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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia Sees Little Choice in Election




ZEMO PARTSKHMA, Georgia -- A kerosene lamp, jerry-built wood-burning stove and box of safety matches count as high tech in the home of 70-year-old Valiko Kikvadze.


That's if you don't count a broken 30-year-old black and white television set in the corner of his tiny wood-frame abode. Fixing it is useless as the electricity rarely works.


As the 21st century begins, much of Georgia seems a throwback to a bygone age. In rural regions like Kikvadze's Guria, a land of lush green hills and rolling tea plantations and the ancestral home of President Eduard Shevardnadze, electric light bulbs are a luxury associated with communist times, donkey carts have replaced cars and spades help do the work tractors once did.


Shevardnadze is running for five more years in office Sunday, but widespread poverty has taken its toll on his popularity. Some are not at all interested in the election, or simply believe the vote will be decided without them.


"What is the point in voting? Our leaders don't listen to us anyway. All my energy goes to just trying to find enough food to stay alive," said Kikvadze in his spartan home.


While the Soviet break-up badly affected the economies of all former republics, few suffered as much as Georgia, spoiled for decades by generous subsidies from Moscow.


In exchange for its exports of wines and citrus fruits, bound for the dinner tables of the same communist bosses who frequented its Black Sea beaches, Georgia was supplied with cheap energy, fuel and finished goods.


The same exports now face either intense competition on world markets or buy far less than they once did.


For example, in the 1980s, 1 kilogram of highly prized Georgian tangerines fetched 8 liters of subsidized petrol. Now, the same kilogram buys less than 1 liter.


Some former collective farmers have not fared badly since land redistribution began earlier this decade. Agricultural output is increasing.


But there is an entire class of Georgian rural dwellers who worked in small industries and state agencies which collapsed or no longer pay living wages.


Kikvadze, a wisp of a man with a lazy right eye, worked as a builder and later at a food processing plant. Now he relies on his small garden and a few chickens.


"I lived the good life. I traveled all over the Soviet Union. I was a person, but now I live like an animal," he says.


Kikvadze's minuscule 12 lari ($6) pension has not been paid for months.


With no opinion polls to go by, it is difficult to predict how Sunday's vote will go, though most analysts say they believe 72-year-old Shervardnadze has a good chance of getting the outright majority he needs to win in the first round.


His two main rivals, Dzhumber Patiashvili, like Shevardnadze a former head of the Georgian Soviet Communist Party, and Aslan Abashidze, leader of the autonomous Adzhara region on the Black Sea, are running as allies and hope to collect enough votes between them to force a runoff.


Yuser Labadze, a shop owner, said it made no sense to vote for Patiashvili or Abashidze, both former Communist functionaries.


"Shevardnadze should get five more years to prove what he can do. Then we can throw him out if we want. If there was a new, young candidate running, it might be different. But these guys opposing him are just old communists like he is."