Georgia on Sunday voted in a presidential election that will draw the curtain on the 10-year rule of President Mikheil Saakashvili and may see renewal of rivalry between Moscow and Washington for control of the strategically located post-Soviet state.
The poll was contested by a record 23 candidates, but pre-election polls identified one clear front runner — Georgy Margvelashvili of the Georgian Dream coalition, which defeated Mr. Saakashvili’s party in last year’s parliamentary vote. Analysts however do not rule out a run-off.
Mr. Saakashvili, who has served the maximum two terms, did not run. His departure will be greeted with mixed feelings in Moscow. On the one hand, Mr. Saakashvili is the man who triggered a short but fierce war with Russia, when he tried to regain control over the separatist region of South Ossetia in August 2008.
On the other hand, Mr. Saakashvili’s adventurism enabled Russia to strengthen its foothold in the Caucasus after routing the U.S.-trained Georgian army. Moscow extended political recognition to Georgia’s breakaway regions and has since set up military bases on their territories. Despite Georgia’s importance to the West as a gateway to Caspian oil and gas, NATO put on hold plans to grant it membership in the alliance, partly because Western leaders feared that the erratic Georgian leader could drag them into a conflict with Russia.
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the Georgian Dream, whose candidate is tipped to win presidency, has promised to rebuild ties with Russia, but has also reiterated Georgia’s ambition to join NATO and the European Union (EU). Next month Georgia, along with Ukraine and Moldova, is expected to sign an association pact with the EU.
Sunday’s election will mark Georgia’s transition from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, with key powers of the President transferred to the Prime Minister. Uncertainty associated with the constitutional reform may be further heightened by the decision of Mr. Ivanishvili, a billionaire, whose fortune amounts to a third of Georgia’s Gross Domestic Product, to step down as Prime Minister next month.