Georgia votes in defiance of chaos

IN A BRAVE show of their infant democracy, Georgians went to the polls yesterday to elect a new parliament despite continued fighting in the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

As the polls opened shortly after dawn, Georgian forces were reported ready to launch a counter-attack on Abkhazians who had closed in on the capital of Sukhumi. Tbilisi itself, where violence had been expected, was quiet. By early afternoon about 44 per cent of the 3.6 million eligible voters had cast ballots.

The elections will decide 235 seats to be divided among 34 parties, and will confirm Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, as leader. In an eve-of-poll press conference, Mr Shevardnadze called the elections 'crucial to the well-being' of the country, which has been in political turmoil since the former elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was deposed in a bloody civil war last January.

Mr Shevardnadze has run the country without a popular mandate since March and is standing unopposed for parliamentary speaker, effectively the country's leader. He needs only one-third of the votes cast. However, he is concerned that the conflict in Abkhazia could escalate and lead to clashes with Russian forces. 'All of us are willing to die before giving up our land to anyone,' he said.

Mr Gamsakhurdia has significant support in western Georgia and Abkhazia. About 10 per cent of the polling stations, mostly in the west, were not opened yesterday for fear of violence.

The parties include an assortment under the title 'democrat'. Observers say the front-runners will probably be the so-called Peace Bloc, the 11 October Alliance and the National Democrats.

The vote is expected to take several days to count. In the meantime, Mr Shevardnadze is faced with the struggle in Abkhazia, and a meeting with Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leader. The two men are expected to try to smooth over relations between the two states. Mr Shevardnadze has complained of being deceived by Russian military intervention in Abkhazia, but he says he still trusts Mr Yeltsin. 'I would be happy if my intuition doesn't let me down,' Mr Shevardnadze said.

(Photograph omitted)

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