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Georgia At The Crossroads

Politics has, it seems, never been so popular in Georgia. But the voters are being offered two very different views on the country's future by parties contesting the coming parliamentary elections.
By Ia Antadze
Visitors to Georgia who stop for a drink at the Rikoti mountain pass which links the eastern and western halves of the country could be forgiven for concluding democracy here is thriving.

For there are days when it seems every television set in the line of cafes and shops are tuned in to the parliamentary sessions which are broadcast live on the main channel of Georgian state TV.

Even in winter, where a better marketing ploy might be to screen the latest blockbuster pirated on video, cafe owners and their customers sit outside watching the sessions on sets rigged up to old car batteries.

Three multi-party elections have been held in Georgia since independence and the general consensus is that successive parliaments have brought with them increasing stability - albeit from a baseline of civil war and near virtual disintegration between 1991-3.

Now, with elections to the 235-member parliament to be held on October 31, voters are being presented with two opposing visions of the country's future.

The ruling elite--as personified by the governing Citizen's Union of Georgia (CUG) and its chairman, Georgian President Edward Shevardnadze-appear unanimous in defining the country's strategic course: Georgia, they argue, should assume the role of the connecting corridor between the East and the West, the ancient Silk Road should be revived and oil and natural gas pipelines should be routed through the country.

Georgia, they argue, should partner countries with strong democratic traditions and in so doing, properly join the international community as an equal member.

A significant section of the population agrees. Those who do are people who stand to benefit from the implementation of the international projects and those who believe membership of international organisations to be the only guarantee of the country's security.

These people believe there is no alternative to President Shevardnadze and the Citizen's Union.

Many other Georgians however regard Shevardnadze as the man who overthrew Georgia's first president, the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and somehow destroyed Georgia's independence with it. Consequently, the nationalist 'Zviadists' as they are known, will support whoever best opposes him.

And there are others who are highly critical of Shevardnadze and his party-voters who believe the government's policies should have delivered far more than they have these past seven years.

While many of these are unemployed, others in their ranks are state employees who repeatedly wait months for their monthly salaries to be paid--often in vain. Wages, which average $15 to $30, often end up in the pockets of corrupt government officials. For the large army of unemployed and the lowly government worker, Shevardnadze is an old and powerless president unable to enforce order in the country.

The government also has to contend with the opposition of the majority of Georgia's displaced population, which was forced out of Georgia's lost territories - Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In their eyes, Shevardnadze is the man who lost these lands and will never be able to get them back. On top of everything else, the CUG is itself divided into a reformist younger wing and the conservative nomenklatura faction, which threatens to further affect popular support for it at the polls later this month.

For all these groups and interests, an alternative populist choice is on offer from an unexpected quarter. This new political force first made its presence felt more than a year ago and is now rallying the anti-CUG vote.

The movement originates well away from Tbilisi in the Autonomous Republic of Adjaria on the Black Sea to the west of the capital. Its leader is Aslan Abashidze--the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic, who brought together five opposition parties in Batumi, the Adjarian capital.

Some of these parties are leftists, others are rightists. The principle of this grouping of convenience is simple: "Let's join forces to defeat the government!"

The Batumi coalition is aggressively campaigning against the CUG on a ticket reflective of its name "Georgia's Revival" and offers many people exactly what they wish to hear--a strong government and a "firm hand". One of the block's campaign slogans argues that "not even grass grows where the CUG has been", while another promises to extend the Adjarian paradise to include all Georgia.

But in Georgia there are two views of the "Adjarian paradise". Some regard Adjaria as a quiet clean place where order prevails. Employees are paid their salaries and pensions regularly and on time. Adjaria under Abashidze is reviving, his supporters say. He is building bridges and caring for culture and sport.

Others are less enthusiastic. Abashidze is criticised for being intolerant and for running the administration as his own personal fiefdom with his relatives occupying many of the senior posts. Having closed down one Adjarian opposition newspaper, he watched members of the opposition parties flee the republic. Abashidze's critics moreover, maintain he is now trying to wrest some functions from the centre, including control of the border between Georgia and Turkey which runs through Adjarian territory (and thus access to the lucrative customs revenues).

Abashidze has not visited Tbilisi for seven years, claiming the city to be the cradle of terrorism and the chairman of parliament and some ministers to be terrorists.

But at least there is a political choice. Adjarian ideologues argue that it is a national insult to suggest Georgia's main role and contribution to the international community should be the protection and defence of the pipelines. Georgia should be not a corridor between East and West, they argue, but a bridge between North and South. The Euro-American lifestyle has proved devastating for Georgia, they claim.

Georgia is located in the area of interaction of the two civilisations - Orthodoxy and Islam, and for four centuries Georgia, and - because of its ethnic composition - Adjaria in particular, represents a microcosm of their coexistence. In short, the Adjarian concept of Georgia's role turns its back on the Eurasian corridor so touted by Shevardnadze and replaces horizontal connections with the vertical search for strategic partners - Russia-Georgia-Turkey.

Those who are not political aficionados attempt to simplify things by saying Georgia's course will be pro-Western or pro-Russian. In fact, they are probably right.

Russian military figures like General Aleksandr Lebed and General Pavel Grachev visit Batumi, while US heavyweights William Cohen and Zbigniew Brzezinski come to Tbilisi.

On the eve of elections, Georgians face a simple choice. Are voters going to choose independence and prosperity or, having reached the brink of true independence, willingly return to the sphere of influence of its starving and turbulent northern neighbour?

Ia Antadze is a journalist on the Tbilisi newspaper Kavkasioni.

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