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Crucial Parliamentary Elections Near In Georgia


On Monday, the Republic of Georgia holds a crucial parliamentary election. It will decide whether the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili will keep its hold on power. It's been nine years since the pro-democracy movement known as the Rose Revolution. Saakashvili was once a favorite of U.S. lawmakers, who saw him as one of a new breed of reformers in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Since then, though, his government has been accused of repressive tactics and corruption.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports the opposition is led by a billionaire businessman who's also a political newcomer.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The opposition coalition is called Georgian Dream, a disparate collection of groups ranging from pro-Western reformers to hard-line nationalists. It's held together by a 56-year-old billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has built a campaign machine advised by American political consulting firms.

BIDZINA IVANISHVILI: (Foreign language spoken)

CROWD: (Foreign language spoken)

IVANISHVILI: (Foreign language spoken)

CROWD: (Foreign language spoken)

IVANISHVILI: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: At this recent rally in the east Georgian town of Telavi, a crowd of thousands fills a main square and stretches far down the street. Ivanishvili addresses the throng from a stage decked in the blue and white colors of his coalition.

IVANISHVILI: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He rails against what he calls this false and violent government.


FLINTOFF: The speeches end with a rap song performed by Ivanishvili's son, Bera.

The government, as it's characterized by Ivanishvili, is a far cry from what Americans thought they saw emerging from the Rose Revolution of 2003. Then, the young politicians led by Mikheil Saakashvili were welcomed by the West as reformers who wanted to bring Georgia into NATO and the European Union. Opponents paint a much darker picture of the government.

David Tarkhan-Mouravi is a sociologist who heads a group that calls itself the Resistance Movement.

DAVID TARKHAM-MOURAVI: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He says that Georgia today is a country where visitors might see a lot of new buildings and the appearance of prosperity, but it's an illusion built on repression and extortion. Tarkhan-Mouravi says that for one of the world's smaller countries, Georgia has one of the highest per capita rates of incarceration. He says that many of those prisoners are in jail on trumped-up charges, as part of extortion schemes that allow government officials to seize their property.

The prison issue erupted into street protests last week when TV channels, affiliated with Ivanishvili, broadcast video showing prison guards beating and sexually abusing prison inmates. Some see the scandal as a tipping point that could turn a predicted ruling party victory into a loss.

Part of the ruling party's campaign strategy has been to focus on Ivanishvili's fortune, estimated at more than $6.8 billion, and the fact that he earned much of it in Russia.

This is Shota Utiashvili, the spokesman for the prime minister's office.

SHOTA UTIASHVILI: We have a guy who's against the government, whose personal wealth equals half the country's GDP, and that's something, I think, unprecedented.

FLINTOFF: The ruling party suggests that Ivanishvili is out to buy his way into power, with the notion that he can run the country like one of his businesses. Recent polling shows that Georgians' three main priorities are jobs, healthcare, and the return of separatist regions that were lost after Georgia's disastrous war with Russia in 2008. Both sides have promised to address those issues, but both are vague on details.

Given the latest round of scandal and accusations, it seems more likely that the last days of Georgia's election campaign will be focused more on personalities than issues.

Thomas de Waal, an expert on the region at the Carnegie Endowment, says the best thing the United States and other friends of Georgia can do right now is to urge that the vote itself be carried out fairly and with due process.

THOMAS DE WAAL: The hope is that some kind of more or less fair result will come out in which everyone feels that they've got some representation in the new Georgia. It will be very messy, but ultimately these people have got to live together. It's a small country, after all.

FLINTOFF: A small but deeply polarized country, enough so that the messy part of the process could go on for a long time after the election.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.