Georgians voted yesterday in parliamentary elections seen as a test of the pro-Western government’s democratic credentials at a time of dangerously fraught tensions with neighboring Russia.
The election, which polls forecast will be won by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement, opened under sunny skies in the strategic former Soviet republic’s ancient capital Tbilisi.
But dark political clouds gathered over this mountainous country of just under 5 million people as the election stoked internal tensions and a row over Russia’s support for separatist rebels in two regions gathered momentum.
At a polling station next to Tbilisi’s Soviet-era parliament building, Anya, 56, said she had voted for Saakashvili’s party “because I believe that he is doing what’s best for our country.”
But opposition supporters have already denounced the vote as a fraud.
“I voted for the opposition, but it doesn’t matter because they are going to throw out my vote anyway,” Vano Zurabishvili, 34, said after casting his ballot. “We have no democracy in this country.”
Diplomats and analysts have warned that the vote will have to be conducted fairly if Georgia is to get Western support in a row over two separatist regions backed by Russia: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
On the eve of the vote, Saakashvili made an appeal for national unity, saying Russia would take advantage of any unrest.
“We have to realize how important tomorrow’s elections are. Our enemy wants tomorrow’s elections to turn into turmoil and internal confrontation,” he said in a televised address.
Tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi soared ahead of the election, with Saakashvili saying earlier this month that the two countries had come close to war and Russia sending extra troops to Abkhazia.
Last week a senior Georgian minister said that war in Abkhazia had only been avoided thanks to a phone call by France’s foreign minister to his Russian counterpart.
Georgia’s opposition has already called its supporters to take to the streets yesterday night. Opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze said he would call on supporters to force their way into the electoral commission office if authorities “do not release the real results of the vote.”
“The people have every right to protect their votes,” he said.
The main Western election monitoring body, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has sent 550 observers to monitor the polling and is to deliver a verdict today.
A country of soaring mountain peaks, wine and ancient churches, Georgia has suffered through civil wars, the breakaway of two regions and sustained political turmoil since gaining independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Saakashvili has won praise for economic reforms since coming to power in 2004 after the peaceful Rose Revolution and supporters describe his government as a beacon of democracy in the often corrupt and authoritarian former Soviet Union.
But his goal of joining NATO has set him sharply at odds with Russia, which sees enlargement of the alliance as encroachment on its sphere of influence.