President Eduard Shevardnadze won not simply reelection to another five-year term of office, but the overwhelming political mandate he had sought in the April 9 presidential balloting, defeating his left-wing challenger, Jumber Patiashvili, by a margin of 80 percent to 17 percent. The remainder of the votes went to three marginal candidates. Voter turnout was 68 percent. This margin exceeds that of 1995, when Shevardnadze defeated the same challenger by 74 percent to 19 percent. In this as in that election, the outcome reflects popular approval for Shevardnadze’s pro-Western policies, and that approval in turn largely rests on expectations of Western-assisted economic development of Georgia.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), fielding an almost 200-strong election observation mission, concluded that “considerable progress is necessary for Georgia to fully meet its commitments as a participating state of the OSCE.” The mission reported that state authorities in general did not behave impartially, but strongly supported the incumbent president’s campaign; that the governing Union of Citizens of Georgia dominated the electoral commissions at all levels; and that a number of irregularities as well as some fraud cases were reported from some polling stations. Nevertheless, the OSCE/ODIHR mission noted that fundamental freedoms were generally respected, candidates were able to express their views, and voting was conducted in a generally calm atmosphere.
The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s (CEPA) Observation Mission similarly described the election as “a vivid testimony to the need for Georgia to make further resolute steps toward a functioning democracy.” The mission noted a virtual absence of campaign materials other than those posted by the ruling party, a heavy police presence at some polling stations, and some instances of massive ballot-box stuffing eyewitnessed by the mission. Yet the CEPA mission also noted the calm and orderly conduct of the electoral process and the organizational improvements made since the October 1999 parliamentary elections. Georgia is the only South Caucasus country to have attained Council of Europe membership, but it remains subject to scrutiny in the framework of CEPA’s regular monitoring procedure.
The monitoring mission of the European Institute of the Media (EIM) criticized the pro-presidential bias in state media coverage of the election campaign, with Channel One of state television as “the most biased of all the media.” EIM determined that the presidential campaign captured approximately two thirds of the total television and radio airtime officially allocated to the campaign, compared to only 17 percent for Patiashvili. By contrast, EIM noted the balanced coverage of the campaign by the printed press.
Yet with all these reservations, election observers did not question the election’s outcome. Patiashvili conceded defeat, but sharply questioned its margin. The “Batumi alliance” of opposition parties now appears on the verge of disintegration. Of its two standard-bearers, Patiashvili is now irredeemably a spent force, while Ajaria’s Supreme Soviet Chairman Aslan Abashidze declined to campaign at all outside his fief, abandoned national ambitions for a purely regional role and moved toward a deal with Shevardnadze on election eve. Abashidze’s price is not yet clear, however. It is even less clear whether his contraction to a regional role will increase his obduracy toward the central government and his resolve to maximize Ajaria’s autonomy.
The secessionist leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Vladislav Ardzinba and Lyudvig Chibirov, took the highly unusual step of sending congratulatory messages to Shevardnadze on his reelection. But the positive omen of the gesture itself seemed to be offset by the content of the messages, particularly Ardzinba’s. The Abkhaz leader addressed Shevardnadze as a head of state would address his coequal and spoke of regulating and developing relations among two “neighboring states.”
In the western province of Samegrelo, the renegade Lieutenant-Colonel Akaki Eliava, leader of a Zviadist group (supporters of the late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia), carried out both parts of his pre-election threat: pronouncing the returns in that province as fraudulent, and staging before television cameras a theatrical sortie by fifteen heavily armed Zviadists “marching off into the forest” to start an “uprising.” A handful of Eliava’s men are believed to be holding out in Samegrelo, where they have been since their October 1998 abortive rebellion, for which Eliava himself has been pardoned. Rhetorically at least, Eliava demands for Samegrelo a status of autonomy on a par with that of Ajaria. Meanwhile, Shevardnadze announced, in the wake of his reelection, that he would grant pardons to some of the approximately thirty Zviadist militants currently serving prison sentences on charges stemming from the 1992-1993 armed conflicts.
In the Armenian-populated province of Javakheti, local political forces appeared divided during the presidential election campaign. The Javakh Union, at the urge of Armenia’s President Robert Kocharian, endorsed Shevardnadze for reelection as the leader best placed to maintain stability and promote development in the province as well as in Georgia as a whole. The Virk party, by contrast, rejected Kocharian’s appeal, demanded autonomy for the region and staged a hostile demonstration in the region’s administrative center, Akhalkalaki, during Shevardnadze’s electoral visit there.
The endorsements of foreign leaders such as Kocharian, Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev–who similarly urged the Azeri minority to vote for Shevardnadze–as well as Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel and others proved to be significant campaign assets for the president. Russia was the sole neighboring country to withhold such an endorsement. Until the last day of the campaign, Moscow appeared to hope in a strong showing, if not a victory, by its stalking horses Abashidze and Patiashvili. It was not until the last day of the campaign, April 8–the day of Abashidze’s official withdrawal from the race–that Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned Shevardnadze and wished him success in the April 9 balloting (OSCE/ODIHR and CEPA press releases, April 10; Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Iprinda, Tbilisi Radio, Georgian Television, Rustavi-2TV, Noyan-Tapan, Itar-Tass, April 10-12; see the Monitor, January 14, February 24, April 3-4, 10).
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