When ex-Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili was dismissed from office in late 2005, expectations ran high that the French-born career diplomat would give the country's opposition the star power needed to mount a serious political challenge to the governing National Movement Party. Upcoming local elections will be the first real test of Zourabichvili's political muscle.
In the October 5 vote, Zourabichvili, head of the newly formed Georgia's Way party, will be running for election to Tbilisi's City Council, or Sakrebulo, from the three-seat district of Nadzaladevi, where she will go up against Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili, among others. If she secures a seat, the 54-year-old politician is expected to run for mayor, a position elected from within the City Council -- one that incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili used as a springboard to power.
But a September 21 campaign swing through the western region of Samegrelo, several hours by car from Tbilisi, suggested that Zourabichvili's sights are more focused on the 2008 parliamentary elections than the capital city's elections.
In villages throughout Samegrelo, Zourabichvili listened to a litany of problems ranging from water supply and sewage treatment, to unemployment and a drop in the price of hazelnuts, the primary source of income for much of the region. At an impromptu meeting with Georgian displaced persons from the neighboring breakaway region of Abkhazia, she stated that she would press for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but dodged specifics. "I can't make you any promises," she told the refugees. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Rather, throughout the campaign tour, she offered residents what she termed moral support for democratic self-governance. Voters should organize and take decisions to improve their own lives, she said.
"We didn't bring any gifts. If we made promises we couldn't keep, we would be just like all the others," she said in a September 21 interview with Atinati, a radio station in Zugdidi. The concept is largely about tactics: "Otherwise, the parliamentary elections will turn out bad," she elaborated to Georgia's Way volunteers in Zugdidi.
Reactions among Zugdidi voters were generally cordial, but skeptical. "She's a sympathetic woman, but is not connected to us," one man said, while another nodded his head and said, "If she gets elected, she'll never come to Zugdidi."
Some Zourabichvili supporters maintain their candidate's message is just ahead of its time. "It's difficult to convince people without gifts," commented David Patsatsia, a Georgia's Way volunteer in Zugdidi. "There is a strong post-Soviet mentality here. Nobody knows what democracy is."
The sudden dismissal of Zourabichvili, Georgia's foreign minister from March 2004 to October 2005 and a former French ambassador to Georgia, prompted one of the largest rallies since the Rose Revolution, when a few thousand individuals gathered at Tbilisi's Hippodrome to support her pledge to fight political special interests and government corruption. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The fact that the ex-minister had also negotiated the withdrawal of Russian bases from Georgia ranked as a strong plus for many. But in the roughly six months since she organized Georgia's Way, a political party loosely sympathetic to the country's opposition, expectations have not been met, some observers say. The ex-foreign minister has yet to demonstrate the political skills necessary to be a serious contender in Georgian politics, noted Gia Nodia, director of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development. "It became obvious she couldn't create a party behind her," Nodia said of Zourabichvili's leadership of Georgia's Way. "We don't even know who the number two is in her party. It's just her."
Despite repeated attempts, Zourabichvili did not respond to requests for an interview by EurasiaNet.
In mid-September, several regional activists left Georgia's Way, disgruntled with Zourabichvili's alleged "unilateral style of management," local media outlets reported. In comments to Georgian Public Television, Zourabichvili brushed off the resignations as "an expression of the high level of freedom in the party."
Several opposition leaders had hoped Zourabichvili might have led a coordinated challenge to Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, President Saakashvili's former chief of staff, but the novice politician preferred to go it alone. Analyst Nodia contends that the decision could prove her political undoing.
Zourabichvili, however, has consistently preferred to cut her own course, usually refusing to take part in opposition boycotts, even while decrying the National Movement Party's domination of domestic politics.
"I see the return of one-party rule in Georgia," she declared during a September 18 broadcast of Rustavi-2 television's Kurieri (Courrier) news program.
In Zugdidi, however, Zourabichvili refrained from criticizing the National Movement, only commenting that the country's leaders have reverted to the governing style of ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze. The skepticism of pundits and her party's inexperience did not appear to faze her. "Remember, we started from zero," she told a handful of Georgia's Way volunteers in a small, stuffy room in a central Zugdidi building. "Any result we get will be good."
Paul Rimple is a freelance writer based in Tbilisi.