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Georgia's elections pit anti-Russian president versus conciliatory challenger

Georgia's parliamentary elections, setting President Mikheil Saakashvili's party against opposition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, are the most hotly contested in the country's modern era.

By Paul RimpleCorrespondent / September 28, 2012

Pedestrians pass election posters in Tbilisi, September 28. Georgia holds parliamentary elections on October 1.

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

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Tbilisi, Georgia

Since coming to power in 2004, Georgia’s ruling United National Movement party (UNM) has maintained a strong monopoly in the government. It has been impervious to mass opposition movements, and even a Russian invasion.

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But come Oct. 1, that may all change.

On Monday, Georgians will go to the polls to elect a parliament in the most competitive political contest in the history of modern Georgia. President Mikheil Saakashvili's UNM faces a serious challenge from the opposition movement led by Georgian billionaire and philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili. At stake is the seat of prime minister, a position that will gain additional power next year, thanks to recent reforms, at the end of Mr. Saakashvili's term.

Last year, Mr. Ivanishvili dropped a political cluster bomb in Tbilisi when he announced his plans to personally take on Saakashvili and his UNM. Authorities reacted swiftly. 

The civil registry stripped Ivanishvili, who holds multiple passports, of his Georgian citizenship and police seized more than $3 million in a raid on a cash delivery to his bank, while the country’s two major TV stations, which are closely linked to the UNM, began to paint Ivanishvili a Russian stooge.

The Chamber of Control, a government-created audit agency purposed to enforce campaign finance regulations, fined Ivanishvili millions of dollars for campaign violations, which he claims are groundless, and rounded up his activists for questioning. The national prosecutor’s office confiscated thousands of satellite dishes, intended for subscribers to Ivanishvili’s opposition television station, as part of a bribery investigation. Most recently, scores of his supporters have been detained under unclear circumstances.

Supporter turned opponent

As a political figure, Ivanishvili seems to be everything Saakashvili is not. Whereas the Columbia-educated Mr. Saakashvili groomed himself for the presidential role, Ivanishvili, a proverbial rags-to-riches billionaire worth an estimated $6.4 billion, was a recluse. 

While Saakashvili ran the country, Ivanishvili quietly funded the restoration of historical landmarks and supported national artists. He bought a fleet of new police cars, uniforms for the army, and paid parliamentarian’s salaries.

“When I was helping him (Saakashvili), I was not looking at politics at all. Then I began to analyze the situation. I realized people didn’t love him and I was being lied to,” Ivanishvili says.

He became disenchanted with the regime on Nov. 7, 2007, when riot police violently dispersed a peaceful opposition rally, stormed an independently owned television station, and destroyed its equipment. When Saakashvili resigned in response to backlash to the crackdown, only to run for president again, Ivanishvili shunned him completely.

Ivanishvili says he entered politics to save his country from growing totalitarianism and has spent millions of dollars on lobbyists to deliver this message to the West. 

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