TBILISI, October 1 (Marc Bennetts, RIA Novosti) – Georgia votes in hotly-contested parliamentary polls on Monday amid heated rhetoric from the two main political forces and fears of post-election violence in this small South Caucasus country with EU and NATO aspirations.
“This is a historic day for Georgia - its destiny is being decided,” said President Mikheil Saakashvili after arriving at a polling station in the center of the capital, Tbilisi, with his wife and youngest son. “The country must go forward, and never go back.”
Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement (UNM) faces its biggest challenge at the ballot box since it came to power eight years ago: the newly-emergent Georgian Dream coalition, funded and headed by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Voting appeared brisk, at least in Tbilisi, from early morning onwards on Monday, with Georgians queuing outside polling stations throughout this mountain-ringed capital of just over one million.
But there was a palpable tension as the vote got underway.
Georgian Dream has said the authorities are preparing a “massive falsification” of the election results, while the UNM has said the opposition is seeking to purchase votes and will attempt to trigger “mass destabilization” after the polls with the aim of seizing power.
Opposition supporters, known commonly throughout Georgia as “dreamers,” plan to rally at central Tbilisi’s Freedom Square ahead of initial exit polls that are expected at 8pm (4pm GMT). Both state and opposition media have ordered exit polls.
“It’s not good that the dreamers are planning to gather in the center,” said Tamar Gabashvili, a 26-year-old housewife, as she arrived to cast her ballot a polling station in a leafy Tbilisi district. “It’s an explosive situation and no one knows what is going to happen.”
The elections 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. The law comes into force from 2013 when Saakashvili’s second term ends. Whoever wins Monday’s polls will be able to appoint the prime minister.
Saakashvili’s UNM enjoyed a healthy lead in opinion polls until last month, when opposition channels aired explicit footage of male inmates at a Tbilisi jail being sexually assaulted with broom handles. The videos triggered large protests across Georgia and widespread anger at Saakashvili and the UNM.
The torture tapes appear to have caused real damage to the ruling coalition’s hopes of reelection. 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.
U.S.-educated lawyer Saakashvili, 44, came to power after a 2003 revolt against the regime led by former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and he has attempted to portray Monday’s elections as a choice between continued “modernization” and a return to what he dubs the “dark days” of the 1990s, when the former Soviet republic lay within Moscow’s sphere of influence.
"Ivanishvili, 56, and his supporters accuse Saakashvili of running a dictatorship and say his policies have brought Georgia – a country of 4.5 million that is an important transit route for oil and gas to the West – to the brink of disaster, not least by leading it 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."
And while staunch U.S.-ally Georgia has earned plaudits from the World Bank for its far-reaching business reforms, the opposition says it has done nothing to alleviate poverty, and that the true number of unemployed is far above the official figure which hovers around 15 percent.
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.
Saakashvili has also painted his ultra-wealthy rival, who made much of his money in Russia in the 1990s, as a Kremlin stooge seeking to “return Georgia to Russia’s imperial space.”
Ivanishvili has dismissed these allegations as “laughable.” Like the UNM, Georgian Dream also states NATO and EU membership among its priority policies, although the coalition also pledges to improve relations with Russia.
NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Monday said the elections are a “litmus test” of Georgia’s democratic credentials.
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 (OSCE) are in the country. But monitors warned last week that the build-up to these 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, also urged honest elections, and carried out a pre-election blessing of Tbilisi last week.
“Our enemy is preparing for what will happen the day after tomorrow in Tbilisi,” Saakashvili told supporters on Saturday.
Ivanishvili told journalists, on the eve of the elections, that Georgian Dream would accept any result if international observers declare the vote fair.
“Entirely honest elections are not possible under Saakashvili,” Sozar Subari, a Georgian Dream candidate and the country’s human rights ombudsman until 2009, told RIA Novosti. “But effective vote rigging is impossible when we have such a large lead in the opinion polls.”
Tensions were stoked early on Monday by the discovery of the body of the 10-month-old niece of an opposition activist in eastern Georgia. The child’s parents claimed the family had been warned of repercussions if the child’s aunt, Georgian Dream activist Manana Berikashvili, did not pull out of the elections. A UNM spokesperson said it was “unacceptable” to attempt to make political capital from the tragedy. Police have opened an investigation.
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 the businessman showed little interest in being directly involved 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 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 five years to hold public office to become prime minister if his opposition coalition triumphs at Monday’s polls. He says he will leave office after “one or two years” if his bid for power is successful.
Ivanishvili refused to vote at Monday’s polls in protest at what he said was the authorities’ “distortion” of the constitution, and said the law on EU nationals had been approved especially for him to rescue Georgia’s international image.
But Ivanishvili indirectly hailed Saakashvili’s reforms.
“Today for the first time in Georgian history, the government will be changed through elections,” he told journalists.
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 in the aftermath of the South Ossetia conflict that he would like to “hang him [Saakashvili] 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 Tbilisi, although Moscow says the drills had been planned well before the announcement of the October 1 elections.