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Georgian President's Bloc Appears Headed for Landslide

Even Mikheil Saakashvili expresses reservations about the parties' overwhelming showing in the parliamentary elections.

March 29, 2004|David Holley and Salome Meunargia | Special to The Times

TBILISI, Georgia — Voters in Georgia appeared to hand a landslide victory in parliamentary elections Sunday to parties allied with recently inaugurated President Mikheil Saakashvili, emboldening the new leader to rein in a key breakaway region.

The results also set the stage for accelerated economic reforms in this former Soviet state, which has two regions that have exercised de facto independence since the early 1990s and a third run by a regional strongman.

An exit poll for a Georgian television station showed the National Movement-Democrats bloc led by Saakashvili taking 79% of the vote with no opposition party clearing a 7% barrier to win seats. Another exit poll cited by the Russian news agency Interfax showed the ruling bloc winning 55% and the Rightist-Industrialist bloc securing 11% to be the only other group to win seats.

"My main goal is to unify Georgia, and that is what the people voted for above all," Saakashvili said at a Sunday evening news conference. His comments appeared to target Aslan Abashidze, a former Communist official who runs the autonomous Black Sea region of Adzharia as his fiefdom.

For several days this month, Saakashvili imposed an economic blockade on Adzharia to force Abashidze to allow the parliamentary election and to grant other concessions. The strongman is descended from a family that ruled the region when it was under Turkish control.

"We are not in the 16th century," Saakashvili said. "Georgia will enter the 21st century under our leadership, and I will not tolerate the existence of feudal nests in any of the regions of Georgia. My main objective is to set free Adzharia and the Adzharian population from feudal control, in order to solve greater problems in the future."

It appears likely that the election will weaken Abashidze by giving the central government in Tbilisi greater leverage to exert its authority, particularly over lucrative customs revenue from the Batumi port and a key border crossing with Turkey. For years Abashidze has kept that revenue in Adzharia.

Saakashvili -- a U.S.-educated lawyer who led the protests that forced President Eduard A. Shevardnadze to resign in November -- also warned that he would crack down on crime in Adzharia, and declared that he would not allow Abashidze to maintain his own militia.

At stake in Sunday's election were 150 seats in the 235-seat parliament. November balloting for those seats -- allocated in proportion to the support parties received -- was nullified amid charges of massive fraud.

Some observers warned that the overwhelming control won by the ruling bloc Sunday could hurt Georgia. "Unfortunately, I think this parliament may become a unified majority parliament, which is not good for democracy," said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, a Tbilisi think tank.

Even Saakashvili expressed reservations about his bloc's overwhelming control.

"I want to tell you that I'm not at all satisfied with such low results of the opposition," he said.

Rondeli said he expected Saakashvili to be able to curb Abashidze's power, saying that the autonomous region's leader heads a "feudal criminal clan."

Abashidze "controls a lot of money that goes in their pockets instead of the government's," Rondeli said.

By pressuring Abashidze into allowing at least a moderately open election in his region, Saakashvili won "a huge victory," said Zeyno Baran, director of international security and energy programs at the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank.

"At this point it seems Abashidze's scared but he's also pragmatic," said Baran, a specialist in Georgian affairs. "Today he didn't do anything crazy or unpredictable."

That indicates he might be willing to dismantle his militia, she said.

At his news conference, Saakashvili said that success in dealing with Adzharia would help to further reunify the country, and that his next priority would be to peacefully draw the breakaway region of Abkhazia back into a relationship with other parts of Georgia.

Saakashvili's hope is that "through increased economic strength of the country and political stability, those regions will be more attracted to join the rest of Georgia," Baran said.

If Saakashvili secures control of customs revenue from Adzharia, cracks down on organized crime and continues a dialogue with Russia about why a stable Georgia is good for its giant neighbor, then a year from now there might also be progress toward bringing Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- the other de facto independent region -- into closer relations with Tbilisi, she said.

Baran also expressed concern about the new ruling authorities' overwhelming political strength. But the new top leaders "come from a pro-democracy opposition," she said, and Georgians are accustomed to a free press and active nongovernmental organizations.

"Even if the government were to try to abuse its strong leverage and strong hold on power, they will not be allowed to do that," she said.

*

Times staff writer Holley reported from Moscow and special correspondent Meunargia from Tbilisi.

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