Georgian grape pickers show government's challenge
SAGAREJO, Georgia (AP) — The green grapes that Temuri Dolenjashvili and his wife snipped from the vines Sunday and emptied by the bucket into the back of their truck provide the only income for their extended family of five.
The harvest also gave a welcome day's work to an unemployed father and an elderly neighbor whose $75 monthly pension has to help feed her unemployed son, his wife and their sickly child.
Poverty and a lack of jobs are what worry Georgians most going into a tight parliamentary election on Monday that will decide the future of the pro-Western government of President Mikhail Saakashvili. For the grape pickers and others like them struggling to make ends meet on rich agricultural land and unable to sell their produce to Russia, the election offers some sense of hope.
Since coming to power nearly nine years ago, Saakashvili has transformed this former Soviet republic and put it on a path toward what Georgians hope will be eventual membership in the European Union and NATO.
The capital, Tbilisi, its streets once dark and dangerous, now shines. The stately historic facades along its main avenues have been restored to their former glory and the parks landscaped and lit.
Futuristic glass buildings have risen to house the Interior Ministry and Justice Ministry, their see-through walls intended to symbolize transparency. Among Saakashvili's greatest successes have been his creation of a modern police force and the eradication of everyday corruption.
His ambitious reforms and an inflow of Western investment have produced impressive economic growth and raised hopes among Georgians for a better life. Poverty and unemployment, however, have remained painfully high, especially in the countryside.
The official jobless rate is 16 percent, but this does not include those who sell vegetables they grow in their gardens by the side of the road or homemade wine in re-used plastic bottles.
Georgia has traditionally exported its vegetables, fruit, wine and mineral water to Russia, but this market has been closed since the two neighboring countries fought a brief war in 2008.
Just west of the Georgian capital, in the wine-producing region of Kakheti, the gleaming new buildings give way to small vineyards and fields of grazing sheep watched over by old men carrying wooden staffs. On rough gravel roads, horses pull carts piled high with stalks of dry corn.
Dolenjashvili and his wife had come from their home in the nearby town of Sagarejo to pick the last of the grapes in a vineyard that has been in his family for generations. This year they expected a total harvest of just under a ton, about half the amount of previous years because of two hail storms that had ripped up the vines.
They and the two others they had brought along to help with the harvest worked their way down the rows under a bright southern sun, cutting off bunches of grapes and dropping them into metal buckets.
All four said they planned to vote in Monday's election, but none would say whether they would support Saakashvili's party or an opposition coalition headed by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili.
"I will vote for the one who will make our lives better and resolve the problem of no jobs," said the 53-year-old Dolenjashvili, whose nose and cheeks were a deep red from the sun.
One of his helpers was 54-year-old Givi Khirdaladze, who said that while he could make some money in the summer in the vineyards, he was unable to find any work in the winter. He lives with his wife and their 10-year-old daughter in state-owned barracks, unable to afford a home of their own.
Nadia Chiaberashvili, 70, wiped tears from her eyes as she described how she lives with her unemployed son and his family in a house with earthen floors and no heat or running water. She shook her head when asked how she planned to vote.
"She's afraid to say anything, afraid they will take away what little she has," Dolenjashvili's wife, Eka Sarukhanashvili, explained. In addition to her monthly pension of $75, Chiaberashvili's family receives about $62 in welfare benefits.
Many in Georgia have been hesitant to state which party they support, with polls showing a large percentage of voters declaring themselves undecided. Some express fears of repercussions, primarily from Saakashvili's United National Movement, which has come to dominate all branches of government.
Facing the first credible challenge to his rule, Saakashvili is under pressure from the United States and the European Union to prove his commitment to democracy by holding a free and fair election.
This election has added significance because it ushers in a new political system that will give greater powers to the parliament and prime minister. After Saakashvili's second and last term ends next year, the party that has a majority in parliament will have the right to name the prime minister, who will acquire many of the powers now held by the president.
Both the governing party and the opposition coalition Georgian Dream have reached out to rural voters by promising to pump money into agriculture, a sector long starved of investment. Ivanishvili, the opposition leader, who made his fortune in Russia, also has said he would work to restore relations with Moscow with the aim of opening up Russian markets to Georgian produce and wine.
For those who depend on their vineyards, these promises hold out hope.
After a morning of picking grapes under a hot sun, Sarukhanashvili set out lunch for the four of them in the shade of a tree. On an overturned crate, she placed cheese she had made from milk from their cow, pickled peppers from their garden, half of a chicken that they had raised, bread baked in a stone oven and a plastic bottle of their wine.
Once everyone was seated, she raised her glass and made a toast.
"I wish that after the election that everything will be better, that everyone will live better in a united Georgia," she said. "I wish that markets will open for our wine and that we will have such good harvests that I will be able to pay for my son's education."
Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili contributed reporting.