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Georgians vote in municipal elections amid spiraling tensions with Russia

Georgians vote in municipal elections amid spiraling tensions with Russia

President Mikhail Saakashvili called Georgians to turn out for municipal elections, saying Thursday's vote would be a test of the nation amid spiraling tensions with Moscow that have seen Russian lawmakers threatening harsh sanctions.
Speaking in televised comments Wednesday night, the Georgian leader reaffirmed his commitment to the territorial integrity of the poor, Caucasus nation, which has been splintered by conflicts with two separatist regions that broke away from central control in wars in the 1990s.
He said his government's commitment to joining NATO was unwavering, and would provide "additional guarantees of security."
Thursday's local municipal elections "were the largest exam that should be passed by you, as citizens and as a nation, after the most recent events," he said.
Referring obliquely to Russia, Saakashvili said the vote would be closely watched by "those people who dream that tomorrow we will show that Georgia doesn't want to fight for its independence, freedom and a better life. They want to show that Georgia has lost hope, but tomorrow we should show with all our activity that Georgia has a future."
Thursday's vote will be a crucible for Saakashvili, who faces a crisis in relations with Moscow even as his own popularity in Georgia is waning.
In Moscow on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin accused Georgia of blackmail and lawmakers threatened further sanctions as Moscow police went after businesses allegedly tied to Georgian organized crime and cracked down on illegal migrants from the Caucasus nation.
The Kremlin's fury over last week's arrest of four Russian officers in Georgia, which sparked Moscow's suspension of air, sea, road, rail and postal links Tuesday, showed no sign of ebbing despite their release.
The arrests appear to have been the last straw for the Russian leadership, which is clearly alarmed over Tbilisi's goal of NATO membership and the growing U.S. influence in its former Soviet backyard.
Russia lawmakers have indicated that more sanctions, including sharply restricting Russian energy shipments come winter and/or prohibiting money transfers from Russia and Georgia, could be in the offing.
Georgian officials kept up a nonchalant stance Wednesday, with Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli trying to reassure the nation that new sanctions from Russia would not inflict significant economic damage.
"Russia has implemented sanctions before and we were able to stand our ground. We are standing our ground now," he said.
Russia's chilly relations with Georgia have worsened steadily since Saakashvili came to power following the 2003 Rose Revolution, vowing to take the country out of Russia's orbit, rein in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and join NATO in 2008. Georgia accuses Russia of backing the separatists, which Russia denies.
Meanwhile, Saakashvili's popularity has plunged halfway through his five-year term and he has been accused of rolling back democratic freedoms.
In March, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's envoy to Georgia expressed concern about media freedoms, due process and independence of the judiciary.


Updated : 2021-05-15 23:50 GMT+08:00