Georgia’s main opposition movement flooded the centre of the capital, Tbilisi, with tens of thousands of its supporters on Saturday, less than 48 hours ahead of vital elections in this small, yet strategically important South Caucasus state with NATO aspirations.
“The people have already declared their verdict and we will legitimize this on October 1,” tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the Georgian Dream coalition, told supporters waving flags bearing the blue and gold symbol of his opposition movement.
The authorities did not give an official figure for crowd numbers, while opposition media said there were over 100,000 people present. RIA Novosti journalists at the scene estimated some 50,000 people attended the rally.
The October 1 parliamentary elections see the ruling United National Movement (UNM), headed by President Mikheil Saakashvili – who came to power as a result of a 2003 revolt against a pro-Moscow regime – face its biggest ever challenge at the ballot box in the form of the newly emergent Georgian Dream.
The polls have taken on particular importance in the light of a law passed in 2010 that transfers the majority of the president’s executive powers to the prime minister in 2013, when Saakashvili’s second term ends. Whoever wins Monday’s polls will be able to appoint the prime minister.
Saakashvili, 44, addressed tens of thousands of supporters at a football stadium in Tbilisi on Friday afternoon, urging them to ensure that the country did not return to what he has called the “dark days” of the 1990s, when Georgia was plagued by rampant crime and power cuts. Instead, he called on Georgians to press forward with the country’s push for both NATO and EU membership.
“Europe has one request,” he said. “People, do not go back.”
Ivanishvili, 56, dropped a bombshell into Georgia’s political scene last October when he announced that he would use some of his vast fortune of $6.4 billion – equivalent to around half of the country’s GDP – to create a viable alternative to the UNM, which has been in power for the past eight years.
“Saakashvili’s system must be destroyed,” Ivanishvili told supporters at Freedom Square on Saturday. “The future of the country is being decided at these polls.”
Policing was almost non-existent at Saturday’s rally, which passed off peacefully. But fears of the kind of post-election disorder that has marred previous elections here have been stoked by increasingly sharp rhetoric from both sides.
Georgian Dream has accused the authorities of preparing a “massive falsification” of the election results, while UNM has said the opposition is looking to purchase votes and will attempt to trigger “mass destabilization” after the polls with the aim of seizing power.
“Our enemy is preparing for what will happen the day after tomorrow in Tbilisi,” Saakashvili said on Saturday.
U.S. and European officials have called for fair and peaceful elections, and over 400 poll observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are in the country to monitor the vote. Monitors warned last week that the build-up to the crucial polls were “confrontational and rough.”
“These elections are the first serious test of Georgia’s capacity to hold a democratic election process which can lead to a peaceful transition of power at the ballot box.,” Thomas De Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told RIA Novosti.
“Few expect opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili to win outright, but if the country can manage to absorb a two-party system without open confrontation it will be a big step forward,” he added.
A poll conducted in August by the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI) indicated 37 percent support for the UNM, and 12 percent for Georgian Dream. Twenty-one percent of respondents were unwilling to disclose who they would vote for, and a further 22 percent were undecided.
But the leak of vivid video clips showing male inmates in a Tbilisi prison being beaten and sexually assaulted with the ends of broomsticks saw large protests across Georgia and has the potential to spell election-day woe for UNM.
Saakashvili said the videos were part of a Russian campaign to destabilize the country and return it to Moscow’s sphere of influence.
And Saakashvili has also attempted to paint the once-reclusive billionaire Ivanishvili, who made his much of his money in Russia in the 1990s, as a Kremlin stooge seeking to “return Georgia to Russia’s imperial space.” Ivanishvili has called the allegations “laughable.” Like the UNM, Georgian Dream also states NATO and EU membership among its priority policies, although the coalition pledges to improve ties with Russia.
Georgia has had no diplomatic relations with Russia since 2008, when it fought and lost a five-day war with its vast neighbor over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. And while Russia has not backed either side at the polls, there is great personal antipathy between Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said of his Georgian counterpart in the aftermath of the South Ossetia war that he would like to “hang him by the balls.”
And European Union military monitors said last week that Russian troops had been building up at the administrative border with South Ossetia and that a Russian helicopter had briefly landed on Georgian-controlled territory. Russia said the copter had touched down in Georgia “by mistake.”
A major military exercise carried out by Russia in its North Caucasus region also unsettled nerves in Tbilisi, although Moscow says the drills were planned well before the announcement of the October 1 elections.