It looks like Georgia – the country next to Russia in the Caucasus, not the American state – is again in turmoil. And this worries its powerful neighbor.
The first woman to be elected to the role was backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, founded by billionaire banker Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man.
However, opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze of the United National Movement, who took 40.4 percent, claimed “mass electoral fraud” in a statement to the press.
“The oligarch has stamped out Georgian democracy and the institutions of elections,” he stated, referring to Ivanishvili. “I urge Georgians to defend our freedom, democracy and the law. I call on you to start mass peaceful rallies and demand snap parliamentary polls.”
But Vashadze was himself under a cloud. A Soviet diplomat from 1976 to 1993, Vashadze held dual Russian-Georgian citizenship until 2009.
That became a sticking point for his opponents, who criticized him for waiting to long to give up his Russian citizenship only in November 2009, over a year after the brief Russo-Georgian War.
Relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have been tense ever since. Russia stopped Georgia from recapturing two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which had declared independence at the same time that Georgia itself became a sovereign nation following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Russia still maintains a military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, recognising both as independent states.
Georgia wants to join the European Union and NATO, a prospect that, not surpisingly, is viewed dimly by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In June, tensions reached a boiling point. Protests were ignited in Georgia by the appearance of a Russian politician in the country’s parliament.
Sergei Gavrilov, a member of Russia’s State Duma, sparked the fury when he addressed an assembly of parliamentarians from Orthodox Christian nations on June 20.
He had been taking part in the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, a body set up in 1993 to foster relations between Christian Orthodox lawmakers. Most Russians and Georgians are members of eastern rite Christian churches.
But opposition deputies in Georgia’s parliament called for protests after he delivered his speech in Russian from Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze’s seat.
They also maintained that Gavrilov had fought against Georgians in Abkhazia in the 1990s and that he was an apologist for Russian geopolitical expansionism.
“That was a slap in the face of recent Georgian history,” insisted Elene Khoshtaria, a member of parliament from the United National Movement.
President Zurabishvili called Russia “an enemy and occupier,” saying Moscow had helped stir the unrest.
Since then, there have been daily protests in the capital. Some carried EU flags and placards reading “Russia is an occupier.”
The Kremlin condemned the protests as “Russophobic provocation.” Putin signed a decree suspending flights to Georgia by Russian airlines, beginning July 8.
This is likely to harm Georgia’s tourism revenues, given that one million Russians visited the country last year. The Georgian economy may lose up to $300 million.
The protests have served as a lesson that Georgian society still holds a veto over any accommodation toward Russia.