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Georgia in Turmoil after Disputed Poll

Opposition and government face off as each claims success in last Sunday’s elections.
By Revaz Sakevarishvili

The Georgian opposition stepped up its efforts to bring down President Eduard Shevardnadze on this week in the wake of last Sunday's disputed parliamentary election.


On November 7, opposition leader Mikael Saakashvili held the latest in a series of mass rallies across the country to broadcast his claim that he was robbed of victory. In one of them in the western town of Zugdidi, local nationalist activists opened fire on Saakashvili protestors, wounding three people, one of them seriously.


Saakashvili has called for another mass rally for November 8 in Tbilisi and for his supporters to "mobilise".


His National Movement appeared to be the clear winner in an exit poll of 23,000 voters conducted by the Global Strategy Group. But, with 90 per cent of votes counted, the National Movement was placed only third behind the pro-Shevardnadze bloc For a New Georgia and the Agordzineba (or Revival) party of Aslan Abashidze, leader of the autonomous region of Ajaria by the Black Sea.


The success of Abashidze's party was assured by news that it had won an improbable 95 per cent of the vote in Ajaria itself. On November 6, Abashidze dented Shevardnadze's authority further when his regional parliament amended the local constitution to declare him the supreme military authority in the republic.


The elections are for a 235-seat parliament, which carries more power than in most other post-Soviet states. But the election is also an early primary for the succession to Shevardnadze, who must step down in early 2005.


Two would-be candidates for the presidency, the present and former speakers of parliament, Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania announced yesterday they would not take up their seats in the new parliament in protest at "mass ballot fraud."


But it is Saakashvili, 35, a former justice minister, who is currently leading the field. He has won popularity by promising to fight corruption and improve the basic living standards of Georgia's impoverished majority. His critics call him a populist and a demagogue.


Saakashvili told his supporters, "The regime has suffered a total defeat in its fight against the democratic opposition and they are now trying to legitimise the results of rigged elections. But that won't happen. If Shevardnadze wants a revolution, he will get a revolution."


In response, the government has deployed riot police in flak jackets and helmets, carrying truncheons and firearms, on the streets of Tbilisi, and interior minister Koba Narchemashvili has said that he is prepared to use force if necessary.


The object of the opposition's ire, President Shevardnadze, has said he will not give in to the pressure. "The elections were democratic and transparent and no disaster has occurred," Shevardnadze said on state television. "It's absurd to claim that whoever collects more people on Rustaveli Prospect [in central Tbilisi] is the winner."


"Unfortunately the governing regime is offering society an unappealing choice - either a civil war or the preservation of a bandit state," analyst Paata Zakareishvili told IWPR. He said that if the opposition managed to rally large numbers, the president would have to meet some of their demands, "although it seems to me people don't have very clear motives for going out on the streets, as society has not so much voted for Saakashvili as against Shevardnadze, and I doubt voters will be actively supporting certain leaders."


The elections were thrown into chaos because of colossal confusion over voter lists. Tens of thousands of voters came to polling stations to find their names were missing from the lists. Huge queues formed and in some Tbilisi polling stations voting started at 2 or 3PM, rather than 8AM.


The American embassy sharply criticized the mayhem, saying in a statement, “The mismanagement and fraud of Georgia's November 2 parliamentary election denied many Georgian citizens their constitutional right to vote; voter lists were a serious problem, with tens of thousands of voters missing from the voter registry on election day.”


Observers and journalists have spent the last few days swapping bizarre stories of voting irregularities. In Gurjaani region the chairman of one of the electoral commissions wanted to stop journalists consulting his electoral procedure book. He sat on it and could not be moved for the rest of the day.


In the eastern village of Tazakendi the local chairman abruptly announced a lunch break and retired into a back room together with the ballot box and members of the commission.


In Georgia’s second city Kutaisi an electoral commission chairman was sacked for inefficiency. He then vanished, taking the voter lists with him.


While living citizens were left off the lists, many Georgians found they listed relatives who were long since deceased, in some cases going back to the Second World War or the October Revolution. And a Tbilisi polling station went to the other extreme, putting, for reasons it could not explain, the names of several children on its lists.


As a result of the confusion, tens of thousands of people did not vote at all – raising suspicions that their ballots might be used to boost the vote-rigging.


“There was no innovation in the rigging methods used in these elections,” commented Nugzar Kupreishvili from the Fair Elections group. “As usual there were ‘carousels’ – that’s the name in Georgia for the way in which several people vote more than once,” he said. “As usual, observers were driven out of polling stations and ballot boxes were stuffed. And of course the police and security forces were deployed en masse, intimidating both observers and voters.”


Some 450 foreign observers have so far refrained from an official statement, but Demetrio Volcic, head of the European Parliament’s observer mission, told a Tbilisi conference that “the population of Georgia is much better than those people who bear responsibility for the parliamentary elections”.


Revaz Sakevarishvili is a correspondent with Rustavi-2 television in Tbilisi. Margarita Akhvlediani is IWPR’s Caucasus regional coordinator based in Tbilisi.


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