Georgia's darling of the West faces rough ride in re-election bid

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The Independent Online

He was the darling of the West, the man who stood up to Vladimir Putin, and the president who turned his tiny post-Soviet country from a corrupt banana republic into a modern state with ambitions to join Nato and the EU.

But four years after mass protests swept Mikheil Saakashvili to power in the so-called Rose Revolution, Georgians go to the polls today and the signs are that he is not in for an easy ride.

Things started to unravel for Mr Saakashvili last autumn when his former defence minister, Irakli Okruashvili, went public in spectacular fashion with allegations that his former boss had ordered contract killings.

Mr Saakashvili denied the allegations, and they were later retracted, but a chain of events was set off that ended when riot police tear-gassed street protesters who were demanding early elections, and opposition media outlets were hauled off the air.

Suddenly, the reforming president was behaving just like all the other leaders in the region. Amid internal and international uproar over the response to the protests, Mr Saakashvili called today's election.

There are six other candidates, and the most serious challenger is Levan Gachechiladze, who is backed by a coalition of nine opposition political parties.

One poll showed Mr Gachechiladze on course to top the vote, while another suggested Mr Saakashvili would win, and would also break the 50 per cent barrier needed to retain the presidential chair without a second round of voting.

Also standing is the controversial London-based billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, who has promised to dole out his personal wealth to the population. Support for him plummeted, however, when he was caught on tape offering $100 million (51m) to a top-level interior ministry official in exchange for co-operation. He pulled out of the race after the tape was made public in late December, but changed his mind on Thursday and will now stand. He has not returned to Georgia throughout the whole campaign, citing fears for his safety.

"This will be the freest and fairest election in the history of Georgia," said the Justice minister Eka Tkeshelashvili. While this is not necessarily a massive achievement in a country that has never in its history seen a democratic handover of power, the climate of political debate is clearly far more developed than in Georgia's northern neighbour, Russia.

Mr Saakashvili refused to participate in televised debates, and the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe has criticised skewed media coverage in his favour, but nevertheless it has been a lively campaign. One of the more surreal moments came in a heated debate between the wives of the leading candidates. Mr Saakashvili's Dutch wife Sandra Roelofs took on the wives of two other candidates in a televised debate.

There has also been a musical element to the campaign, with Mr Gachicheladze's brother, a popular singer, releasing a tune that compares Mr Saakashvili to the Roman emperor Nero. Meanwhile, a provincial governor has released a track entitled "Misha is cool" (Misha is the diminutive of Mr Saakashvili's first name, Mikheil).

During his first term, Mr Saakashvili pushed hard for Georgia to move closer towards Nato and the EU, and has had numerous confrontations with Russia. He has been a close supporter of George Bush, and Georgia has more troops in Iraq per head than any other country in the world. Georgian election officials travelled to the country last week to allow soldiers serving there to cast their votes.

In all these policy areas, Mr Saakashvili faces little criticism from the opposition, which also favours pushing Georgia further out of Russia's political orbit and towards the West.

But critics of Mr Saakashvili say that the West was so happy to see a pro-Western reformer in power in a post-Soviet country that it had overlooked Mr Saakashvili's flaws.

"There is no question that there is support for changes, and that the government has much more work to do," said Ms Tkeshelashvili, the Justice minister. "Georgia is a very young democracy and we are still at the beginning of the process."

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