PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- "He is charming, but glib. Saakashvili needs to step up to the plate if the Rose Revolution is to meet its promise. It is not enough to want to be in the European Union. You have to meet standards of democracy. That is his challenge," a ranking Democrat wrote to me in response to the presidential election results in the Republic of Georgia.
Georgia borders the Black Sea and has some 4.6 million inhabitants. Its most famous beach resort is Batumi -- formerly the favorite hangout of Communist apparatchiks. Georgia has had serious problems with the want-to-be breakaway Republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- both of which are within its borders and not recognized internationally. These regions are quasi-independent, highly unstable and corrupt. Georgia has offered Abkhazia a high degree of independence within her borders. This has been rejected. South Ossetia is a similarly complicated conflict area with hostage-takings, shootouts and occasional bombings. Both regions are massively supported by Russia.
On Sunday, Georgia held presidential elections. Georgia's elections commission announced near complete results showing President Mikheil Saakashvili as winner with 52 percent of the vote; anything over 50 percent avoids a runoff. Turnout was around 49 percent, much lower than the 88 percent that voted in 2004 after the Rose Revolution when Saakashvili garnered 97 percent of the vote. Ultimately, the Rose Revolution was not a grassroots movement, and therefore passion was absent for voter participation in the 2008 election.
The opposition took nearly 29 percent of the vote -- nearly 14 percent more than opinion polls predicted. Nonetheless, the opposition has claimed the elections were rigged. Certainly the run-up to the elections was tainted. Opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze has been in politics for some time but had kept a low profile until recent demonstrations in November. Gachechiladze was one of the main leaders of the Rose Revolution along with Parliament President Nino Burjanadze, a powerful 40-something woman and confidante of Saakashvili.
Saakashvili's advisers distrust Burjanadze. She is close to the Orthodox Church -- they are not. She takes her own positions and is seen in the public as someone who stands up against the president. Burjanadze defends the rights of the Parliament -- protecting checks and balances in this fragile democracy. She straddles a fine line between having her own voice while not being disloyal to Saakashvili. She has been acting president twice; we met in Prague in 2006.
In 2003 the Rose Revolution toppled former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze who had became president of Georgia in 1993 after independence from the Soviet Union. Shevardnadze was increasingly accused of corruption. Saakashvili had been a protege of Shevardnadze and his justice minister. Western-educated, Saakashvili turned against his master and helped topple him in 2003 after parliamentary elections were held that were widely accepted as rigged.
Georgia under Saakashvili has substantially reduced corruption. Transparency International ranked Georgia No. 79 in the world in its 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, having climbed from 130 in 2005 and 99 in 2006. But the courts and police remain a serious area of corruption.
The political and business elites in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, strongly voted against Saakashvili in the elections after supporting him in 2004. They resent the corruption. They also have memories of February 2005 when Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania allegedly died of carbon monoxide poisoning in an apparent gas leak at the home of a deputy governor. Zhvania was a key figure in the Rose Revolution. Despite repeated denials to the contrary, many Georgians still believe Saakashvili had a hand in Zhvania's death. The police say the death was an accident, but a former defense minister (now in jail in Germany), Shevardnadze and Zhvania's family have claimed foul play.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the chairman of the U.S. Democratic Party, has met Saakashvili. "We had intense conversations over dinner." Dean keeps a close tab on the country. "I am still close to some of his former colleagues from the Rose Revolution. ... I would be delighted to know the elections were fair."
The elections were monitored by some 2000 observers, including 500 from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (85 of which were parliamentarians) and 100 diplomats stationed locally in Georgia. The OSCE said the elections were "in essence consistent with most international standards for democratic elections, but significant challenges need to be addressed urgently." The elections were the first genuinely competitive presidential poll, although opposition figures were subjected to immense and largely improper pressure to withdraw candidacies or not to participate in the campaign. The campaign was conducted in a highly polarized environment, marked by a lack of trust and pervasive allegations of violations. "The distinction between state activities and President Saakashvili's campaign was sometimes blurred, contributing to an inequitable campaign environment." Moscow has condemned the Georgia polls as "neither free nor fair," a rather bizarre twist.
Nevertheless, the electorate was able to express its political choice. A ranking Western ambassador monitored the elections 100 miles from Tbilisi. A friend from the fight against communism, he noted that most polling stations he visited were organized and relatively peaceful. Other monitors, however, gave him feedback suggesting there were significant regional variations and isolated cases of serious fraud. In some precincts the process was chaotic and plagued with procedural problems. The vote counting was heavily criticized as being a slow process with serious procedural shortcomings.
Parliamentary elections to be held in March/April of this year will show if Saakashvili's government has stabilized its reputation among the population. Generally, Saakashvili's strongest support comes outside the cities in agricultural areas that have benefited most from his reforms. Saakashvili has alienated the media by shutting down major independent press. Georgia has the third-largest number of troops in Iraq after the United States and Britain.
Saakashvili was a young justice minister when we met briefly years ago. Already then, he had a very mixed reputation among Western diplomats.
Mr. President-elect, it is not enough to deal with petty corruption while corruption at the top continues -- you must ensure the rose opens completely.
(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he is a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party and a vice chair of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)