The messenger logo

Same dissident, different government

By Nino Mumladze
Monday, December 31

Profile: Irina Sarishvili

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


Full Name: Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia
Party: Citizens’ Political Movement Imedi [Hope]
Political Office: Former Vice-prime minister, former leader of parliamentary opposition faction
Date of Birth: December 24, 1963
Place of Birth: Tbilisi
Education: Tbilisi State University, Faculty of Western European Language and Literature
Spouse: Zviad Tavadze
Children: Three sons: Luka, 10, Irakli, 8, Saba, 6

The only woman on the ballot January 5 is also the only candidate publicly skeptical of her odds of winning. As much a dissident now as she was in Soviet Georgia, 45-year-old Irina Sarishvili sees incumbent presidential candidate Mikheil Saakashvili as her one true rival.

Sarishvili was the first to call on the other five opposition candidates to refrain from attacking each other, and instead concentrate their energies against Saakashvili and his government. As she joined the fray—the last of the seven candidates to do so—she expressed disappointment that the fractious opposition had failed to unite behind a single candidate.

In contrast to most of the other opposition candidates, Sarishvili is readily willing to accept the results of the election if she doesn’t win.

“I probably won’t become president now, but I think that whoever is elected will be in the post only temporarily. I’m not too concerned about losing,” Sarishvili said on “Prime Time,” aired by Rustavi 2 on December 24.

“But if a miracle happens and I become president,” she added, “I’m prepared for both winning and losing.”

If Sarishvili gets that miracle, she will have some campaign promises to keep—promises which again set her apart from the rest of the presidential contenders, who are largely homogenous in their foreign policy outlook.

Sarishvili, who was not invited to join the nine-party opposition coalition because of perceived Moscow sympathies and ties with an infamous ex-security minister, advocates a policy of neutrality for Georgia. That means no political alliance with Washington or other Western capitals, but rather a self-interested and moderate approach to relations with countries near and far—including Russia.

A long-time activist with tragedy behind her

A Tbilisi State University graduate, Sarishvili’s personal and political paths were set in the 1980s, when she joined the Georgian independence movement and met her husband-to-be, Georgian National Democratic Party (NDP) leader and liberation activist Giorgi Chanturia.

Together with her husband and other prominent figures in the independence movement, she weathered repeated arrests by the Soviet authorities, including a month-long spell in jail after the brutal dispersion of an anti-Soviet demonstration on April 9, 1989.

That tragic event, seared into Georgia’s contemporary consciousness, resulted in at least a dozen deaths and hundreds of injuries.

But jail brought one positive developments for Sarishvili: on May 4, 1989, Sarishvili and Chanturia wed inside prison walls.

Although Georgia obtained independence soon after, Sarishvili and the NDP quickly fell into the opposition’s camp once more. Now, it was one-time ally Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first president, who they fought to depose.

They eventually succeeded. The NDP were among the forces which overthrow Gamsakhurdia, eventually leading to the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze. Sarishvili briefly held the post of vice-prime minister in 1993. She resigned in protest as Shevardnadze brought Georgia into the CIS.

On December 3, 1994, four gunmen attacked Sarishvili and Chanturia in their car on the eve of an NDP party congress. Chanturia and his guard were killed. Sarishvili barely survived.

The assassination is still officially unsolved.

Taking over the helm of the NDP, Sarishvili called for the resignation of Shevardnadze’s entire cabinet, including then-state security minister Igor Giorgadze.

By 2003, Sarishvili had changed her stance. The NDP leader became a spokeswoman for a pro-Shevardnadze election bloc in that year’s parliamentary elections.

She did not question the fairness of the elections, later widely condemned as rigged, nor did she support the revolution which followed.

Fall to the political periphery

Sarishvili was in the opposition once again. With the NDP left out of parliament and falling apart, she formed an NGO to oppose Mikheil Saakashvili’s young government.

Later, to the surprise of many Georgians, she took over a charity foundation belonging to Igor Giorgadze. Giorgadze, wanted by Interpol and sheltered by Russia, is charged with an assassination attempt against Shevardnadze and speculated to be a likely suspect in Chanturia’s killing.

In September 2006, authorities detained 29 Giorgadze supporters on charges of plotting a violent coup; a court later sentenced 13 to prison sentences of up to eight-and-a-half years. Sarishvili, who insists there was no coup plot, has no answer for why she was not also arrested.

While she has since distanced herself from the wanted ex-minister—“because of Giorgadze’s political passiveness,” in her words—her Imedi party is widely perceived as associated with Moscow.

Advocates a neutral Georgia

For her part, Sarishvili laughs at allegations of pro-Moscow sympathies, saying she is a realist. She is the only candidate in outspoken protest of Georgia’s bid for NATO membership, and predicts that if Saakashvili is reelected, his “unbalanced” US-oriented foreign policy will lead to the ultimate loss of secessionist Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

It will take Russian cooperation, she says, to settle those conflicts.

She emphasizes that her call for neutrality means no political alliances, whether with NATO or the CIS.

“When I was a dissident to the Kremlin, I was referred to as America’s agent. Today, in the same Bolshevist-minded government, I’m considered a Russian agent, because I say that improving relations with Russia and other neighboring states is the best way to save Georgia,” she said on “Prime Time.”