Georgia will seek close cooperation with both Russia and Western powers, billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili said on Tuesday, as his opposition coalition headed for election victory.
“It is very difficult to have many strategic partners, but we have to try and do this,” Ivanishvili told journalists. “If we can build a democratic state, I believe we will have a genuine opportunity to forge good relations with NATO and Russia.”
President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded earlier on Tuesday that his ruling United National Movement (UNM) had lost to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition in crucial parliamentary polls after what he called an “emotional and tense” election campaign.
The elections took on particular importance in the light of a law passed in 2010 transferring the majority of the president’s executive powers to the prime minister. The law comes into force from 2013, when Saakashvili’s second term ends.
Saakashvili came to power in 2003 after a popular revolt against a regime headed by former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. He was soon praised by Western powers for his democratic reforms and proved a staunch US ally – contributing the third largest contingent of troops to Iraq.
But his rule saw a sharp increase in tensions with Georgia’s vast neighbor, Russia, which culminated in a five-day conflict in 2008 between the two countries over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.
Georgia suffered a humiliating defeat, and the de facto loss of one-fifth of its territory, as Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and another breakaway republic, Abkhazia. Despite Ivanishvili’s overtures to Russia, analysts believe that this issue will continue to complicate bilateral relations.
“This is an issue that is not going to go away,” said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at Moscow’s Carnegie Center think-tank. “Russia has recognized the two republics and is not going to change its decision.”
Saakashvili has attempted to paint the once-reclusive billionaire Ivanishvili, who made his much of his money in Russia in the 1990s, as a Kremlin stooge seeking to “return Georgia to Russia’s imperial space.” Ivanishvili dismissed these allegations as “laughable.”
Saakashvili also alleged the leak last month of shocking video footage showing male inmates being sexually assaulted with broom handles had been orchestrated by Moscow. The footage resulted in a groundswell of support for the Georgian Dream coalition.
Georgia has had no diplomatic relations with Russia since the 2008 war. And while Russia did not back either side at the polls, there is great personal antipathy between Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said of his Georgian counterpart in the aftermath of the South Ossetia war that he would like to “hang him by the balls.”