Georgia votes in parliamentary elections on Monday amid heated rhetoric from its two major political forces and fears of post-poll violence in this small, yet strategically important South Caucasus country with aspirations of EU and NATO membership.
The elections see the ruling United National Movement (UNM), led by President Mikheil Saakashvili – who came to power as a result of a 2003 revolt against a regime headed by former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze – face its biggest ever challenge at the ballot box in the form of the newly-emergent Georgian Dream coalition, funded and headed by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Saakashvili, 44, has attempted to portray the vote as a choice between what he says is the continued modernization of Georgia – a country of 4.5 million that is an important transit route for oil and gas to the West – and a return to the “dark days” of the 1990s, when the former Soviet republic lay within the sphere of Moscow's influence.
“Europe has one request,” he told supporters at a rally in Tbilisi on Friday afternoon. “People, do not go back.”
But Ivanishvili, 56, and his supporters accuse Saakashvili of running a dictatorship and say his policies have brought Georgia to the brink of disaster, not least by taking the country into a ruinous 2008 war with its vast neighbor, Russia. Critics also say that while Saakashvili has all but eradicated once rife low- and mid-level corruption, high-level graft remains widespread.
Tens of thousands of opposition supporters waving flags with the blue and gold symbol of Georgian Dream, named after a song by Ivanishvili’s rapper son, flooded the centre of Tbilisi on Saturday to hear the once-reclusive tycoon vow “the regime’s hours are numbered.”
“Misha doesn’t let anyone get rich, except the people close to him,” said opposition supporter Davit Baratashvili, 28, at Saturday’s rally, using the short form of Saakashvili’s first name.
But critics say Georgian Dream is little more than a rag-tag alliance of parties with very little in common and that Ivanishvili will be hard-pressed to suppress the more nationalist and xenophobic elements of his coalition should it come to power this month.
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.
An opinion poll conducted by the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI) in August 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 earlier this month 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 widespread anger at Saakashvili and the UNM.
Saakashvili said the videos were part of a Russian campaign to discredit his rule, but polls suggest the videos have hurt his party’s standing. A survey released last week by the German research institute Forsa indicated that 65 percent of voters were now preparing to back Georgian Dream at Monday’s polls, while only 25 percent supported Saakashvili’s UNM.
Georgian Dream has said the authorities are preparing a “massive falsification” of the election results, while the 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 told supporters on Saturday.
But Ivanishvili told journalists on the eve of the elections that Georgian Dream would accept any result if international observers declare the vote fair.
U.S. and European officials have called for transparent and peaceful elections, and over 400 poll observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are in the country. But 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.
“If the country can manage to absorb a two-party system without open confrontation it will be a big step forward,” he added.
The head of Georgia’s influential Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilya II, has also urged honest elections and carried out a pre-election blessing of Tbilisi last week.
From Penguins to Politics
Ivanishvili backed Saakashvili in the aftermath of Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, even funding, he says, the new president’s inauguration. And for years he showed little interest in direct involvement in politics, preferring instead to finance charity projects and breed penguins at his mansion in western Georgia.
But the enigmatic tycoon dropped a bombshell into Georgian politics 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 an alternative to the UNM, which has been in power for the past eight years.
The authorities responded by stripping him of his Georgian passport in 2011 after revelations that he is also a French citizen. Ivanishvili has said he will take advantage of a law allowing EU nationals who have lived in Georgia for more than 10 years to hold public office to become prime minister if his opposition coalition triumphs at Monday’s polls.
But Saakashvili has attempted to paint his ultra-wealthy rival, 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 relations with Russia.
Ties With Russia
Georgia has had no diplomatic relations with Russia since 2008, when it fought and lost a five-day war with its powerful neighbor over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. Russia subsequently recognized the sovereignty of South Ossetia and another breakaway republic, Abkhazia. But a mere handful of countries have so far followed suit.
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 conflict 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. Moscow said the helicopter had touched down in Georgia “by mistake.”
A major military exercise carried out last month 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.
But analysts say that the issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will continue to pose problems for Russia-Georgia relations whoever comes to power at Monday’s polls.
“This is an issue that is not going to go away,” said Alexei Malaschenko, an analyst at Moscow’s Carnegie Center think-tank. “Russia has recognized the two republics and is not going to change its decision. So, although the issue might become less pressing if Ivanishvili comes to power, it is not going anywhere in the foreseeable future.”