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Georgia's Political Carnival

While the incumbent's victory in Georgia's forthcoming presidential vote seems certain, a bizarre array of eccentrics, misfits and criminals have joined the race.
By Ia Antadze

If Zurab Gagnidze ever got his way, he would abolish jails, allow bigamy and employ convicts to spruce up the national heritage.

Just as well for Georgia then that Gagnidze together with an impressive array of other colourful candidates in April's presidential elections will never be able to put their mad-cap ideas into practice.

Eduard Shevardnadze is odds on to win a second term in office. But what would have been a rather boring, predictable poll has been lent a dash of mystery and carnival by the participation of what one can only describe as eccentrics and publicity-seekers.

Many of the more variegated candidates are heads of parties with narrow oddball agendas that have performed poorly in previous polls.

David Liparteliani is chairman of the David Aghmashenebeli party whose foreign policy amounts to befriending any country that "loves" Georgia. The leader of the Nationalist Unity party, Gaioz Mamaladze, is a failed academic, having spent seven years in higher education with not one diploma to his name. Gagnidze, the National Ideology party chief, once justified his views on bigamy with the following pearl of wisdom, "If we can own two cars or houses, why can't we have two wives?"

The next category of candidates might be described as loose cannons - literally, as all three are suspected of criminal offences.

Of these, Igor Giorgadze is perhaps the most intriguing. His whereabouts over the past five years is something of a mystery. Some say he fled to Russia in the wake of accusations that he organised the attempted assassination of Shevardnadze in 1995 - accusations that he strenuously denies. Others claim he has been living undercover in Georgia. The mystery has thrown his candidacy into doubt as he has to have lived in the country for the past two years to run for office. Giorgadze is undeterred by the row over his eligibility. He says he poses no physical threat to the current regime - and is confident of drawing more votes than his one-time alleged target.

Another set of contenders are so anonymous that one wonders why they ever bothered throwing their hat into the ring. Indeed some of these candidates are so obscure that only their relatives and neighbours have any idea who they are. Two, for instance, even refused to submit profiles of themselves.

Last but by no means least, perhaps the strangest presidential wannabe is Colonel Yevgeny Dzhugashvili - who arguably deserves to be in a category of his own. Josef Stalin's grandson, Dzhugashvili even sounds like the Soviet dictator. He has described Shevardnadze as an enemy of the people - the sort of denunciation that once condemned Stalin's foes to an early grave.

There are some who still yearn for the Stalinist period, believing that similarly brutal leadership might resolve the problems facing Georgia today. Not that Dzhugashvili has much reason to feel any personal fondness towards the former Soviet leader. Dzhugashvili's father, Yakov, was taken prisoner during the war and died in a Nazi concentration camp, after Stalin refused to exchange him for a German field-marshal captured at Stalingrad.

However, Dzhugashvili's presidential bid was foiled earlier this week when Georgia's electoral commission ruled that, as a Russian citizen, the former Soviet airforce colonel had no right to stand.

All these candidates have little chance of coming anywhere near Shevardnadze in the presidential poll. Experts suggest they'll be lucky to get more than 1 per cent of the vote.

There are, however, several contenders who observers believe could mount a serious challenge to the incumbent. Leaders of a powerful opposition movement in the Ajaria region, Asklan Abashidze and Jumber Patiashvili, together attracted more than half a million votes in the last parliamentary elections.

Abashidze is widely credited for improving conditions in Ajaria and has claimed its inhabitants live better than people in the rest of Georgia. His problem is that he hasn't set foot in Tbilisi for more than seven years because of fears of a possible terrorist attack. Consequently, he's regarded as a regional leader - and would have difficulty mounting an effective election campaign.

Patiashvili's strength is that he has already ruled Georgia. The former Communist Party boss was Shevardnadze's main rival in the last presidential election. Those who have struggled under free market economic conditions and feel nostalgic about the Soviet area will no doubt vote for him.

Working against him is his association with a grim event in Georgia's recent past. Patiashvili was first secretary of the Communist Party when 11 years ago Russian troops opened fire on a peaceful rally in Tbilisi in front of the government building, killing 20 people, mostly young women. Patiashvili resigned the following day.

Incidentally, it is no coincidence that Shevardnadze has set the election date for April 9, the anniversary of the tragedy, as well as the day on which Georgian independence was declared.

So, for the moment at least, there doesn't seem to be an alternative to Shevardnadze. To his credit the president has laid the foundations for economic development and democracy in Georgia. And although the electorate remains impoverished, it still suffers from Soviet political apathy. If Shevardnadze is willing to take responsibility for Georgia's future, then the people are happy to abandon their own democratic responsibilities by voting him in once again.

Ia Antadze is a journalist with the Tbilisi newspaper Kavkasioni.

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