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Georgians vote in municipal elections amid spiraling tensions with Russia

Georgians vote in municipal elections amid spiraling tensions with Russia

Russia, amid a deepening diplomatic crisis, imposed new restrictions on Georgians living and working in Russia as Georgians cast ballots in municipal elections that could serve as a bellwether for President Mikhail Saakashvili's pro-Western policies.
Saakashvili praised Georgians for brisk turnout that saw more than 40 percent of the poor Caucasus Mountain nation's 3.2 million registered voters casting ballots by 6 p.m. (1400 GMT), saying Thursday' vote was "not a typical election."
"The whole world watched us and our society passed its test with flying colors," Saakashvili told supporters at his party's headquarters.
We conducted democratic elections.... And I want to say that we conducted clean elections despite our opponents' pouring dirt on us," he said.
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.
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.
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.
Georgians were 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.
Saakashvili claimed victory in the vote, citing exit polls reported by Georgian television which said his United National Movement party was ahead with around 56 percent of the vote, followed by the joint opposition Republican-Conservative bloc with 8.1 percent.
However, the exit poll methodology could not immediately be verified and preliminary results from the Central Election Commission were not expected until early Friday.
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 and Conservative parties 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.
The single pro-Russian party, other than the Communists, was not running. Twelve leaders of the Justice Party and its allies were arrested last month and face charges of plotting a coup.
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 and bringing U.S. military instructors to train Georgia's armed forces.
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Associated Press writer Maria Danilova contributed to this report from Moscow.


Updated : 2021-04-17 04:58 GMT+08:00