The Caucasus republic of Georgia turns a political page this Sunday with a presidential election that will mark the end of a chapter under outgoing reformist President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The front-runner is philosopher Georgy Margvelashvili, 44, a confidant of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream coalition ousted Saakashvili’s cabinet in a parliamentary election last year.
In a recent campaign speech, he set out his party’s goals: “Opposition and the majority in the parliament has completely agreed on the basic directions of our development which is specifically, very specifically noted that our integration in Europe and Euro-Atlantic structures is (the) overall goal of our national foreign policy,” he said.
“At the same time we were pretty effective in showing the possibility of decreasing temperatures with Russia.” he added.
Another of the candidates is Nino Burjanadze, who helped drive the Rose Revolution in 2003 which brought Saakashvili to power. She later fell out with the president, and favours rebuilding ties with Moscow and setting aside NATO ambitions.
“Unfortunately, I can’t see any political steps from the Georgian government – effective and decisive steps to speak with Russians. Until Russian troops are on Georgian territory, Georgia has no chance to be a member of NATO. It does not mean that we should not continue cooperation with NATO, but speaking about membership… this is a lie,” Burjanadze told a rally of her supporters.
Then there is David Bakradze, a member of Saakashvili’s United National Movement, running for the presidency also.
With pipelines that carry oil and gas towards Europe, Georgia is strategically important.
“If we want to be a normal country, we should be normal European democracy, member of the European institutions, member of the Euro-Atlantic Security institutions. And there is no other choice for Georgia. Territorial integrity and freedom of choice are two basic elements which I will never sacrifice for the sake of improving relations with Russia. But for the rest, yes, why not? We should talk,” said Bakradze.
Not only is Saakashvili leaving; billionaire Prime Minister Ivanishvili has said he is going too. The impending exit of the two rivals casts uncertainty over Georgia, which fought and lost a five-day war with Russia over breakaway regions in 2008.