Marked woman hopes to unseat Shevardnadze

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The Independent Online
PHIL REEVES

Tbilisi

Were it not for amazing good fortune, Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia would not have lived to see her countrymen step out to the polls for an election that will almost certainly return Eduard Shevardnadze to the Georgian President's office.

Had the assassins had their way, she would have died with her husband, Giorgi, who was shot 11 months ago in one of several unsolved political murders.

But she survived the spray of machine-gun fire, although she still has a bullet lodged near her heart. Since then,at 32, she has become one of the country's three most popular politicians and head of the National Democratic Party (NDP), perhaps the best-organised party in Georgia.

Long lines of Georgians spent yesterday queuing in the tree-lined boulevards and cobbled streets outside the polling stations. But Mrs Sarishvili- Chanturia was to be found in her Tbilisi office, still wearing her widow's weeds. "Why was he slain?" she asked, then answered: "Because he was a real alternative in the presidential elections." The couple had been preparing for three years for Mr Chanturia, the NDP chairman, to run for the top job.

She blames Georgia's former head of security, Igor Giorgadze, whom the Georgian government has charged with trying to assassinate Mr Shevardnadze in August. The Georgian authorities say he is in Moscow, and suspect he is being protected by former KGB men.

But she also blames the President for surrounding himself with people like Mr Giorgadze. "Even if he is a democrat, it doesn't mean he can't make a mistake," she said. "Sometimes his image in the West is an obstacle for us. It's been very hard to prove he can be wrong."

That Mr Shevardnadze has kept strange company is beyond doubt. He was propelled to power in 1992 by two militias, the National Guard and the Mkhedrioni (Horsemen), which engineered the coup that ousted president Zviad Gamsakhurdia but quickly turned into a lawless mafia. His regime has since jailed many of their members and accuses one of their leaders, Mr Giorgadze, of attempted murder. Mr Gamsakhurdia suddenly died, supposedly by committing suicide.

Such murky politics would normally cause concern, but not in Georgia. Criticism of Mr Shevardnadze is rare, except from Gamsakhurdia supporters. Time and again, voters in Tbilisi described Mr Shevardnadze as the only choice, a pragmatist who knows how to turn the predatory instincts of Russia and the West to Georgia's interests. The streets are cleared of armed men, they said; sparse power supplies are improving. Who else is there?

The brutal nature of Georgian politics does not deter Mrs Sarishvili- Chanturia. She now has an escort of six bodyguards.

She believes that her party, which has ties to the Republicans in the United States, won 35 per cent of the vote in yesterday's poll, which included elections to the parliament. She plans to push her party's pro-Western, anti-mafia, anti-Russian agenda.

"Of course I'm afraid," she said, lighting yet another cigarette, "I'm not mad. But each of us will die some day".

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