Georgian speaker breaks macho mold

With Margaret Thatcher as her role model, Nino Burjanadze climbs the political ladder.

In this mountain nation, where the blood feud is still an occasional way of dealing with disputes, machismo is what defines a man. In some quarters, it is still considered normal to abduct a bride. And most everywhere, a woman's place is in the kitchen.

So it comes as a shock to switch on the television and see a parliament presided over by Nino Burjanadze, a woman and the second most powerful politician in Georgia. As speaker, the international lawyer is the nearest thing the country has to a prime minister.

Some here say she may eventually be headed even higher up the political ladder, to the presidency of this ex-communist Caucasus state, which has become a US ally in the war on terror and aspires to join NATO and the European Union.

"Maybe this is the age of the Georgian woman, finally," says Ronald Grigor Suny, author of "The Making of the Georgian Nation" and a Caucasus specialist at the University of Michigan. "Now that male politicians have proven to be such a flop in post-Soviet Georgia, clearly people are looking for alternatives - some ray of hope in a sea of corruption and political floundering," he says. "This is a great part of Nino Burjanadze's appeal."

Ms. Burjanadze brooks no nonsense from the MPs. "Sit down," she commands, and they sit down. Well, most of them. It's no small feat in the Georgian parliament, one of the world's most fractious assemblies. Before she took over, fistfights were common, and deputies insisted on the right to carry arms.

"Parliament is a sort of theater, and she plays it well - [with] a combination of femininity and wit," says Aleka Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies and a former foreign-policy adviser to President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Burjanadze's lack of ministerial experience makes her vulnerable, however, to criticism that she lacks the qualifications to lead the country. Although she was chair of the parliamentary commission on foreign affairs and is now vice-chair of the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, she has no hefty track record in Georgian government or in launching important legislation.

Burjanadze has TV to thank for her meteoric rise in the opinion polls. Parliamentary sessions are screened live and have become compulsive viewing for a nation that thrives on drama.

According to the Georgian Opinion Research Center, GORBI, she is now one of the two most trusted politicians in the country. Almost 45 percent of Georgians say they trust her - way ahead of the 22.2 percent who trust Mr. Shevardnadze.

After 12 years struggling in independence, Georgians are weary of broken promises, corrupt officials, mafia bosses who get rich and don't pay taxes, crime, poverty, and other obstacles to the better life they expected after communism. Burjanadze speaks with steely resolve about solving such problems.

Her role model is Margaret Thatcher. "I think she was one of the greatest people of the 20th century," says Burjanadze, whose office is hung with portraits of the former British prime minister. "She knew what she wanted and what her country needed. And when she knew she was right, she always stayed true to her convictions. I want to be like that."

As November's parliamentary elections near, Burjanadze's political enemies are lining up. Leaders of the government bloc fear that if she can forge a coalition among the opposition parties - which would be an uphill battle - she could sweep them away and set herself up for the 2005 presidential contest.

Among ideas Burjanadze advocates is a constitutional change to correct the concentration of power in the presidency. She favors the formation of a powerful cabinet of ministers, which may in turn create a post of prime minister. Ivliane Khaindrava, an analyst with the Republican Research Center and former member of parliament, says "the idea could catch on. It's popular with nearly all MPs because at the moment there are too many leaders chasing too few top jobs."

Burjanadze also reveals a populist streak. She wants the return of Georgia's provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both quasi-independent after interethnic fighting with the Georgians. Her platform also includes paying the backlog of salaries and pensions, improving the investment climate, protecting business against corruption and unwarranted government interference, and updating the Army to NATO standards. But, with government coffers already strained, it's unclear how these initiatives would be financed.

As speculation about her political future continues, so does a whispering campaign about her family. Her father is an old-style Communist Party boss with close ties to Shevardnadze and, by Georgian standards, very rich. Her husband is deputy prosecutor general and the former chief military prosecutor in a country where the prosecutor's office is generally seen as riddled with corruption.

Burjanadze has made fighting corruption one of the keynotes of her campaign. "I know my popularity is making me a target for attack by my enemies, but I'm ready and I know what I'm doing is right," she says. "I know they will target my family, but they have no evidence."

Khaindrava says the muckraking has only just begun. "People are well-disposed to her for the moment, but she is going to face a torrent of abuse. Her big weaknesses are her family and her lack of a strong political base. She needs more experience and some seasoned politicians around her."

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