Electoral Storm in Georgia

Parties falling over each other to pledge assistance to people whose homes and farmland were flattened by hailstones.

Electoral Storm in Georgia

Parties falling over each other to pledge assistance to people whose homes and farmland were flattened by hailstones.

Heavy storms that devastated eastern Georgia on July 19 have become an intensely political affair, as pro- and anti-government parties try to outdo one another with offers of help, amid mutual accusations of exploiting people’s suffering.

When the Kakheti region was struck by intense hail and strong winds, some 20,000 people suffered damage, with 2,200 houses destroyed and 22,000 hectares of crops damaged.

“I’m an old man, but I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Guram Beridze, a 73-old from the village of Shalauri, told IWPR. “The hailstones were so big and forceful that they dented tin roofs, and the mud they created was almost up to our knees. We’ve lost all our crops and livestock, and our houses are damaged.”

Georgia’s politicians are gearing up for an October parliament election in which allies of President Mikheil Saakashvili face a serious challenge from the Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili. (See Georgian Opposition Rally Draws Tens of Thousands.)

Both sides took up the cause of compensation for the storm victims with enthusiasm, a point not lost on Beridze and others like him.

“We’re lucky an election is coming up in the near future, otherwise no one would pay us any attention,” he said. “The politicians in Tbilisi are now squabbling with each other about getting help to us”.

President Mikheil Saakashvili and his recently appointed prime minister, Vano Merabishvili, are personally leading the government assistance effort, which is getting live coverage on the national TV channels.

Parliament, dominated by Saakashvili’s United National Movement, met on July 25 and earmarked 162 million lari, about 96 million US dollars, in budget spending to compensate storm victims and fund longer-term reconstruction work.

The Kakheti provincial governor’s press office said each of the 20,000 families affected in the Gurjaani, Kvareli, Lagodekhi and Telavi districts would each be given two sacks of flour, ten kilograms of sugar and three litres of vegetable oil, while 8,000 households in the main town Telavi would get oil, sugar and pasta.

Cash payments of between 780 and 900 dollars will be made to 1,600 families identified as the highest priority because their crops have been completely wiped out.

The authorities are also distributing diesel fuel and fertilisers to farmers.

“The authorities are using absolutely every means to achieve their election aims,” Giorgi Khutsishvili, head of the International Centre on Conflict and Negotiation, commented. “This is an uncompromising battle to win voters. Since the authorities hold the [state’s] administrative resources, they have the advantage in this fight.”

However, Ivanishvili has not been slow in taking up the cause of the storm victims.

He complained that he wanted to distribute medicines and other essentials to people in Kakheti, but was prevented from doing so by the authorities, on the pretext that this would constitute vote-buying, illegal under Georgian law.

Ivanishvili found a neat solution, announcing that he would pay a fine of several million lari imposed for a previous case of alleged vote-buying.

He had been holding out on payment as he said the fine was unlawful, but he said he had now decided to transfer the funds as a contribution to the disaster relief effort. He said he would make a down-payment of ten million lari (six million dollars) and then transfer more to the state coffers once the full extent of the storm damage had been totted up.

Other political parties, too, joined the fray.

“The authorities are using the natural disaster for their PR campaign, but that’s better than doing nothing at all,” Pikria Chikhradze, leader of the opposition New Rights party, said. “It’s a pre-election period, which gives the authorities a kind of incentive to do something useful. We’ll be monitoring the state assistance, and we will strive to ensure that not one family is left without help.”

Nana Kurashvili is a freelance journalist in Georgia.

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