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Georgians vote in municipal elections amid spiraling tensions with Russia

Georgians vote in municipal elections amid spiraling tensions with Russia

Georgians cast ballots Thursday in municipal elections that could serve as a bellwether for President Mikhail Saakashvili's pro-Western policies as a deepening diplomatic crisis saw Moscow putting new restrictions on Georgians living and working in Russia.
Nearly three years after the Rose Revolution protests propelled him to power, the U.S.-educated Saakashvili faces an electorate increasingly disenchanted and impatient with the slow pace of economic reforms.
A week after Georgia's arrest of four Russian military officers on spying charges sent relations with Moscow plummeting, the crisis has prompted stern responses from Russia, fanning nationalism in Georgia.
However, bread-and-butter issues like the rising cost of living and persistent corruption may ultimately determine how much support Saakashvili has in his drive to modernize the country and integrate with the West.
"We are hearing a lot of cursing and criticism about Georgia these days from certain people, but on the other hand we have a lot of support in the world," the Georgian leader said after voting with his 9-month-old son Nikoloz in his arms. "Those who speak badly of us prove they don't know what to do, but they cannot stop Georgia's progress toward independence and a bright future."
Turnout appeared brisk across the poor Caucasus Mountain nation with roughly 25 percent of 3.2 million registered voters casting ballots by 5 p.m. (1300 GMT), choosing more than 1,700 members of municipal and regional councils that will in turn elect mayors and administration heads. The highest regional posts _ envoys _ are appointed by the president.
Local government bodies are currently dominated by Saakashvili's party, but the opposition Labor party was pushing strong for the mayorship of Tbilisi _ the country's second most prominent political post. Labor party head Shalva Natelashvili hopes to unseat Saakashvili ally Gigi Ugulava, running for the United National Movement.
The Labor Party and the Conservative Party are counting on voters to react to the sharp increase in the cost of living following the 2003 Rose Revolution that toppled then President Eduard Shevardnadze. Meat prices have doubled, the prices for grains and sugar have risen by about 20 percent, and electricity and gas costs have likewise risen _ a factor in the slide in Saakashvili's popularity, according to polls.
"It's getting more and more difficult for us to live," said Kseniya Tugushi, a 76-year-old retiree. "How much money they're throwing away. And my pension is miserly."
"I voted for the nationalists, not because I'm thrilled with them. Simply because today there is no alternative. I don't see anyone better. There's no bright personalities in the opposition," said David Lelashvili, a 29-year-old veterinarian.
The single pro-Russian party, other than the Communists, were not running. Twelve leaders of the Justice Party and its allies were arrested last month and face charges of plotting a coup.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that state and city officials were undertaking some highly visible welfare projects in Tbilisi, which it said could be construed as using administrative resources for election purposes.
Russia's chilly relations with Georgia have worsened steadily since Saakashvili came to power, vowing to take the country out of Russia's orbit, rein in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and join NATO. Georgia accuses Russia of backing the separatists, which Russia denies.
Saakashvili has courted Washington as an ally, hosting U.S. President George W. Bush last year during a high-profile visit to Tbilisi and bringing U.S. military instructors to train Georgia's armed forces.
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.
Moscow suspended air, sea, road, rail and postal links with its southern neighbor on Tuesday. On Thursday, Moscow said it would abolish quotas allowing a certain number of Georgians each year to obtain residency and work permits. Several Georgian-run casinos and restaurants in Moscow have been raided and closed down for alleged regulatory violations.
"Russia does not want to be provoked, Russia wants to be respected. Russia wants the anti-Russian campaign to stop," Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Yakovenko told reporters in Moscow.
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Associated Press writer Maria Danilova contributed to this report from Moscow.


Updated : 2021-05-06 23:42 GMT+08:00