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January 7, 2008

Georgia Takes Its Turn With Electoral Unrest

The former Soviet republic of Georgia attempted to move past its old Russian-dominated politics and hold an free and fair election including the restive Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, recently abandoned by Russian troops. President Mikhail Saakashvili won re-election in the first round with a majority of votes, cementing the pro-Western direction Georgia has taken in the last few years. However, the results have stirred up tensions, with Saakashvili's main opponent crying fraud:

Georgia's pro-Western leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, yesterday snatched victory in the country's snap presidential election. But the opposition immediately rejected the result and demanded another round of voting.

Thousands took part in protests in the snow-covered capital, Tbilisi, claiming the election had been rigged.

The United States called for calm and respect for the verdict of election observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe who concluded that "democracy took a triumphant step" in the Caucasus.

No one claims that Levan Gachechiladze beat Saakashvili. He only took 27% of the vote, as opposed to almost 53% for Saakashvili. However, in the Georgian system as in others in Europe, the first round selects the two top votegetters for a second round, unless one candidate wins a majority in the first round. The Georgian opposition claims that Saakashvili didn't legitimately win his majority and that a second round should be ordered regardless of the stated results.

The Russians will be happy to foment this unrest. On the same ballot, the Saakashvili-backed referendum on NATO membership passed with 61% of the vote, outpolling even Saakashvili. Vladimir Putin has already made it clear that he sees NATO's flirtation with Georgia as a serious affront to Russian sensibilities, but that's harder to push if the Georgians themselves make such a clear demand for membership. Putin needs to discredit the vote, and they wouldn't mind seeing Saakashvili take a tumble along with it.

If so, then the protests won't exactly thrill Putin. The opposition hasn't called massive numbers into the streets -- just a few thousand people. It won't shut down Tbilisi, and it won't generate the kind of momentum that would force Saakashvili into calling another round of voting as a referendum on the first. The weak response seems to verify that Gachechiladze didn't win most districts as he claims, and that the election results were probably accurate.

Still, with Putin planning his transition of power from the presidency to the Prime Ministry in Russia, he will continue looking for ways to bring the Caucasus state back into the Russian orbit. Saakashvili will have his work cut out for him.

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