Pro-Western Georgia head admits defeat

Pro-Western Georgia head admits defeat

Pro-Western Georgia head admits defeat

Supporters of Ivanishvili celebrate the victory of Georgian Dream in parliamentary elections. The billionaire businessman says he wants to improve links with Moscow. AP photo

President Mikheil Saakashvili has conceded defeat in the Georgian parliamentary elections and said an opposition coalition led by a billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili now had the right to form a government.

Ivanishvili said he was confident of becoming prime minister as partial results put his six-party Georgian Dream on course to win the elections. Ivanishvili’s supporters streamed through Tbilisi’s streets after polls closed, waving flags and sounding car horns in celebration.

Ivanishvili said Saakashvili should step down after conceding defeat in polls. “The only right decision now for Saakashvili would be to resign,” Ivanishvili told a news conference at his campaign headquarters.

Outlining his foreign policy priorities, he said he wanted to improve links with Russia at the same time as bidding to join NATO. “We must normalize relations with Russia. Our strategy to become a NATO member will not be reversed,” he said. Experts say that if he does pursue NATO membership it will put Georgia on a collision course with the Kremlin

Despite bitter memories in Georgia of the brief 2008 war with Russia, Ivanishvili said Tbilisi had to restore relations with Moscow at the same time as staying close to its main Western backer, Washington. “If you ask me, ‘America or Russia?’ I say we need to have good relations with everybody,” he said.

Saakashvili will remain the leader of the country until his second and last term ends next October. Under a constitutional reform that goes into effect after he leaves office, many of the president’s powers will be transferred to the prime minister, who is chosen by Parliament. This is the first time in Georgia’s post-Soviet history that a government will be changed by the ballot box rather than through revolution. Saakashvili came to power through the Rose Revolution after a parliamentary vote that ousted the country’s former leader, ex-Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003.
The president said there were deep differences between his United National Movement and the opposition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. “We think their views are completely wrong,” he said. “But democracy works through the majority of the Georgian people making a decision, and we respect this very much.”

Kremlin welcomes results

Russia welcomed the preliminary results of the election, saying ties that had frozen in the wake of the 2008 war could be renewed following Saakashvili’s defeat. “We are definitely looking forward for a fresh, new, non-hostile, sober leadership in Georgia,” Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told The Guardian. During his nine years in power, Saakashvili has pushed through reforms and attracted international investment that has led to dramatic economic growth. Poverty and unemployment, however, remain painfully high.

Georgians have turned against Saakashvili in recent years, with many accusing his party - which has controlled not only the government and Parliament but also the courts and prosecutor’s office – of becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Saakashvili’s campaign was also hit hard by the release two weeks ago of shocking videos showing prisoners in a Tbilisi jail being beaten and sodomized. The government moved quickly to stem the anger, replacing Cabinet ministers blamed for the abuse and arresting prison staff, but many saw the videos as illustrating the excesses of his government.

International monitors said that despite some instances of intimidation in the election, voters had freely expressed their will and urged rival political forces to work together following the poll. European Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said the result of the elections would not lead to any change in the European Union’s ties with the country.