Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 71

Eduard Shevardnadze is ensured of winning another five-year term of office in the presidential election held on April 9. But Shevardnadze and his team need a high voter turnout and a substantial margin of victory over the main challenger, Jumber Patiashvili, who banks on Soviet nostalgia and the protest vote. Only a clear-cut, first-round victory can provide the incumbent president and government with an incontrovertible mandate for the continuation of existing policies. Those policies focus on close relations with the West, resistance to Russian domination, implementation of painful economic reforms, and the search for a political compromise between Tbilisi and breakaway regions.

No fewer than fifteen presidential aspirants had lined up in February at the start of the presidential race (see the Monitor, February 24). Most of them represented radical fringe groups, and eleven dropped out during the course of the campaign. Ajaria’s Supreme Soviet Chairman Aslan Abashidze, who was the allied opposition’s standard bearer in the recent parliamentary elections and during part of the presidential campaign, abdicated that role just a day before the presidential balloting. Abashidze, a politician with openly pro-Russian views and a potential secessionist, finally conceded as did Moscow (see below) that Shevardnadze’s electoral lead had become impregnable. The Ajar leader consented to hold talks in his fief, Batumi, with Georgian Parliament Chairman Zurab Zhvania on April 6 and with Shevardnadze on April 7. A deal appears to have been worked out. Abashidze withdrew from the presidential race on April 8; gave up earlier threats to boycott the election. What is more, he declined to endorse his ally Patiashvili’s candidacy in the April 9 balloting. Shevardnadze and Zhvania, for their part, are said to have promised to support the demand for anchoring Ajaria’s autonomous status more firmly in Georgia’s constitution.

Abashidze’s decision pulls the rug out from under the “Batumi alliance,” a heterogeneous bloc of leftist and rightist, nationalist and pro-Russian groups, most of which are based in Tbilisi, and whose main common denominator is opposition to Shevardnadze. Formed last year under Abashidze’s chairmanship and with Moscow’s blessing, the Batumi alliance performed poorly in the parliamentary elections against the governing Union of Citizens of Georgia. The parties of the alliance went on to support both Abashidze’s and Patiashvili’s presidential candidacies. But Abashidze ultimately gave up nationwide ambitions, opting instead for the role of a regional leader, and hardly campaigned outside Ajaria before dropping out. He will almost certainly try to maximize his post-election reward from Tbilisi in terms of an enlarged autonomy for Ajaria.

Patiashvili, 60, an agronomist, was Shevardnadze’s successor as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Georgia during the final years of Soviet rule. Patiashvili retains a measure of personal popularity in parts of the country, particularly in rural areas. He was the distant runner-up in the 1995 presidential election, which Shevardnadze won with 72 percent of the vote to Patiashvili’s 19 percent. In this as in that campaign, Patiashvili courted left-wing parties, proposed to cure the economy through active state intervention, promised to reinstate some Soviet-era welfare benefits, imputed Georgia’s social hardships to Western-backed reforms, and blamed Shevardnadze for “damaging” relations with Russia, in which relations Patiashvili professes to see the panacea for Georgia’s economic and ethnic problems.

Breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, however, have shunned overtures from the Patiashvili campaign–and earlier from Abashidze’s as well. The leaders of both regions have made it clear that they prefer to have Shevardnadze reelected president because he is best placed to negotiate compromise settlements with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali and to deliver on those settlements. Neither region permitted voting on its territory, but both allowed residents to cross the demarcation lines and cast ballots in Tbilisi-controlled localities.

In Mingrelia, the cashiered Lieutenant-Colonel Akaki Eliava is holding out with a small armed group of supporters of the late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a native of that region. Eliava, who led the abortive October 1998 rebellion of the Senaki armored regiment, is now threatening via the mass media to take up arms again if the elections turn out to be falsified in that region. However, political support for the Zviadist cause in that region is almost certainly a thing of the past.

The date of balloting, April 9, is a date which has haunted Patiashvili–and, in quite different ways, Shevardnadze and other political leaders–for the last eleven years. On April 9, 1989, Soviet paratroopers using military shovels hacked to death twenty-one peaceful sit-in participants, mostly young women, in downtown Tbilisi. Those responsible for the atrocity were never called to account in Moscow; generals and politicians involved in it not only kept their posts, but rose to still higher ones in post-1991 Russia. The crime in Tbilisi turned Shevardnadze–as USSR foreign affairs minister at that time–irrevocably against the Soviet system, the demise of which he ultimately facilitated. In Georgia, a powerful backlash swept Patiashvili’s Communist Party from power, the national movement into the parliament and the ultranationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia into the presidency. April 9, 1989 unleashed those political dynamics that degenerated into the violent turmoil of the early and mid-1990s. The presidential election held yesterday should help Georgia complete the process of overcoming for good the legacy of that period (Prime-News, Iprinda, Kavkasia-Press, Tbilisi Radio, Georgia Television, Rustavi-2 TV, April 5-9).

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions