Saakashvili's Campaign Effort Pays Off in Western Georgia

The president did predictably well in a region seen as his heartland, although some question the margin by which he won.

Saakashvili's Campaign Effort Pays Off in Western Georgia

The president did predictably well in a region seen as his heartland, although some question the margin by which he won.

Thursday, 10 January, 2008
The Georgian presidential election has been hotly debated in Edisher Sherozia’s house in the western town of Zugdidi throughout the two months since it was announced.

Sherozia’s own allegiances are clear.

“My cousin was away from Zugdidi for three years, and when he came back, he didn’t recognise the town,” he said. Remember what we had before and look what we have now – all these roads, streetlights and stadiums. It’s Misha who has done all of this, isn’t it?”

Sherozia voted for “Misha” – the incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili – in the January 5 polls.

But one of the friends with whom he had argued over the candidates went for the main opposition contender, Levan Gachechiladze, who ended up with 25 per cent of the vote compared with Saakashvili’s 52, according to final figures from the count.

Sherozia thought his friend’s choice had some merit, if not for the most obvious of reasons. “By supporting Gachechiladze, you honour the memory of Zviad, since his son Konstantin is a member of Gachechiladze’s party,” he said.

The late Zviad Gamsakhurdia, whose family hailed from this part of western Georgia, was the country’s first post-independence head of state. In 1993, he attempted to stage a comeback from Zugdidi after being deposed at the end of a turbulent presidency. He died later that year.

In the current presidential election, though, Zugdidi’s voters proved strong supporters of Saakashvili.

Samegrelo, the region of which Zugdidi is administrative centre, has played a key role in recent Georgian history. It was the starting point for the 2003 “Rose Revolution” which brought Saakashvili to power.

In addition, the region is located right next door to Abkhazia, which unilaterally declared itself separate from Georgia at the end of the 1992-93 war, and Zugdidi is still home to many of the people displaced by the conflict.

Saakashvili campaigned for re-election more intensively here than anywhere else. He managed to fit in several visits to Zugdidi in the two months before the vote, and laid on two concerts featuring famous Georgian and Russian singers.

“I’ll never forget the day [Saakashvili’s Dutch-born wife] Sandra started singing in the Mingrelian dialect. Whatever they say, I can see Misha loves the people of Samegrelo, and I will never disappoint this love of his. That’s why I voted for him,” said local resident Levan Koiava.

“I also know that there’s a lot still to be done, but a country cannot be built in a day, can it? The most important thing is that the man is trying, and he should be given more time.”

Unlike Koiava, another Zugdidi resident, Tengiz Gergedava, was annoyed by the concerts that formed part of Saakashvili’s campaign, which he said was far too aggressive in style.

“I’m sick of these concerts,” he said. “Naked ladies brought in from Moscow aren’t going to help your case, are they? And when Sandra sang for us, did anyone ask us if we were in the mood for singing?”

Election day went off without serious hitches in Zugdidi, although voters are now divided along political lines about the outcome, as is the case in other parts of Georgia.

Saakashvili’s victory in Zugdidi was hardly unexpected, given the support he has enjoyed in the region in the past, but some locals are suspicious of the margin by which he won.

Preliminary results gave Saakashvili 69 per cent of the vote here, far better than the 52 per cent he got nationally. Election officials say Gachechiladze won just 11 per cent of the vote in Zugdidi, much worse than his 25 per cent average.

“It’s true Misha has done a lot for Samegrelo, and the opposition has never been strong here,” said Zugdidi resident Vitali Khubulava. “But we shouldn’t forget that Gachechiladze’s nomination was presented here by Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, whose father had broad support in Samegrelo in his day. I think that the Gamsakhurdia factor is a weighty one, and that Misha couldn’t have won with such a wide margin.”

Turnout was relatively low in the town, estimated at around 40 per cent compared with a national average that officials say was 56 per cent.

One resident, Nugzar Kvaraia, is certain the result was fixed. “For as long as I can remember, elections have always been rigged, and I guess this one is no exception.”

Teacher Nanuli Gvasalia disagreed, arguing that the town had changed immensely for the better since Saakashvili was elected in 2004.

“After all that he’s done, it’s disgraceful to suggest he had to rig the election in Zugdidi,” she said. “Everyone I know voted for Saakashvili.”

Zeinab Farulava has lived in Zugdidi since she was displaced by the war in Abkhazia more than a decade ago, and she remained unmoved by Saakashvili’s election pledge that he would resolve the territorial dispute and allow people like her to go home at last.

“There have been times when my children and I have been starving, but no one has ever come to lend us a helping hand,” she said. “Saakashvili only remembered about me and the other refugees when he needed our votes. None of the candidates appealed to me, and I did not go and vote.”

By contrast Guli, who is Farulava’s neighbour in the former factory that is now home to many refugees, does believe Saakashvili will keep his promise.

“Human beings subsist on hope,” she said. “Saakashvili has done a lot of what he promised to do. I hope that our common dream will come true during his next term and that we’ll return to our homes.”

Irakli Lagvilava is a correspondent for the Panorama newspaper, based in Zugdidi.

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