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Georgian democracy on trial in vote

 Georgian democracy on trial in vote
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Tomorrow Georgia votes for a new parliament in an election that may mark a turning point in the country’s relations with the west, and Moscow. Tbilisi faces challenges from two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Osettia, which are supported by Russia.

“Everyone is confident this election is very important for Georgia’s future. I believe there will be no fraud, and everyone will be satisfied with the results,” said one female voter.

A free and fair vote is vital if Georgia is to claim spotless democratic credentials. An older man was more doubtful, saying: “We’ve always witnessed fraud in the past, and if it takes place this time it won’t do the country any good, and may lead to destabilisation and have grave results”.

President Mikhail Saakashvili has been championed by the west as a beacon of democracy in the former Soviet Union since coming to power in 2004. But last year his violent repression of an opposition demonstration blotted his copybook. He won a snap presidential election in January, but the oppositon’s accusations of fraud further damaged his image.

The opposition, a coalition of nine parties, insists he is preparing to rig the vote again. It favours improved ties with Moscow, and a calming of tensions with the two breakaway regions. Leader Levan Gachechiladze promised victory to his supporters, claiming it would end “political terror” in Georgia.

If the OSCE and international observers give the vote a clean bill of health the west may stiffen its support by speeding up EU and NATO membership talks. But oppositon supporters, wearing masks saying “no to fraud”, have little confidence in that.