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Labor offers familiar face, familiar promises to voters

By Eter Tsotniashvili
Thursday, December 20
Profile: Shalva Natelashvili

This is the second in the Messenger’s series of profiles of the seven presidential candidates.

Shalva Natelashvili, the 49-year-old Labor Party leader, lawyer, and one of the authors of the Georgian Constitution, has promised massive social handouts and free electricity and gas for three years if he is elected to the presidency in January.

Natelashvili has long been branded a populist by detractors who say he has made a number of outlandish proposals in his current campaign. However, he came close to not running at all after the government accused him of espionage last month.

On November 7, the day police forcefully dispersed an anti-government protest rally, Natelashvili was one of the first to take the government’s blame as they accused him of colluding with Russian intelligence agents in an alleged coup attempt. Rustavi 2 broadcast video and audio tape apparently showing the Labor leader, along with other opposition figures, meeting with Russian intelligence officers.

On November 9, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that Natelashvili would be arrested on charges of espionage and conspiracy to overthrow the government; the following day, however, it said he would be questioned only as a witness. Then-president Mikheil Saakashvili added that Natelashvili, who was in hiding at the time and rumoured to be out of the country, would be allowed “to run freely for president.”

Much like the Labor Party’s election platform in the run up to repeat parliamentary elections in 2004, Natelashvili’s current campaign focuses on the provision of free healthcare and education, and offering financial incentives to families in order to create a baby boom in Georgia.

The Labor Party was initially part of the United National Council, an opposition coalition formed after thousands rallied in front of parliament to protest the controversial arrest of ex-minister and would-be opposition leader Irakli Okruashvili on September 28.

Later, Labor decided to go its own way when Levan Gachechiladze emerged as the coalition’s joint presidential candidate for the snap elections on January 5.

However, Natelashvili has since made the same campaign pledge as Gachechiladze: if elected, to transform the country into a parliamentary republic before resigning. Reducing the powers of the presidency has been a long-term policy of the Labor Party, but this is the first time it has argued for reducing the office to a symbolic institution.

Labor founder

Natelashvili has led the Labor Party since he founded it in 1995, and it was his vocal criticism of Eduard Shevardnadze’s regime in the 1990s that made him a mainstay of Georgian politics—and the Labor Party an opposition force to be reckoned with. His long-time prominence, however, has not translated into concrete political gain today.

The pinnacle of the Labor Party’s success so far was its 2002 local election victory, when it secured a majority in the Tbilisi City Council. However, Natelashvili, for reasons that remain unclear, opted not to run for the council chairmanship, instead cutting a deal which placed fast-rising opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili in the post.

The party also had considerable success at the 2003 parliamentary elections, gaining 12.5 percent of the vote. The contested elections, however, quickly precipitated the Rose Revolution which swept Saakashvili to power, and the results were later annulled by the Georgian Supreme Court.

Natelashvili’s anti-Rose Revolution stance, which was widely unpopular and caused many card-carrying Labor members to defect, meant the party performed poorly at the 2004 repeat parliamentary elections, failing to gain any seats.

Vocal accusations of upcoming voter fraud

Natelashvili has loudly warned the government against vote-rigging, and the Labor Party organized an anti-election fraud rally on December 5, “to show that the Georgian people will not tolerate vote-rigging.”

Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) co-rapporteur Matyas Eorsi criticized opposition candidates for “questioning the credibility of these elections, and its outcome, before they take place,” on a fact-finding trip to Tbilisi on December 5–7.

Acting president Nino Burjanadze has also been outspoken on the issue, stating last week: “You [the opposition] say that the authorities are hampering your election campaign and you are getting ready for January 6.”

US critic

If elected, the Labor Party would continue pursuing Georgian integration into NATO and the EU, while trying to normalize relations with Russia and lifting the Moscow-imposed embargo, Natelashvili says.

However, he has long been a critic of US policies, and has accused Washington of supporting Saakashvili at the expense of democracy in Georgia. When billionaire philanthropist George Soros visited Tbilisi in March 2005, Natelashvili accused him of “effectively being the real president of Georgia.”

He has also accused Matthew Bryza, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, of bias, going so far as to call for his resignation in 2005.

Election promises

On November 29, Natelashvili officially presented his presidential program, “The Metekhi Obligation,” to supporters gathered in front of Metekhi Church in Tbilisi.

In keeping with other candidates’ emphasis on social issues, Natelashvili’s most sensational policy is to provide every married couple with GEL 2000 and GEL 1000 for every newborn baby. He also advocates a national health service and free medical treatment for children aged up to 14 years old and promises a rise in pensions.

He has also promised free gas and electricity to households for three years, in a system that he says would see businesses foot the bill in exchange for tax breaks.

Like the other candidates Natelashvili regards restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity and returning IDPs to their original homes as a key priority, although he has set no expected dates for this to happen, unlike Saakashvili, who claims a resolution for the separatist conflicts is merely months away.

The Labor leader takes a hardline stance on privatization, and promises voters the return of all state property assets which have been auctioned off.

Like other candidates, he promises to increase jobs in Georgia and also supports developing small and medium sized businesses.

Natelashvili draws much of his support, which polling suggests places him in the second tier of opposition candidates, from disaffected voter groups like pensioners and laid-off state employees. His high name-recognition and polarizing effect on Georgian voters, however, may leave little room for movement in the polls.