- - Sunday, September 30, 2012

TBILISI, Georgia — Political opponents are accusing Georgia’s president of trying to “play Putin” for seeking to become prime minister because of term limits barring his candidacy in next year’s election — a ploy exploited by Russia’s former and current president, Vladimir Putin.

As Georgians head to the polls Monday in parliamentary elections, President Mikheil Saakashvili and his ruling United National Movement party are vying with a coalition led by billionaire philanthropist-turned-opposition-leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, with the victorious party to decide who becomes the next prime minister — a position that is to be strengthened following constitutional reforms set to take effect next year.

“What we are facing is a chance for Georgia to have the first-ever transfer of power through democratic elections,” said Irakli Alasania, a former diplomat and Saakashvili ally who has joined the opposition. “But what he is doing now on the ground right now is completely the opposite.”

Mr. Saakashvili, 44, an American-educated lawyer, hasn’t ruled out taking the prime minister post and plays coy on the issue.

But his future isn’t a fait accompli. Mr. Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party has mobilized thousands of voters who fear creeping authoritarianism and say the country’s fast-paced reforms have yet to lift the majority of Georgians from poverty.

Unprecedented development has transformed the former Soviet republic through ambitious building projects, and the country’s main cities are now adorned with glass and steel with a space-age feel.

But in rural regions and many urban areas, many Georgians face high levels of unemployment, and official salaries hover around $162 a month.

“All this infrastructure and development is good, but the main thing is people,” said Iago Kachkachishvili, head of sociology at Tbilisi State University, adding that official statistics are skewed and more than 40 percent of households remain in poverty. “Unemployment is the No. 1 social problem and a burning issue for society.”

Government scandal

An opinion poll in August found the United National Movement leading, with support from 37 percent of the electorate, and Georgian Dream trailing, with 12 percent.

But a scandal erupted last month when videos of prison guards sexually abusing inmates were made public, sparking widespread outrage and imperiling the ruling party’s popularity in the polls.

Last week, Tbilisi State University saw thousands of angry students take to the streets, even as the government sacked key ministers responsible for the abuse.

Protester Vlas Keshelava, a 21-year-old political science student, says that if the government was blind to the abuse, then that in itself is a failure of trust.

“But if they knew about this — and people think that the government knew about these [violations] in the prisons — then that’s very bad,” he said.

Mr. Saakashvili came to power after the 2003 nonviolent Rose Revolution and moved to orient Georgia toward the West. He is credited with stamping out police corruption and having embarked on a neoliberal economic agenda that saw many nationalized operations become privately run endeavors.

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