A wily Shevardnadze holds all the poll aces

Georgia's choice : Living standards are abysmal, the economy is a shambles but the leader's star continues to shine
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The Independent Online
As he sat behind his desk, in the full uniform of a Russian major-general, Panteleimon Giorgadze was in a remarkably combative mood for a man staring defeat in the face. He leant forward and began to tick off each point on his fingers.

"Our laws are not obeyed," he said, his voice filling the gloomy wood- panelled flea-pit that passes for his party headquarters. "We have no communications. We don't make anything. Even the bread we sell on the streets is from Turkey. How can anyone say Georgia is doing well?"

At 70, General Giorgadze, a former KGB officer, has embarked on one of the least promising campaigns of his career: he is one of five candidates challenging Eduard Shevardnadze for leadership of Georgia in tomorrow's presidential and parliamentary elections.

Although his United Communist Party of Georgia has 150,000 members, he knows he has little chance. Polls show Mr Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, is likely to be re-elected for a second term. So the general spends his time attacking the image of his rival, favoured by the West as a political miracle-worker.

"In Soviet times, I was paid a pension, enough to live on for a month. Now I get seven lari (pounds 3.30) a month ... I used to travel to Moscow and Kiev to see my relatives. Now it would take me 27 years to earn the air fare. Yet Shevardnadze says everything's wonderful. Why do people like him?"

He he has a point. The nearly three years that have elapsed since Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia's first post-Soviet leader, was expelled in the coup which ushered in Mr Shevardnadze have been turbulent and bloody. Georgia has lost control of Abkhazia to ethnic separatists; living standards are dismal; the economy is in a shambles. Yet Mr Shevardnadze's star continues to shine.

His popularity grew after he was nearly killed by a bomb in August. The government blamed his former head of security - General Giorgadze's son - for the attack, aided by reactionaries in the Russian security forces. Whether true or not, Mr Shevardnadze seized the opportunity to hurl 250 people in jail, including members of the Mkhedrioni (Horsemen), a militia which he initially used to secure power, but which quickly ran out of control.

Georgians frequently say they have little choice in their leader. Mr Shevardnadze's closest election rival is Jumber Patiashvili, head of the Georgian Communist Party in Soviet times. His demands for slower market reform and controlled privatisation have gone down well, and could force tomorrow's election to a run-off.

But he lacks Mr Shevardnadze's international stature. This week a delegation from the White House, the US State Department and the Pentagon swept into Tbilisi to support the Georgian leader. The US is keenly aware of the strategic importance of Georgia as a buffer against Russia's future expansion and as a route for the rich oil resources of Azerbaijan.

Mr Shevardnadze also has the simple advantage of power.Last winter there was so little electricity in Tbilisi that people burnt furniture. Now the power is on longer, although still never all day. In a more calculated move, Mr Shevardnadze has announced a big pay rise for government employees, a winning gambit in a country where many get less than $10 a month.

And although candidates have enjoyed equal time on state television, his craggy features dominate the news bulletins. For the most part, the campaign has appeared clean so far, although there have been a handful of disturbing incidents, suggesting the Georgian security forces have yet to be weaned off all their KGB-style habits. Attempts to hold rallies by supporters of Mr Gamsakhurdia (who committed suicide last year) have been stamped out by the police. The security services also have reportedly seized their literature, which called for an poll boycott.

For the poll to be valid, turn-out must exceed 50 per cent, or there will be a rerun. This may explain rumours of official threats that anyone who fails to vote will be jailed.

General Giorgadze, who will have seen plenty of skulduggery in his KGB years, is suitably outraged. He claims to have received death-threats and says that he is being followed around by thugs in cars.

"That's why I wear this uniform. I want them to know who it is, if they shoot me,'' General Giorgadze said. But this Mr Shevardnadze, he added, why does everyone in the West think he is so wonderful?