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Russia Protests Irregularities In Georgian Vote

Mikheil Saakashvili attending a Christmas service on January 7 (InterPressNews) As Georgia woke today to a snowy Orthodox Christmas, President Mikheil Saakashvili was granted what he wished for -- an almost certain second presidential term.

The latest results of the January 5 presidential election give him just over 50 percent of the vote -- the minimum required to win in the first round of voting. With two-thirds of the votes counted, official results are expected to be announced within the next week.

The observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) backed the election as largely free and fair, despite a number of violations. The senior election observer of the OSCE mission, U.S. Representative Alcee Hastings (Democrat, Florida), hailed it as a "triumphant step" toward democracy.

Russia, however, has joined the Georgian opposition in denouncing the ballot as fraudulent. Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement describing the presidential race as marred by a raft of violations, including "widespread use of administrative resources, blatant pressure on the opposition candidates, stringent restriction of access to financial and media resources." The ministry also dismissed Hastings' comments as "superficial."

Konstantin Gabashvili, the head of the Georgian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized Moscow's assessment. "Russia is the only country that didn't recognize this election," he said. "Once again, Russia is totally isolated from the political assessment given by the more than 32 countries that monitored the vote and by all international organizations."

Moscow has bitterly opposed efforts by the U.S.-educated Saakashvili to steer his country toward NATO and Western institutions. It has imposed economic sanctions on Georgia and last year deported thousands of Georgians after the arrest of Russian military officers on spying charges in Tbilisi.

No Russian Interference

But Levan Berdzenishvili, a leading opposition figure, says Moscow has refrained from meddling in the vote, which he described as "Russia's wisest move in relation to Georgia in the past few years." He said that "Saakashvili did declare that all opposition figures are Moscow agents, but he stopped saying this."

Despite Saakashvili's early claims of Russian interference, political analysts largely agree that Moscow abstained from backing a candidate against Saakashvili.

Vadim Dubnov, a Russian journalist currently covering the election in Georgia, says Russia's sharp criticism of the vote has, in fact, little to do with the election itself.

"It clearly illustrates Russia's new opinion that it is entitled to teach the world democracy, as the world is entitled to teach democracy to Russia," Dubnov says. "Its statement is true, because the opposition was really pressured, administrative resources were abused, and this election hardly met democratic standards. But it was still nothing compared to Russia's parliamentary elections or the upcoming presidential election."

Ironically, Saakashvili, who swept to power through the 2003 Rose Revolution, called the election after thousands of people took to the streets of Tbilisi in November to participate in rallies against him had his government.

The opposition is again threatening to organize mass demonstrations to protest Saakashvili's election victory. And there is little doubt the opposition will be able to gather a large crowd despite freezing temperatures. On January 6, some 5,000 demonstrators braved the cold to demonstrate against alleged electoral fraud.

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)