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Georgia: Can Saakashvili Keep The Country Together?

An opposition poster hung before a February 8 demonstration accuses the president of being a "vote thief" (AFP) TBILISI -- Mikheil Saakashvili may have successfully retained his presidency, but he still has a mountain to climb in getting the country behind him again.

Following January's controversial early presidential election, Georgia finds itself more divided than at any time since the 2003 Rose Revolution catapulted Saakashvili into power.

The opposition claims that the 53 percent of the vote that allowed Saakashvili to declare a first-round victory was garnered by fraudulent means.

As a result, opposition leaders who met with a visiting EU delegation in Tbilisi last week said they do not recognize Saakashvili as a legitimate president.

It is unclear how the sudden death of billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili -- a prominent opposition backer whose February 12 death was determined to be the results of "natural causes" -- will ultimately impact the growing resistance to Saakashvili. The opposition is likely to struggle without his funding. But it has gained significant momentum in recent weeks and may be able to capitalize on Patarkatsishvili's death as a galvanizing event.

Speaking at the time of the EU tour, Tina Khidashvili, a prominent member of Georgia's Republican Party, spoke plainly: No deals with Saakashvili were forthcoming. Accusing Saakashvili of "stealing the vote," she implied that only extreme duress would compel the opposition to return to negotiations that they abandoned last week.

"If Russia bombs Georgia tomorrow, yes, we will go and sit around the same table with him," she said. "Because in that case, there will be a higher interest than our political issues."

Creeping Doubts

Even among Saakashvili's outside supporters -- although few would admit so publicly -- there appears to be a growing sense of unease about the tactics used by the Georgian leader in the months leading up to the election.

The European Union's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, met with members of the Georgian opposition as well as the government and said alleged voter irregularities were among the issues discussed. Still, she said she stood by the generally positive assessment given the vote by the monitoring arms of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- albeit with some reservations.

"[They] have said that the elections were competitive and that, even if there had been some flaws, President Saakashvili won the elections. So this, for us, is what counts," she said. "But at the same time, we see quite a number of deficiencies, and of course we addressed those very, very clearly in our different talks."

It is an open secret in Western capitals, however, that Saakashvili's advisers fought successfully to suppress until after his inauguration the release of an interim OSCE report that -- unlike earlier assessments in the early days following the vote -- failed to describe the elections as free and fair.

The opinion among Western leaders appears to be that Saakashvili, despite his shortcomings, is preferable to any alternative. Support for Saakashvili is particularly strong among Eastern Europe's EU members, who see him as a useful ally in the effort to check Russia's recent attempts to reestablish its regional influence.

Georgia's own leaders have enthusiastically embraced the Western-style electoral spin. Echoing official OSCE and EU formulations, Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze told RFE/RL the elections "reflected the will of the people" and "were broadly in line with European standards."

Such assessments, however, gloss over obvious, deep, and potentially lasting divisions within Georgian society.

'Lack Of Justice'

In interviews with opposition politicians, civil-society activists, and the country's own ombudsman, a recurring criticism of the government was that it regularly fails to abide by the basic tenets of rule of law.

"The major problem here is a feeling of lack of justice in society, that there is no rule of law in the country," says the ombudsman, Sozar Subari.

Subari says the public has little trust in the judicial system, which he says is now wholly controlled by the government. The government therefore lacks any real counterweight. Horror stories about flagrant abuses of judicial and police privilege abound among Georgian activists and Western diplomats. There are also disturbing reports of the government seeking to neutralize independent journalists by doubling or tripling their salaries.

He says his own office is under constant government pressure -- although this has eased somewhat after the January poll. Subari's most damning criticism is arguably that, in his assessment, there would have been "no positive changes" in terms of democracy and human rights without Western pressure during Saakashvili's four years in power.

But members of the Georgian government dismiss the criticisms. Foreign Minister David Bakradze emphasizes that Georgia was a "failed state" barely five years ago, and stressed that reform takes time.

Prime Minister Gurgenidze, for his part, says the ombudsman's charges are "based on emotions and feelings," rather than facts. Saakashvili's critics, he asserts, are in the minority.

"You can view the glass as three-quarters full. About 75 percent of the people have clearly benefited from reforms and their lives have improved very noticeably and profoundly," Gurgenidze says. "But the glass is also one-quarter empty, because we still have about 25 percent living below the poverty level."

Gurgenidze says he would be "shocked" if what he describes as Georgia's burgeoning middle class, taking out consumer loans and buying cars and houses on credit, simultaneously held "doom-and-gloom" views of their country's basic institutions.

Yet neither Gurgenidze nor any other Georgian official offers a satisfactory explanation as to why the government has declined to authorize a single investigation into the many allegations of electoral fraud raised by opposition parties and civil-society groups.

The government promises improvements by the time parliamentary elections take place in April. But it remains an open question whether such promises have been made in good faith. Prime Minister Gurgenidze, for instance, says he welcomes the emergence of a strong opposition to Saakashvili -- if a viable opposition, he suggests dismissively, is in fact what it is.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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