Georgians march to the polls Sunday hoping to crown their peaceful revolution by freely electing a new president who will lead their troubled republic out of its decade-old morass of poverty, corruption, and civil strife.
Few here doubt that the man who will be chosen is Mikhael Saakashvili, the charismatic US-educated politician who organized three weeks of nonviolent street protests last November that ended in the resignation of former President Eduard Shevardnadze. Though six candidates are on the ballot, five are virtual unknowns.
Experts say the suspense lies not in the voting but in how Mr. Saakashvili, a youthful and largely untested leader, will use the power he's almost certain to win.
"The legacy is a very harsh one, and the people's expectations are extremely high," says Valery Dolidze, a political scientist at Tbilisi State University. "Saakashvili will have very limited time in which to show concrete results. If he fails to move quickly, the population will become deeply frustrated."
The enthusiasm for Saakashvili, affectionately referred to as "Misha" by many in this small country, is hard to miss in the streets.
"I'll vote for Misha because I want to believe we have some future in Georgia," says Nunu Dumbadze, a schoolteacher who came out to Tbilisi's Freedom Square on New Year's Eve to cheer a brief appearance by her hero. The November revolution "gave us back our hopes," says Iya Iyashvili, a retired university professor. "I thank Misha for that," she says. Zurab Jinoria, a construction worker, says he believes Saakashvili is "the only man who can change this corrupted system."
"Saakashvili is perceived as direct and honest. He's a fighter," says Mr. Dolidze. "He is the only leader in Georgia who could have pulled together the broad coalition that overthrew Shevardnadze."
Watching the election closely are neighboring Russia and the United States, whose clashing strategic interests focus on a Western-financed pipeline being built across Georgia to bring oil from the new gushers of the Caspian region to world markets.
Many Georgians suspect that Russia, which ruled the Caucasus for two centuries, may be stirring up ethnic separatist sentiments in Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a bid to block Georgia's integration with the West.
"Russian actions sometimes look like tools to create controlled chaos here in Georgia, to keep us weak and divided. Russia has no other means to influence the situation," says David Darchiashvili, an expert with the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development in Tbilisi, which has received funds from the Open Society Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy. "If Saakashvili brings stability and Georgia stands firm, we may be able to improve our relations with Russia."
Georgia, an ethnically-diverse republic of 4.5-million, was plunged into the fires of civil war, revolution, and regional separatism almost immediately after gaining independence from the USSR in 1991. Popular revolt against against the country's first elected president Zviad Gamsakhurdia brought Mr. Shevardnadze, a former KGB chief of Georgia and Soviet foreign minister, to power