Georgian leader concedes defeat

Reuters, TBILISI

Wed, Oct 03, 2012 - Page 7

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili yesterday conceded that his ruling party had lost an election to a coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, increasing the chances of the first peaceful transfer of power in the former Soviet republic since its independence.

Ivanishvili said he was confident of becoming prime minister as partial results put his six-party Georgian Dream on course to win Monday’s parliamentary election.

Ivanishvili’s supporters streamed through Tbilisi’s streets after polls closed on Monday, waving flags and sounding car horns in celebration even though Saakashvili’s United National Movement had initially claimed victory.

“According to preliminary results, it is clear that Georgian Dream obtained a majority in this election,” Saakashvili, 44, said in a televised address. “This means that the parliamentary majority should set up a new government, and as president, in accordance with the constitution, I will do everything to make their work comfortable, so that the parliament can choose a chairman of the parliament as well as set up a new government.”

Any instability in the nation of 4.5 million would worry the West because it is a conduit for Caspian Sea energy supplies to Europe and has a strategic location on the Black Sea between former Soviet master Russia and Iran, Turkey and central Asia.

Reforms that are to take effect after a presidential election due to be held next year will weaken the head of state while handing more power to parliament and the prime minister, who is to be the most powerful executive official.

Saakashvili will remain president until his term expires next year but governing the country could be much more difficult as he will no longer have a compliant parliament and the prime minister is likely to be his 56-year-old rival, Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili, a former recluse who made his estimated US$6.4 billion fortune mainly by doing business in Russia, said Georgian Dream could win 100 seats in parliament.

The US-educated Saakashvili won praise for curbing corruption and implementing economic reforms, but led Georgia into a disastrous five-day war with Russia over two breakaway regions in 2008. Opponents say he has monopolized power and trampled on rights.

Saakashvili says the Georgian Dream coalition would move Georgia away from the West and back into Moscow’s orbit, and has suggested Ivanishvili is doing the bidding of the Kremlin.

Ivanishvili denies this and accuses Saakashvili of raising the specter of Russia to avoid internal problems. Ivanishvili has little political experience, but said a balanced budget would be his top priority.