The Republic of Georgia will hold unexpectedly aggressive parliamentary elections on Monday. This has the ruling United National Movement (UNM) facing a tough battle to hold on to power.
Many voters, seen demonstrating here in the capital Tblissi, have been revolted by a prison brutality scandal, which erupted just ten days before the election date.
An incriminating video shows guards beating, humiliating or raping prisoners with objects. The government of incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili says the abuse was recorded by guards who were bribed by someone with political motives.
Two private television channels broadcast the video. One is owned by multibillionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. He leads an opposition bloc called Georgian Dream.
An opinion poll in August put Saakashvili’s UNM well ahead of Georgian Dream. No polls have appeared since the protests but the opposition is expected to make gains.
Although politically inexperienced, Ivanishvili is Saakashvili’s first serious challenger. He made most of his fortune in Russia in the years after the USSR fell apart. In his futuristic mansion above the capital he denies his adversaries’ allegations that he is close to the Kremlin.
Ivanishvili said: “Saakashvili’s ideology has lost its charm in implying that Georgian Dream is a project of Putin. Nothing connects me with Russia any more. I am not a Russian citizen. I do not have assets in Russia. As I promised Georgian citizens when I got into politics, I have sold all my assets and there are no ties left.”
This week at the UN, Saakashvili, who used to be praised by the West for leading a bloodless revolution, lashed out at unnamed external or domestic forces.
The Georgian President said: “Georgia will never go back! It will not be dragged back under any pressure, under any dirty money from the North, under any fright of military exercises, direct military invasion in case there are mass-scale disturbances, in case there are militias emerging as they are menacing us – it is not going to work!”
Saakashvili has also promised to clean up the jails. His interior and prisons ministers have resigned and the Tblissi prison chief and several guards have been arrested. Monday’s poll will be a test of Georgians’ confidence in the United National Movement.