Georgia votes in snap presidential elections

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Moscow, Jan 5 (UNI) About 3.5 million voters are voting to elect a new President in the former Soviet republic of Georgia today.

The polling is taking place following former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced the elections in early November, amid mass protests in the capital Tbilisi.

Georgians will also vote on the country's accession to NATO and decide on whether the parliamentary elections should be held in the spring of 2008.

RIA Novosti news agency quoted Georgian Interior Minister Shota Khizanishvili as saying that no untoward incidents at the polling stations have been reported so far.

However, heavy snowfall delayed the polls in mountainous villages, one station still closed, it said.

Mr Saakashvili, who stepped down as President in November to launch his presidential campaign, is facing six challengers-- Levan Gachechiladze, a unity candidate of eight opposition parties; David Gamkrelidze, the New Right opposition party leader; Irina Sarishvili of the Imedi political movement; Giorgy Maisashvili, the Party of the Future leader; Badri Patarkatsishvili, a foreign-based billionaire and Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the Labour Party.

Russian media reports said Mr Saakashvili ran a well-funded election campaign, while other candidates were much less visible.

Opposition groups have also accused him of authoritarian tendencies and a failure to tackle large-scale social deprivation in Georgia.

Mr Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer, came to power after street protests in 2003, nicknamed the Rose Revolution.

His first term as President saw Georgia strengthen its ties with NATO and the European Union.

But relations with Moscow soured and Georgia's economy was badly hit by a Russian ban on Georgian wine and other goods.

Georgia's proximity to Iraq, Iran and Turkey makes it strategically important. A key oil export pipeline from the Caspian Sea also runs through it.

The West regards Georgia as a key test of Russia's readiness to respect other ex-Soviet states' independence, while Moscow is sensitive to any potential source of instability along its border in the Caucasus.

UNI XC SKB RN1904

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