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Speech! Speech! Georgia's Zurabishvili Puts The Accent On Victory

French-born Salome Zurabishvili had the last laugh on November 28.
French-born Salome Zurabishvili had the last laugh on November 28.

Just three days before Georgia's presidential runoff vote, former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili said he found candidate Salome Zurabishvili's accent "quite charming."

It was a riposte to the mocking that dogged Zurabishvili during the campaign as a result of the French-born former foreign minister's thick accent and frequent grammatical mistakes.

"Some have doubts about Salome being Georgian because of her accent. I personally find her accent quite charming," Ivanishvili, who founded the ruling Georgian Dream party and campaigned heavily for her, told reporters after a late-November rally.

But the 66-year-old career diplomat appears to have gotten the last laugh on November 28, when she became the first woman ever elected Georgian president, taking nearly 60 percent of the vote against opposition-backed Grigol Vashadze.

Vashadze has challenged the result as a "stolen election," including in front of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi on December 2.

But the outcry appeared unlikely to change the result of a vote that international monitors described as "competitive" even though Zurabishvili "enjoyed an undue advantage" through the misuse of administrative resources that "blurred the line between party and state."

The daughter of refugees who fled Georgia in 1921 for Paris after the country was annexed by Moscow's Soviet rulers, Zurabishvili rose through the ranks of France's diplomatic circles.

WATCH: Zurabishvili speaks to Euronews:

In 2003, she was appointed her birth country's ambassador to Tbilisi before she was handpicked by then-President Mikheil Saakashvili to be Georgia's foreign minister even though she had never set foot in the country until she was 36.

"During my youth, we had practically no contact with Georgians except for those living through immigration. There was no social network, there were no TVs. So the language was really 'home based,'" she told the German news outlet Deutsche Welle in October.

"I've been living in the country for 16 years; I've been a foreign minister; I've been elected as a member of the parliament; so it's very interesting that the criticism has started just two months ago," she added.

'Speak Georgian!'

Having been exposed only to "kitchen-table" Georgian, Zurabishvili had several linguistically difficult moments during the campaign.

Once, trying to dispel rumors she was a Catholic running for office in a deeply Orthodox country, she attempted to say the Georgian word "martlmadidebeli" to describe herself as Orthodox. But she garbled the pronunciation into "martmadiani," seemingly melding the word for Orthodox with the word for Muslim, "Mahmadiani."

The attempt fell flat and provoked immediate scorn in social media. "Have you created a new religion?" one Facebook critic asked sarcastically.

Another time, in an attempt to play up Georgia's tourism potential, she noted that the country's beauty allows one to "shove things in anywhere you want."

"The President of Georgia should know Georgian, full stop," publicist and TV personality Tako Charkviani wryly commented in a Facebook post after the gaffe.

Zurabishvili isn't the first post-Soviet leader to face questions over their national identity because of their accents, however slight.

Former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was born in Riga but raised abroad after her parents escaped the second Soviet occupation of the Baltic state in late 1944.

Despite being a highly educated professor in Canada who spoke five languages fluently, Vike-Freiberga faced some heckles for her Latvian in a country where language is a political hot potato as the tiny nation tries to protect its native tongue amid a sizable Russian-speaking population.

Another Baltic politician, former Estonian President Toomas Ilves, also heard derisive comments about his language skills when he came to the country from the United States.

His parents escaped Soviet-occupation for Sweden, where he was born, before eventually settling in New Jersey, where he grew up. Ironically, Ilves has become known in diplomatic circles for his New Jersey accent when he speaks English.

Lesser Role

Constitutional changes in Georgia have made the presidency less powerful than the prime minister's office.

Aside from powers aimed at keeping state bodies compliant with the constitution, Georgia's presidency plays a primary role in negotiating international treaties and accords, and appoints ambassadors and other diplomatic representatives.

This was the last direct presidential vote before Georgian presidents are chosen by a 300-member College of Electors made up of lawmakers and local and regional officials.

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