(By Sergei Blagov, Jan. 7, 2008, CNSNews.com) Moscow – Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili claimed victory in his re-election bid this weekend, but with the opposition crying foul, Georgia’s long political crisis looks set to continue.
Saakashvili started celebrations late on Saturday, telling a crowd of loyalists that “according to the exit polls and all the data, we have won.”
Viewed by critics as authoritarian, Saakashvili, 40, took a gamble in claiming victory after dispersing peaceful opposition protests by force in November. At the time he accused Russian intelligence services of conspiring to overthrow the government.
As the vote count went ahead, electoral officials said he would take between 52 and 58 percent of the ballots.
Unconvinced, thousands of opposition supporters gathered in the capital, Tbilisi, on Sunday to denounce the poll. Opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze, who with other leading opposition hopefuls ran on a pro-Western platform, went further, declaring himself victorious.
During the campaign, Gachechiladze argued that Saakashvili’s “democratic one-man rule” discredited Georgia’s presidency as an institution. He pledged if elected to amend the country’s constitution and then resign as president, leaving the country as a parliamentary republic.
Last November, opponents of Saakashvili staged demonstrations to demand early parliamentary elections and the resignation of the president in this small (pop: 4.5 million) former Soviet republic, accusing him of corruption and despotic rule.
On November 7 the president ordered troops on to the streets of Tbilisi to disperse protesters, using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon. Nearly 600 people were injured.
He declared emergency rule, claiming there had been a coup attempt, then resigned as president and called the election.
Saakashvili said Russian intelligence services were behind the plot, and expelled three Russian diplomats. He also accused some opposition leaders, including presidential candidate and Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili, of trying to overthrow the government. The Georgian authorities have not backed up the accusations since.
Despite critics’ rejection of the election results, international election observers endorsed them before any complaints by the opposition could be reviewed. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Europe’s main election monitor, said on Sunday that the poll was “valid.”
The United States urged Georgians to respect the monitors’ assessment. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, Washington’s top envoy to the region, told journalists that if the experts found that the election was not rigged it would be undemocratic to claim otherwise.
However, Natelashvili, the Labor leader, claimed in televised remarks Sunday that instead of monitoring the vote Western observers spent the election day in Tbilisi restaurants, drinking with Saakashvili’s representatives.
Gachechiladze told his supporters on Sunday to stop rallying, celebrate the Orthodox Christmas on Monday, and then gather again on Tuesday to continue protesting.
In November 2003, Saakashvili himself relied on street protest tactics during the so-called Rose Revolution, protesting against alleged electoral fraud by then president Eduard Shevardnadze. Although some of Saakashvili’s supporters turned violent, four years ago Shevardnadze refrained from forceful crackdown on his opponents.
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1. a) What major body of water does Georgia border?
b) What major mountain range runs through Georgia?
c) Name the countries that share a border with Georgia.
d) Name the capital of Georgia.
2. a) On what platform did opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze run?
b) For what reason did Mr. Gachechiladze criticize President Saakashvili’s presidency?
c) What did he pledge to do if elected?
3. a) What accusations did Georgians opposing President Saakashvili make against him during demonstrations in November?
b) What demands did they make?
4. a) How did President Saakashvili react to the protesters? Be specific.
b) What did he do next?
c) What accusation did the president make against Russia and some opposition leaders?
5. What did the U.S. urge Georgians to do after international election observers including the OSCE declared the Georgian election valid?
6. Why does presidential candidate Shalva Natelashvili not trust the election monitors?
7. CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING: Without previous knowledge of Georgia’s politics and history, we do not learn enough from this article to determine which party is right or wrong. Mr. Natelashvili’s accusations are presently just hearsay. The OSCE (Europe’s main election monitor) is considered reputable and has determined the election results were valid. Unless Mr. Natelashvili could produce proof to backup his accusations we would have to assume the monitors are correct. Read more about Georgia and how President Saakashvili became president in the aftermath of the Rose Revolution here.
NOTE: VOA.gov lists the pronunciations of the two top presidential candidates as follows:
- Levan Gachechiladzes – leh-VAHN gah-cheh-chee-LAHD-zeh
- Mikhail Saakashvili – mee-kah-EEL sah-kahsh-VEE-lee
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