Shalva Natelashvili, founder and unchallenged, flamboyant and charismatic leader of the radical opposition Labor Party, is Georgia’s veteran oppositionary politician.
While the authorities try to portray Natelashvili as a leader of “unserious” political force, leaders from other opposition parties always show cooperative stance towards him. Some analysts say that the reason is Natelashvili’s stable support among voters, which although can hardly challenge the one of President Saakashvili and his party, but might be enough to clear 7% threshold to gain seats in the Parliament.
Born in Dusheti, northern mountainous district, Shalva Natelashvili, 48, graduated law faculty at the Tbilisi State University and continued post-graduated study in the Diplomatic Academy of Foreign Ministry of the Soviet Union. After working in the General Prosecutor’s Office he became MP in 1992 and remained in the Parliament till 1999. He was among group of MPs who participated in development of Georgia’s Constitution. In 1995 he founded Labor Party, which gradually turned into Eduard Shevardnadze’s major opposition force. Natelashvili claimed that Shevardnadze and “his proteges Saakashvili and Zhvania” barred his party to gain seats in the Parliament through rigging the vote in 1999.
Labor Party’s major success up to now is a victory in 2002 local elections, when Natelashvili’s party gained most of the seats in the Tbilisi City Council – Sakrebulo. But Natelashvili made a surprise move – he declared that he would not run for the Sakrebulo chairmanship himself and offered Mikheil Saakashvili, then leader of the opposition National Movement party (which was second in polls) to become Chairman of the Tbilisi Sakrebulo. This decision of the Labor Party leader triggered speculations that Natelashvili is a politician who refrains from lot of responsibility.
Garnering 12,5% in November, 2003 parliament elections was yet another success of the Labor Party, but as the these elections were declared as fraudulent and results annulled, the Party failed to gain seats in the Parliament. Currently the Labor Party has one representative in the Parliament – MP from Dusheti single-mandate constituency Temur Dolishvili.
The Labor Party condemned the Rose Revolution following the November, 2003 elections – a decision which became a major blow for the party against the background of popular support towards the Rose Revolution among voters. As a result dozens of party activists withdrew their membership from the party, protesting against Natelashvili’s anti-revolutionary stance and the party failed to clear 7% threshold in the March, 2004 repeat parliamentary elections. But in a course of 2005 Shalva Natelashvili, like other opposition leaders could regain certain level of support again.
Labor Party always lacked the pluralistic leadership and is not run collectively by a group of prominent individuals. The Party is depended on the popularity of the one person - Shalva Natelashvili, who was re-elected as the chairman of the Party on May 1, 2006. Natelashvili was the only candidate running for this position.
Natelashvili’s showy statements and speeches always capture Georgian media’s interest and almost all of his press conferences are covered by the leading television stations; but unlike other politicians he is a rare guest of live political talk-shows, as it is not an easy task for TV anchors to interrupt Natelashvili’s endless speeches.
Natelashvili’s major target of criticism is President Saakashvili, although he has also targeted some foreign officials as well, in particular U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza.
In July, 2005 Shalva Natelashvili unleashed criticism towards visiting Bryza, whom Natelashvili described as “Gray Cardinal.” Natelashvili called on the U.S. authorities to sack Bryza whose, as Natelashvili put it, biased reporting on situation in Georgia and support towards Saakashvili’s administration undermines promotion of democracy in the region and ties between the U.S. and Georgia.
Also in July, 2005 Natelashvili said that the incident involving the tossing of a hand-grenade during U.S. President Bush’s public speech in Tbilisi in May, 2005 was staged by the Georgian authorities. “This was carried out by the special services of Saakashvili as a face-saving step against the backdrop of [the government’s] crumbling image,” Natelashvili said.
In March, 2006, when Saakashvili was visiting Italy, he walked at one of the outdoor markets of Rome accompanied by TV journalists. Saakashvili stressed during this walk on the fact that cash registers were installed in outdoor markets in Rome. In March Tbilisi was gripped by protest rallies against cash registers on outdoor markets.
“Rather than having fun in Rome’s night clubs, Saakashvili would be better to take a walk in some other markets, for example outside the Coliseum… and he will see that entire [Georgian governmental] delegation will hardly survive in case he mentions [cash registers] there,” Natelashvili, who was one of the leaders of the cash register protest rallies, said.
When Georgian authorities signed an agreement with Turkey on a joint use of Batumi airport, Natelashvili accused Saakashvili of high treason.
“As an honorable descendant of Lenin, President Saakashvili has committed a terrible act of high treason and through an agreement handed over Batumi airport to Turkey, which means privatization of the country’s territory,” Natelashvili said in March.
In January Natelashvili announced 2006 as “a year of De-Saakashvilization” and added that Georgia should “get rid” of not only Saakashvili, but of his legacy as well.
Last November Natelashvili accused Saakashvili of “Georgian people’s genocide.” He also called on the international organizations to send an “investigative mission” to Georgia to probe misappropriation of USD one billion, donated by the international organizations to Georgia, by the Saakashvili’s administration.
Last September, Natelashvili alleged that the authorities were masterminding terrorist act against him.
Saakashvili himself has almost never responded to Natelashvili’s criticism and accusations. In one of his public speeches Saakashvili once referred to Natelashvili as Shaliko – a diminutive form of Shalva – hinting that he does not regard Natelashvili as a serious politician.
On the eve of repeat parliamentary elections in March, 2004 the Labor Party unveiled its platform. The platform with its strong socialist stance supports free health care, education and social services. The Labor Party advocates nationalization of the strategically important facilities.
The Labor Party claims it is ready to establish Europe-oriented, democratic, social welfare state. The party’s pre-election slogan was: “Labor Party – Last Chance to Save Georgia.”
The Labor Party’s election platform suggests creation of a two-chamber Parliament - the Council of Republic, consisting of MPs elected through the proportional party list system, and the Senate, composed of MPs elected in the single-mandate constituencies. Under the program, the MPs will enjoy no immunity.
The Labor Party supports restriction of the President’s powers and cutting term of President’s office to four years.
The main priority of the party’s economic program is nationalization of “illegally privatized facilities” and in particular of those, which are of “strategic importance.”
Along with the return of the privatized strategic facilities the Labor Party claims it is capable of assisting those depositors, who had accounts in the banks in Soviet period and consequently lost them after the break up of the Soviet Union.
The party also vows to carry out the policy to boost a baby-boom in the country and support the just-married couples. Labor Party proposed to set up the family’s survival fund, through which a new family will receive single allowance at GEL 1000, while each newborn will receive GEL 100 per month. The Labor Party also pledged to secure free education and free health care system.
The Labor Party advocates Georgia’s integration into European structures and the country’s accession into NATO. Shalva Natelashvili also says that Georgia should also have partnership relations with Russia. He says that Georgia’s foreign policy should be “many-sided.”
But recently the Georgian authorities started to dub the Labor Party and Shalva Natelashvili as “pro-Russian” political force.
The source of this allegation emerged last October, when Shalva Natelashvili visited Moscow and held talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Loshchinin. The Russian Foreign Ministry reported on October 20 that Loshchinin and Natelashvili “discussed the current relations between Russia and Georgia and the prospects for their development.”
The Labor Party leadership says that secessionist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be solved only through peaceful means.