By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008
TBILISI, Georgia, May 21 -- The ruling party and an opposition coalition both claimed victory Wednesday night in a parliamentary election in this former Soviet republic, after a campaign colored by escalating tensions with neighboring Russia.
During the election, widely seen as a test of Georgia's young democracy, voters from a separatist territory were apparently fired upon on their way to the polls.
But in the capital, Tbilisi, polling stations were calm. With international observers watching the process, citizens cast ballots 4 1/2 months after a presidential vote that gave U.S.-educated Mikheil Saakashvili a second term in office but that some foreign monitors called flawed.
Exit polls Wednesday night showed the United National Movement, Saakashvili's party, winning more than 63 percent of the vote, followed by the United Opposition Party, with about 14 percent, the Christian Democrat Party, with about 9 percent, and the Labor Party, with about 5 percent.
United Opposition leaders held a protest rally Wednesday night in Tbilisi, accusing the ruling party of stealing the vote. Their own exit polls, they said, tentatively showed the party with 42 percent of the vote. They publicly called on party members to remain calm and go home pending official results.
The last year has been politically turbulent for Georgia. In November, riot police beat anti-Saakashvili demonstrators and closed an opposition television station, leading to international criticism and the snap presidential election in January.
This spring, the NATO alliance denied Georgia and Ukraine an action plan for eventual membership. Many Georgians believe that decision emboldened Russia to beef up its military presence in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia whose status has remained in limbo since the early 1990s, when war there forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians to flee.
In recent weeks, at least one Georgian drone was shot down while flying over Abkhazia. Georgian officials say that only Russian, not Abkhaz, forces had the equipment to carry out such an attack. Last month, Russia expanded ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway region here, and increased its troop levels in Abkhazia.
Although government officials hailed Wednesday's election as clean and fair, some voters were skeptical. "Everybody knows who will win," said George Kaladze, a 38-year-old chauffeur standing outside a polling station in central Tbilisi. "Of course there will be on some level unfairness." He said he had voted for United Opposition.
Recalling ex-president Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who was ousted in Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution by a new generation of politicians who promised to stamp out corruption, Kaladze added, "It's the same government but just younger."
Temuraz Jinjolava, 55, a refugee from the 1993 war in Abkhazia, said that "little by little, we are going toward democracy. It would be a betrayal" to turn the ruling party out now.
Overnight, Saakashvili prepared to fly to Zugdidi, close to where government officials said would-be voters were fired on Wednesday.
The people had walked from Gali, an Abkhaz-controlled city of ethnic Georgians, to a Georgian-controlled village where buses waited to take them to polling stations, said Shota Utiashvili, head of analysis for the Georgian Interior Ministry.
"When the Abkhazians saw that they were boarding the buses, they started firing," Utiashvili said, adding that rocket-propelled grenades were used to blow up the buses. He said that it was not clear who was firing but that the attacks came from the Abkhazian side of the border.
Georgian Reintegration Minister Temuri Yakobashvili called the shootings "a terrorist act" but declined to speculate on who was responsible.
Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh said at a news conference in Moscow that Abkhazians had nothing to do with the shootings, calling them a "Hollywood-like show" staged by the Georgians.
The United States has tried to mediate the conflict, sending Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza to the Abkhazian capital, Sukhumi, this month. Bryza said the United States was looking into the shootings, which he called "an egregious attempt to undercut the democratic rights of Georgian voters and to jeopardize an invigorated peace process that is just taking shape."