(Update: President Mikhail Saakashvili on Tuesday conceded defeat for his party in parliamentary elections, and said opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili would form Georgia's new government.)
(CNSNews.com) – Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s ruling party looked set Tuesday to lose parliamentary elections to an opposition group led by a pro-Russian businessman, according to exit polls and early returns.
That outcome would be a victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, marking the beginning of the end of the last of the “color revolutions” that saw Kremlin-backed regimes fall in three former Soviet states almost a decade ago.
The opposition Georgian Dream was leading in early results for the popular vote, although Saakashvili’s United National Movement maintained it could still secure a majority of parliamentary seats – a possibility under Georgia’s proportional electoral system.
The country’s Central Election Commission reported a voter turnout of almost 61 percent.
Georgian Dream leader, billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, is regarded by critics as close to Putin and has pledged to improve ties with Moscow.
A defeat at his hands for Saakashvili’s party one year before the end of the president’s second and final term would be welcomed by Putin, whose unconcealed aversion to the Georgian leader predated the brief Russia-Georgia war in the summer of 2008.
During Putin’s previous stint as president, he accused the United States of backing Georgia’s 2003 “Rose revolution,” Ukraine’s “Orange revolution” in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan’s “Tulip revolution” the following year. The upheavals deprived Moscow of three allies in its near neighborhood and ushered in Western-leaning governments in Georgia and Ukraine, keen to join NATO.
The Kyrgyzstan revolution faltered and its leader first edged back to Moscow’s orbit, then angered Russia by reneging on a pledge to shut down a U.S. air base, bbfore being toppled in mid-2011.
Ukrainian voters in 2010 ousted pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko in favor of his Moscow-backed rival, Viktor Yanukovich, who shelved his predecessor’s NATO ambitions.
In Georgia, however, Saakashvili won a second term in January 2008, his party won legislative elections four months later, and he pushed ahead with the NATO accession effort.
Some analysts saw the Georgia-Russia war later that year as an attempt by Putin – then prime minister – to undermine Saakashvili in the hope of getting rid of him.
Seizing the opportunity after Saakashvili tried to rein in two pro-Moscow separatist regions, Russia sent in troops to prop up the two fiefdoms and later declared them to be “independent” states. (The international community does not recognize them.)
The war cost Saakashvili one-fifth of Georgia’s territory and set back his NATO plans after Moscow coerced European countries – heavily dependent on Russian oil and natural gas – into hedging their support. But he remained in power, an affront to Putin.
Under Saakashvili, Georgia allied itself to the U.S.-led military mission in Iraq from 2003-2008, and in Afghanistan from 2004 to the present day. The country of 4.5 million is currently the second-biggest non-NATO troop contributor in Afghanistan – and has more troops deployed there than 18 of NATO’s 28 members.
Georgia, which has lost 10 soldiers in combat in Afghanistan, also serves as a hub for resupply of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces. It pledged last month to continue to support Afghan armed forces beyond the ISAF pullout, scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014.
Testifying on Capitol Hill on September 20, Heritage Foundation scholar Ariel Cohen argued that the elections in Georgia – a country he described as “the most pro-American in the former Soviet Union bar none” – was crucial to U.S. interests in the strategic region. He said both Russia and Iran “would like nothing better than to see President Mikhail Saakashvili and his party defeated.”
Among reasons for this, Cohen said a pro-Moscow regime in Georgia would bring the critical Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline under Russian control.
Launched in 2005, the 1,100-mile pipeline carries crude oil from Azerbaijan via Georgia and Turkey to world markets, bypassing Russian territory. Strongly supported by the U.S. and opposed by Russia, the BTC project bolstered former Soviet republics’ independence from Moscow.
In his testimony before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Cohen said having a firmly pro-U.S. administration in Georgia may also have implications for attempts to respond to Iran’s nuclear program.
“Georgian airfields may play a role in a number of future scenarios involving Iran, thus rendering Georgia’s domestic politics vital to the success or failure of the West’s effort to prevent the Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons,” he said.
“If government sentiments inside Georgia were to change, such as through the rise of a pro-Russian government, the geopolitical picture in the South Caucasus and the Black Sea region would fundamentally change.”