Georgian president earns Jewish vote


MOSCOW, April 11 (JTA) — Jews in the former Soviet republic of Georgia gave their overwhelming support to the re-election of President Eduard Shevardnadze, according to communal leaders.

The community, numbering about 15,000, wanted to reward Shevardnadze for his long support, the leaders said.

Sunday’s vote came amid charges by the president’s rival of ballot- stuffing and other abuses. But given the size of his victory, Shevardnadze, 72, claimed victory Tuesday, saying he did not need vote-rigging to win.

According to the now-disputed results, the former Soviet foreign minister took 79 percent of the vote. His nearest rival, Dzhumber Patiashvili, a former head of the Georgian Communist Party, had 17 percent.

Dzhamal Adzhiashvili, one of the two Jewish members of the Georgian Parliament, told JTA he believes that nearly all the Jewish community supported Shevardnadze “because he has always been extremely loyal and friendly to Jews.”

In addition, he said, “Shevardnadze, with his proclaimed liberal democratic and pro-Western policies, looks more ‘civilized’ to our people here than Patiashvili, who is tainted with a Communist affiliation.”

Ariel Levin, the chief rabbi of Georgia, said the vast majority of Georgian Jews supported Shevardnadze “because his rule has brought stability” and because, as far as the Jewish vote was concerned, “there was no alternative.”

Shevardnadze is not the first Georgian ruler to adopt a friendly attitude toward the nation’s Jews.

Throughout the Caucasus region, and in Georgia in particular, anti- Semitism had far less of a historical presence than in Europe.

During their 2,600-year presence in Georgia, Jews have been allowed to own land and prosper. They spoke Georgian and their surnames had the characteristic Georgian ending — shvili, meaning “son” — but they always maintained their own religious identity.

The community’s numbers shrank drastically after the mass immigration to Israel during the great aliyah of the last decade, when many Jews also left Russia.

Despite the community’s smaller size, local leaders say, Jewish life in Georgia continues unhindered. The synagogues will be full for next week’s Passover celebration, said Levin, who plans to have 50 guests at his home for the seder.

But the community, like the rest of the country, faces an economy that verges on total collapse.

Indeed, when elections were held Sunday, residents in the capital of Tbilisi were happy because electricity had been supplied for a whole day and not for the usual four hours.

Subsidized by Moscow during the Soviet era, Georgia has fallen into poverty since the fall of the Soviet Union, prompting many older people to long for the “good old days” of Communist rule.

Shevardnadze has vowed to move his county closer to the West as part of his plan to rescue the economy.

Beyond its financial woes — and to a large extent because of them — the nation also faces the possibility of political upheaval.

Patiashvili, who came in a distant second in Sunday’s vote, has refused to recognize Shevardnadze’s re-election.

Political stability is further threatened by the thousands of Chechen fighters who have infiltrated into Georgia, prompting accusations from Russia that Georgia is giving them safe haven.

Military observers warn that the presence of the Chechens on Georgian soil could lead to a further destabilizing of an already-volatile political situation — and perhaps prompt another civil war.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, two Georgian provinces — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — fought for independence in fierce clashes with Georgian soldiers.

Jews in those provinces were caught in the crossfire and were evacuated to Israel in 1992-1993 by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The renewal of civil war could put the remaining Jewish community in an equally dire situation.

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