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POLITICS : Stability May Sway Georgians : Presidential candidate Shevardnadze is credited for new sense of public safety. But country still faces serious problems ahead of election.

November 04, 1995|SELINA WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TBILISI, Georgia — It is early in the evening for the lovers, friends and families strolling down Rustaveli Prospekt. Couples peer into the cheerful cafes. Others pass the time chatting with friends. Some are merely making their way home.

Only a few months ago, streets were deserted in the evening. Georgia was without enough electricity to power street lights, and armed gangs roamed the city, preying on anyone out after dark.

Chairman of the Supreme Council Eduard A. Shevardnadze, 67, who is running for president in elections Sunday, may not have solved all of the country's economic and political problems, but few deny the sense of stability that has begun to emerge in this former Soviet republic in the roiling Caucasus Mountains region.

"The country has come a long way in the past few months," said Daniel Kunin, an analyst with the National Democratic Institute. "They have got a new constitution and a good election law. They are starting to make a transition, albeit sometimes painful and sometimes slow, to a more democratic country."

Voters seem to attribute the changes to Shevardnadze, the lifelong politician who, as former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's foreign minister, has been the embodiment of reform and democratization to the outside world.

"Before, it was far too dangerous for me to be outside walking around at this time. Now I can have a normal social life," said Maya Alpadze, 30, who vowed to vote for Shevardnadze.

Although Western and Georgian analysts predict an easy victory for Shevardnadze over his five opponents, they are less confident that 235 parliamentary seats also to be decided Sunday will give him the legislative support he needs.

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"Shevardnadze will have a lot of power with the new constitution, but not as much as he and his supporters would like to have," said Ghia Nodia, head of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, a regional think tank. "There will probably be about four to five parties in Parliament, so he'll need to make deals with them."

Even as Georgians' sense of security has increased, living conditions have worsened over the three years Shevardnadze has ruled his native country, coming to power after Georgia's first elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was ousted in a coup. Georgia's 5 million citizens now lack hot water for bathing and natural gas to fire their stoves.

Since gaining independence in 1991, the country has endured three civil wars, hyperinflation and the influx of 200,000 refugees from the secessionist province of Abkhazia, steadily feeding popular discontent.

Nodia predicted that Dzhumber Patiashvili, who succeeded Shevardnadze as Georgia's Communist Party leader in the late 1980s, could capture as much as 35% of the vote out of "protest and nostalgia."

But peace talks have resumed in the unsettled Abkhazia conflict, and the newly introduced currency, the lari, has been holding its own against the U.S. dollar. Stability, however, is a relative term in Georgia. Only two months ago, Shevardnadze was slightly injured when a remote-detonated bomb exploded as his motorcade was heading for a signing ceremony for Georgia's new constitution.

Shevardnadze deemed the attack "the last act of terrorism in Georgia" by political opponents.

"They want to turn Georgia into a country where the mafia rules," he warned. "But I won't allow it as long as I'm alive."

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