TBILISI GEORGIA – Georgians voted Sunday for a president to succeed Mikhail Saakashvili, who during nearly a decade in power has turned this former Soviet republic into a fledgling democracy and a staunch U.S. ally.
For Saakashvili, it’s a bitter departure. The vote is expected to cement the control of his rival, billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose coalition routed Saakashvili’s party in a parliamentary election a year ago.
Ivanishvili’s chosen candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili, a former university rector with little political experience, is expected to win Sunday’s election. But much uncertainty remains.
Ivanishvili has promised to step down next month and nominate a new prime minister, who is almost certain to be approved by parliament. Under Georgia’s new parliamentary system, the next prime minister will acquire many of the powers previously held by the president.
Ivanishvili has not yet named his choice to lead the country. And he says he intends to maintain influence over the government, although how is not entirely clear. But his fortune, estimated at $5.3 billion, gives him considerable leverage in this country of 4.5 million people with a gross domestic product of $16 billion.
Much uncertainty also hangs over Saakashvili’s future. Since last year’s election and what was in effect a transfer of power, dozens of people from Saakashvili’s team, including several former government ministers, have been hit with criminal charges and some have been jailed, including the former prime minister.
Ivanishvili confirmed in an interview with The Associated Press that Saakashvili also is likely to be questioned by prosecutors once he leaves office next month.
Prosecutors have reopened a criminal inquiry into the 2005 death of Zurab Zhvania, who was Saakashvili’s first prime minister. Zhvania’s death was attributed to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty gas heater, but his brother has accused Saakashvili of hiding the truth.
Saakashvili also may face questioning over the 2008 war with Russia, which ended with Russian troops in full control of two breakaway Georgian republics. His opponents accuse him of needlessly antagonizing Russia and giving Moscow a pretext to invade.
Saakashvili repeated Sunday that he has no plans to flee the country. “No one can forbid me either to leave the country or to stay, but I do not intend to leave Georgia,” he told television journalists while jogging along the Black Sea coast in western Georgia.
His party needs its candidate, former parliamentary speaker David Bakradze, to finish a strong second among the 23 candidates to maintain political influence. Bakradze now leads the opposition faction in parliament.
Bakradze faces the biggest challenge from Nino Burdzhanadze, a veteran politician who boasts of good relations with Moscow and has called for Saakashvili to be jailed.
While Ivanishvili made his money in Russia and has had some success in restoring trade ties with Georgia’s hostile neighbor, he has maintained the pro-Western course set by Saakashvili.
“Nobody can change this. This is the will of the Georgian people, to see their country in the EU and in NATO,” said Alexi Petriashvili, one of Ivanishvili’s ministers. “The majority see the U.S. as Georgia’s strongest strategic partner.”
If not for Washington, Georgia most likely wouldn’t have survived as an independent state, Petriashvili told the AP. He pointed to Washington’s support for the closing of Russian military bases in Georgia in 2005.
The U.S. supports Georgia diplomatically and financially, with assistance in 2013 totaling about $70 million.
Ivanishvili’s government has come under pressure from U.S. and EU officials to show that the justice system isn’t being used to settle political scores and to refrain from jailing Saakashvili.
Many Georgians became deeply disillusioned with what they saw as the excesses and authoritarian turn of the later years of Saakashvili’s presidency.
The achievements of the early years, however, are difficult to deny. Saakashvili brought the economy out of the shadow, restored electricity supplies, eradicated a corrupt traffic police force, and laid the foundation for a democratic state.
Georgia’s GDP has quadrupled since Saakashvili became president after leading the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.
“Yes, everyone forgot how we sat in the darkness and what kind of roads we had,” Marina Vezirishvili, 46, said after voting in Tbilisi. “But just so you know, I’m not a member of Misha’s party and I didn’t vote for their candidate.”
Saakashvili, commonly known as Misha, has earned wide international respect for allowing the government to change through the ballot box rather than through revolution for the first time in Georgia’s post-Soviet history.
“We have to recognize, whatever our position is inside Georgian political fights, that Georgia has been a great example,” said Joao Soares, head of an election monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.