Elections in Georgia Saakashvili's Grip on Power May Tighten

President Mikhail Saakashvili wants to be re-elected in Georgia on Saturday -- after violent crackdowns on the opposition. This ally of the West is looking more and more like a dictator, with opponents arrested, beaten or sent into exile, and accusations of vote-rigging from critics inside Georgia and abroad.


It sure looks like democracy.

It sure looks like democracy.

Fortunes seem to be smiling upon Europe's youngest president. As Mikhail Saakashvili, 40, steps out of his campaign bus, the sun peeks out from behind the gray clouds for a moment. In the poor mining town of Tschiatura, in northwest Georgia, 2,000 people have been waiting hours to see him.

Saakashvili clasps the microphone with both hands and sings of promise for the "dear friends" gathered in the market square of Chiatura. He foresees modern employment offices, salary increases, a "Georgia without poverty" and one free of corruption. All on one condition: everyone has to vote for him in the presidential election on January 5.

Nothing was said, however, about why he put the capital city of Tblisi under a state of emergency on November 7 for a week and a half and allowed 500,000 opposition demonstrators to be cleared off the streets with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets. Not one word about the state thugs who bashed their way into into the transmission center of the independent television channel Imedi ("hope") and shut it down for more than a month.

The head of state takes "responsibility for Georgia's history for the coming 1,000 years." That's how he justified the violent actions. Some of his opponents draw Hitler moustaches on Saakashvili's portrait. But he's not a Nazi. He's a narcissist.

The lawyer-turned-politician has held power for only four years. But his dark hair now shows strands of gray, belying his boyish ease. After Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili and another government official broke off with him, so did his closest brother-in-arms, Irakli Okruashvili. The former defense minister -- just as egomaniacal as his boss, currently exiled in Berlin and in custody pending deportation -- accuses the president of running a terror regime. And Okruashvili is not without popular support -- the street violence in November started after police arrested him.

It's getting lonely at the top for an autocrat.

Switzerland Meets Côte d'Azur?

The head of state's fifteen-minute appearance in Chiatura ends with lukewarm applause. Even Saakashvili supporters like Mirian Gamkredlidze, a 40-year-old mining engineer, leave the place without being stirred. Every day Gamkredlidze heads into a manganese mine that still uses equipment from the 1930s. His life-threatening job nets him just 300 lari (€120) per month. He's been heating his apartment with firewood since the Soviet-era heating system broke. He says that at least under this president, there is regular electricity.

Saakashvili scampers from appointment to appointment in his bus. Outside are scenes of grey mining ruins and disintegrated concrete buildings. Deadly-looking dogs lie on the potholed, littered streets. Is this the "combination of Switzerland and Côte d'Azur," that Saakashvili has promised his fellow citizens?

Promises of reform -- in immaculate English -- is how this ambitious man won over his Western partners. The Americans also seem to be taken with his degree from Columbia University in New York.

After the peaceful "Rose Revolution," which toppled the corruption-riddled patriarchy of Eduard Schevardnadze, Saakashvili was elected president in January 2004 with an overwhelming majority of 96.2 percent. For Washington, he was the shining light of the Caucasus.

He returned the favor. The road that leads from the airport to the city center was named George W. Bush Street. On the day of the presidential election, the Georgians will also vote on a referendum on joining NATO -- which Saakashvili would like to do as quickly as possible. But in Brussels, his country is seen as not quite NATO-ready. This, although the military has sent 600 million US dollars and more than 2000 soldiers into Bush's Iraq war.

Police officers cracked down on protesters in November, after an opposition leader and former confidante of the president's was arrested.

Police officers cracked down on protesters in November, after an opposition leader and former confidante of the president's was arrested.

Among the reforms that the polyglot "Mischa" has pushed through are mass layoffs in state institutions and "zero tolerance" of crime. The result is that judges named by him have tripled the number of prisoners in Georgia to more than 18,000. He's been just as reckless with his nation's foreign policy. In fiery speeches he's managed to provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin -- who avenged himself by declaring the breakaway (and Russia-friendly) Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia "protectorates" of Moscow. A "reunification" of Georgia promised by Saakashvili has since moved far into the distance. Even harder for Georgia, though, is the fact that Russia no longer imports wine, mineral water or mandarins from its onetime Soviet brother.

Despite all the problems, though, Levan Gachechiladze -- the candidate at the head of the opposing coalition of left-wing parties, economic liberals, and conservatives -- may lack the right stuff to win. He runs a wine production company, and he condemns "the marauders in power" in a monotone voice at campaign events. He acts as if Saakashvili will beat him. But he still warns people about fraud at the polls.

European diplomats share those concerns. So does Georgi Khaindrava, onetime Minister for Conflict Resolution in the Saakashvili government. He's afraid of street violence in the days after January 5. "In Georgia there are people in power who want nothing but power," he says. "The West should have had a closer look at what was going on here."


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