Georgia is simultaneously facing internal and external pressures. Tens of thousands of opposition demonstrators marched through the capital city of Tbilisi earlier this week to protest final parliamentary election results they say unfairly favor the ruling party of President Mikhail Saakashvili. At the same time, Georgia is now demanding that Russia apologize for shooting down an unmanned Georgian drone over the breakaway region of Abkhazia last month, while Moscow denies any involvement.
The democratic credentials of President Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, have been under scrutiny since he used riot police to crush protests last November. The opposition says he rigged both the presidential election in January and the parliamentary elections in May. But David Nikuradze, Washington correspondent for the independent Georgian broadcasting company Rustavi 2, says it will not be clear what really happened, at least until election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issue their final report on the May elections in a week or two. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Nikuradze says he was not surprised that the ruling party won 120 out of 150 parliamentary seats because the economy has improved in recent years.
But VOA Moscow correspondent Peter Fedynsky notes that the international observers did not make a definitive judgment on the opposition’s allegation of rigged elections. Still, leaders of the main opposition group say they will boycott the new parliament and have refused to take the 16 seats they won in last week’s vote. Mr. Fedynsky says the opposition wants to “flat out close down parliament.”
Meanwhile tensions have escalated between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the end of the Soviet period and beginning of the period of Georgian independence, both regions rebelled against the Central Georgian government and became de facto independent entities under the protection of the Russians. Since 1994 there has been a cease-fire. The cease-fire agreement permits Russian peacekeepers to enter Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But the presence of Russian troops in the two regions is a major source of tension between Moscow and Tbilisi. In late April, an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance plane was shot down over Abkhazia, further intensifying those tensions. U.N. investigators released a report Monday saying that radar records showed a military aircraft headed back into Russian airspace after the shoot-down. Peter Fedynsky suggests that the current strain reflects a long-term regional pattern. For the past couple of centuries, he says, there have been wars in the Caucasus involving Russia and the indigenous peoples there – the Georgians, the Abkhazians, the South Ossetians, the Chechens, and others. As a result, he says there are a “lot of little independent-minded ethnic groups” that would like independence. Granting such desires, he concludes, would fracture the Russian Federation.
Igor Zevelev, Washington bureau chief for RIA Novosti Russian News and Information Agency, says that Russian-Georgian relations have hit a “new low.” The situation is difficult because it is not only about Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but it is also about NATO, the United States, and Europe. Mr. Zevelev says Georgia accuses Russia of not being neutral as a peacekeeper, but being on the side of the breakaway regions. He says the situation is complicated by the acrimonious relationship between President Saakashvili and former Russian president Vladimir Putin, who now serves as prime minister. The Russian media are reporting that President Saakashvili and newly elected Russian President Dmitri Medvedev will meet in St. Petersburg in early June. Igor Zevelev says that, although there is hope when new leaders meet that relations will improve, he doubts that will be the case this time.
Tensions between the two nations are not likely to subside. Georgia is now asking the U.N. Security Council to convene a meeting to discuss the shooting down of its unmanned reconnaissance aircraft over Akkhazia. Georgia is also demanding an apology from Russia and says it wants compensation. Continued violence adds to the tensions. On Thursday, nine people were injured in two attacks in South Ossetia – one by a car bomb blast in the capital city of Tskhinvali and the other in a mortar attack in the region’s southern Znauri district.
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