Leader of Georgia's bloodless coup set for election victory

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The Independent Online

Voters in Georgia go the polls on Sunday to elect a replacement for Eduard Shevardnadze, whose presidency was overthrown in a bloodless revolt barely a month ago.

Though six candidates are on the ballot, five are virtual unknowns and it is a racing certainty that the winner will be Mikhail Saakashvili, the charismatic US-educated politician who led the three weeks of non-violent street protests in November that ended in Mr Shevardnadze's resignation.

"There is no doubt about the outcome of this voting: Saakashvili will sweep the field," said Davit Kiphiani, deputy chairman of the Centre for Civic Culture in Tbilisi.

"The question on everyone's mind is not whether Saakashvili will win, but what he will do to tackle Georgia's immense problems.

"People have vested enormous hopes in this change of power, and Saakashvili has promised a lot. If he doesn't deliver fairly quickly, instability and political battles will return."

Mr Saakashvili is praised by his backers as a straight-talking, inspired leader who will tackle Georgia's endemic crime, corruption and ethnic separatism.

Valery Dolidze, a political scientist at Tbilisi State University, said: "Saakashvili is perceived as direct and honest; he's a fighter. He is the only leader in Georgia who could have pulled together the coalition that overthrew Shevardnadze."

Critics claim the former New York lawyer is a dangerous populist who manipulated public dissatisfaction with Mr Shevardnadze's incompetent rule to launch himself into the presidency.

"Saakashvili would say anything to get into power," said Zviad Mukbaniani, a former supporter of Mr Shevardnadze.

"He promises to double wages and pensions, tax the rich, jail corrupt officials, and so on. These are ultra-left slogans, and any attempt to implement them will lead to disaster."

Georgia, a tiny, ethnically diverse republic of 4.5 million, was plunged into the fires of civil war, revolution and regional separatism almost immediately after gaining independence from the USSR in 1991.

Popular revolt against the country's first elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, brought Mr Shevardnadze - a former KGB chief and Soviet foreign minister - to power in 1992. Although he installed rough order and limited democracy, many Georgians say the Shevardnadze regime was an inept kleptocracy that bankrupted the state, drove legitimate business into the shadow economy, and created a pervasive culture of corruption.

The United States has poured $1.8bn into Georgia over the past decade, making the little country the largest per capita recipient of American aid after Israel. Sandro Bregadze, a parliamentary deputy with the Freedom Group, which supports Mr Saakashvili, said Georgia had nothing to show for it.

"Everyone from the lowest doorman to the highest official is corrupt; all police are bribe-takers," he said. "The money went straight into someone's pocket."

Russia and the US will be watching Sunday's election closely. Their strategic interests include a Western-financed pipeline being built across Georgia to take crude oil from the newly opened Caspian oilfields to world markets. Many Georgians suspect Russia may be stirring up ethnic separatistism in Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in an attempt to block Georgia's integration with the West. "Many Russians can't get used to the idea that Georgia is not their territory any more," said Mr Bregadze. "Fixing relations with Moscow will be a top priority."

Some critics say the expectations of Georgians have been raised too high by the revolution, and that Mr Saakashvili may face a dangerous backlash if he fails to deliver rapid improvements in living standards, and victory over corruption.

Mr Kiphiani said: "The danger is that people will think 'if Saakashvili doesn't work out, well, we know how to overthrow him'. Saakashvili is riding a tiger of his own making."