Georgia election: Scandal and intrigue split voters

Clashes in Georgia between supporters of the government and the opposition (26/9/12) Tension between government and opposition supporters is high

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The former Soviet state of Georgia will hold fiercely contested parliamentary elections on Monday. For the first time since coming to power in 2003, President Mikheil Saakashvili's fervently pro-Western government risks being ousted - by a billionaire tycoon, suspected of having close links to the Kremlin, who wants to re-establish relations with Russia.

Two elderly women selling fruit at one of Tbilisi's many outdoor markets shout loudly at each other, arguing about who should lead the country. A man carrying his shopping yells over his opinion as he walks past.

This is political debate, Georgian-style. Apathy is certainly not a problem in these elections. Both sides regard this vote as an all-or-nothing fight for power.

Most of the people standing behind the stalls here scrape by on a few dollars a day, selling fruit and vegetables. They see Georgia's richest man - the billionaire opposition leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, as their saviour - and the possibility of renewed trade links with Russia as an economic lifeline.

Start Quote

Ilia Makharadze

[Ivanishvili] is a good man - he will open borders with Russia”

End Quote Ilia Makharadze Market trader

"He's a good man," says Ilia Makharadze, a 47-year-old market trader. "He will open borders with Russia, and Georgians will be able to travel there again. We don't need America."

"No-one in my family has work," says 57-year-old Tamar Jandgashvili. "I buy a basket of plums. And then come here to this market to try and sell some. Is this a life?"

More than half of the country's population has no proper job. Older and poorer Georgians, in particular, are struggling in a neo-liberal economy seen as cut-throat and Americanised. Some say life was better as part of the Soviet Union.

Many of them will vote for Mr Ivanishvili, who has promised to use his own fortune to eradicate poverty.

Fear of the past

On the other side of town, President Saakashvili holds a glitzy Washington-style rally in a packed sports stadium.

With the coloured balloons, flashing lights and exuberant cheers, it is hard to imagine that just a decade ago Georgia was almost a failed state, still reeling from the civil wars of the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR.

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Badri Bakoev

Something really bad will happen if Ivanishvili wins”

End Quote Badri Bakoev Lawyer

His supporters shudder when they think of the time before President Saakashvili took control. He was tough on crime, made the streets safe and got the lights working again.

People at this rally are convinced things will unravel if the elections are won by the opposition coalition.

"We don't want to go back to a time when Georgia was ruled by criminal gangs," says Badri Bakoev, a 31-year-old lawyer. "Something really bad will happen if Ivanishvili wins. We don't want Russia to rule our country. We want to join Nato and continue democratically."

Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is the 153rd richest man in the world, made his $6.4bn (£4bn) fortune in 1990s Russia.

He denies having links to the Kremlin. And this year has sold most of his businesses in Russia to counter charges that President Vladimir Putin might influence him.

But his critics argue that if Mr Ivanishvili was not a Putin ally, he would never have been able to hang on to his business empire in Russia for so long - or sell it so quickly.

Some claim that the opposition's entire campaign is a Kremlin plot to undermine Georgian sovereignty. They say President Putin wants to stop Georgia - traditionally seen as belonging to Russia's sphere of influence - joining Nato and the EU by creating unrest during the elections.

'Test of fire'

In a speech to the UN on Tuesday, President Saakashvili accused Moscow of wanting "Georgia off the map". In an apparent reference to Mr Ivanishvili's fortune, he talked about "dirty money from the north" in Russia, destabilising Georgian democracy.

Until last week, President Saakashvili's ruling party was consistently ahead in most polls by about 20%.

Georgian student holds a national flag during a protest against torture in prisons in Tbilisi on 24 September Protests were sparked in Georgia after footage showing the torture and rape of inmates

But now a scandal is undermining that support.

Videos broadcast on national television last week show prison inmates being beaten and sexually abused by guards. It has been dubbed Georgia's Abu Ghraib, and has outraged voters.

Thousands have been taking to the streets to express their disgust. Public pressure has forced two ministers to resign.

The government's tough approach to crime was arguably what saved Georgia from a state of crime-ridden chaos. Until 2003 organised crime bosses, known as thieves-in-law, ruled supreme.

But it seems the crackdown has tipped over, at least in the prison service, into abuse of power. And undermined the government's credibility.

"It's a serious blow for the ruling party," says political analyst Alexander Rondeli. "It places a terrible shadow over all the reforms this government has done."

The main worry now is that polling day itself could spark violence. Activists from both sides are already reporting attacks. Opposition supporters say they are being arrested and imprisoned on spurious charges to stop them campaigning.

Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has called these elections a litmus test for Georgia's democracy.

But right now, it is looking more like a test of fire.

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