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Opinion

Beware Russia's hand in elections in Georgia, Ukraine, Lithuania

A top priority of Russian President Vladimir Putin is the reintegration of former Soviet republics – based on tighter economic links and culminating in a political and security pact centered around Russia. Meddling in Eastern European elections is one way to fulfill Putin's regional ambition.

By Janusz Bugajski / October 1, 2012

People hold Georgian state flags during a campaign rally for President Mikhail Saakashvili's United National Movement in Tbilisi, Georgia, Sept. 28. Georgia holds tightly contested parliamentary elections Oct. 1. Op-ed contributor Janusz Bugajski writes: 'In the worst-case scenario, major [electoral] unrest in Georgia could precipitate another Russian military intervention on the pretext of restoring law and order by installing a friendlier government.'

Shakh Aivazov/AP

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Starting today with Georgia, and followed by Ukraine and Lithuania, parliamentary elections in Europe's east are revealing the tenuous nature of democracy and sovereignty in countries once entrapped by Soviet-era Moscow.

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Among the top priorities that Russian President Vladimir Putin set for his third presidential term is the reintegration of former Soviet republics – based on tighter economic links and culminating in a political and security pact centered around Russia. Moscow seeks to create a new Eurasian Union that will balance the European Union in the West and China in the East.

Economic linkages will supposedly create closer political and security ties, thus making it less likely that Russia’s neighbors can join alternative military and political alliances. This approach is mirrored by a more assertive policy toward vulnerable former satellite states in Central Asia and Central-Eastern Europe. The purpose is to undercut their opposition to Russia’s regional ambitions. Russian meddling in their domestic politics provides a valuable avenue of influence.

Georgia faces a major political test in its parliamentary elections today. The country’s development is under close scrutiny following an unfolding scandal over prison abuse amidst opposition charges of election campaign violations and other attacks on democracy by the ruling party.

Government supporters maintain that opposition financier and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili is engineering various provocations to undermine Georgia’s emerging democracy. According to them, Mr. Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, serves Kremlin interests by creating the Georgian Dream coalition – the main opposition in this election.

The actual results of Georgia’s elections may be less important than the reaction by opposition and government backers. Any major violence amidst accusations of election fraud will be pounced on by the Russian authorities to discredit President Mikhail Saakashvili, whom Mr. Putin has never forgiven for seeking to repossess the separatist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008.

In the worst-case scenario, major unrest in Georgia could precipitate another Russian military intervention on the pretext of restoring law and order by installing a friendlier government in the capital, Tbilisi.

Ukraine’s parliamentary elections on Oct. 28 could also culminate in street protests if massive violations are detected by election monitors and by supporters of the jailed opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko. Russia seeks greater influence over Kiev and is more assured of such influence through an authoritarian administration that is ostracized by the West. However, it remains wary of an outright domestic conflict that may raise the specter of state disintegration.

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