those of the other candidates and is devoted primarily on human rights, which he described "as alien to a Communist Party leader as kiwi fruit is to Georgia."

The election campaign has been marred by voter apathy and by resentment on the part of several would-be candidates who were rejected by the Central Electoral Commission. (One of those rejected, former Security chief Igor Giorgadze, who is accused of masterminding the failed 1995 attempt to assassinate Shevardnadze, may represent the real "wild card" in Georgian politics. He claims to enjoy the secret support of 60-70 percent of the army and of the interior and security ministries.)

Some segments of society have nonetheless signaled that they will not vote for Shevardnadze unless he delivers on earlier promises. Those groups include the 500,000 strong population of the west Georgian region of Mingrelia (a stronghold of sympathy for Gamsakhurdia), and the ethnic-Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia who are demanding payment of their monthly $12 subsistence allowances.