News / Europe

Georgia’s President References Russia as He Faces Strong Rival

Georgia's President and leader of the ruling United National Movement party Mikheil Saakashvili gestures during the national anthem with his supporters during an election rally at a stadium in Tbilisi September 28, 2012. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili (GEORGeorgia's President and leader of the ruling United National Movement party Mikheil Saakashvili gestures during the national anthem with his supporters during an election rally at a stadium in Tbilisi September 28, 2012. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili (GEOR
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Georgia's President and leader of the ruling United National Movement party Mikheil Saakashvili gestures during the national anthem with his supporters during an election rally at a stadium in Tbilisi September 28, 2012. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili (GEOR
Georgia's President and leader of the ruling United National Movement party Mikheil Saakashvili gestures during the national anthem with his supporters during an election rally at a stadium in Tbilisi September 28, 2012. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili (GEOR
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— Eight years after coming to power on the shoulders of Georgia’s Rose Revolution, Mikhail Saakashvili is fighting for his political life as he confronts a surprisingly strong challenge from the country's richest man.
 
Saakashvili filled his nation’s largest stadium Friday for his final campaign act before Monday’s parliamentary elections.
 
The stadium holds 55,000 people and it was full of supporters of the ruling United National Movement. Georgia’s president spoke with an urgency. He is facing his biggest political challenge since becoming president.
 
He recalled the past, citing a Georgia of crime lords, bad roads, no electricity and a stagnant economy. Speaking before a field of waving red and white Georgian flags, he mentioned Russia.
 
Recalling Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia, he said that on Monday, Georgia’s future should not be decided by Russian money and Russian tanks, but by the Georgian people.
 
This was a reference to his chief political opponent, Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the Georgian Dream coalition. Georgia’s richest man, Ivanishvili made his fortune during the 1990s in Russia.  With a fortune of $6.4 billion, Ivanishvili built a following here by giving charity to thousands of people.
 
He has used his money to pay for a television channel and to forge a coalition of anti-Saakashvili forces. At a press conference Friday, VOA asked Ivanishvili if he was a “Kremlin project.”
 
He responded that over the last decade he had given $1.7 billion in aid to Georgia. He added jokingly, “If that means being a Kremlin agent, then the Kremlin has in me the best agent for Georgia.”
 
Ivanishvili said that if his coalition wins a parliamentary majority on Monday, he will continue Georgia’s existing policy of trying to join the European Union and NATO.
 
Under Georgia’s Constitution, many presidential powers shift next year to the prime minister. The parliament elected on Monday will choose Georgia’s new paramount leader.
 
Public opinion polls vary wildly. A Georgian journalist said that, for the first time in 30 years of political reporting, she does not know who will win an election in the country.

James Brooke

A foreign correspondent who has reported from five continents, Brooke, known universally as Jim, is the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former Soviet Union countries. From his base in Moscow, Jim roams Russia and Russia’s southern neighbors.

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