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Georgians vote amid high tension

A Georgian woman votes in Tbilisi
Georgia is trying to makes itself a model democracy

Voting is under way in Georgia in parliamentary polls that are being overshadowed by fears of political unrest and rising tensions with Russia.

Heavy gunfire was reported along the border with breakaway Abkhazia, after a bus carrying voters was attacked; and an opposition activist was shot dead.

The vote is expected to re-elect President Mikhail Saakashvili's ruling United National Movement.

But opposition leaders have alleged vote fraud and are preparing protests.

The election is being seen as a test of Georgia's commitment to democracy under the pro-Western Mr Saakashvili.

"In Georgia our democracy is alive and well," he insisted, after voting.

Earlier he urged Georgians to remain united, implying that Russia would exploit any division.

"Our enemy wants [the election] to turn into turmoil and internal confrontation," he said.

The two countries have been embroiled in an increasingly bitter row over two breakaway Georgian regions - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - backed by Russia.

Opposition allegations

Mr Saakashvili's United National Movement has promised economic development and more jobs but the government needs international support if it is going to create the European-style prosperity it wants, says the BBC's Matthew Collin in the capital, Tbilisi.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili votes 21/05/08
President Mikhail Saakashvili urged Georgians to stay united

In Abkhazia, a bus carrying voters came under fire, leaving several people injured and sparking a gun battle that lasted for 20 minutes, witnesses said. The government blamed Abkhaz separatists.

The opposition also said one of its activists was killed in a district bordering Abkhazia as he went out to vote.

"He was shot with a hunting rifle... We do not know who killed him but we demand an immediate investigation," said opposition leader David Gamkrelidze.

Opposition supporters claim the election is being rigged by the ruling party.

"I voted for the opposition, but it doesn't matter because they are going to throw out my vote anyway," Vano Zurabishvili, 34, told the AFP news agency in Tbilisi.

However Anya, 56, said she had voted for Mr Saakashvili's party "because I believe that he is doing what's best for our country."

Protest threat

The president was swept to power in 2003's "Rose Revolution" but his democratic credentials were tarnished when he sent in riot troops to quell opposition protests last year.

He resigned as president in November 2007 in order to run for office again after a series of anti-government demonstrations forced him to call a snap election for 5 January 2008.

The opposition has alleged that the vote was rigged and have threatened mass protests if the parliamentary election is falsified.

Nato has held out to Georgia the prospect of eventual membership in the bloc but said it was looking for "free and fair parliamentary elections" and would review the membership issue later this year.

Georgia's moves to join Nato have angered neighbouring Russia, which has increased its support of the breakaway Abkhazia region.

Georgia's opposition largely shares President Saakashvili's pro-Western leanings but say he has failed to tackle unemployment and corruption.


SEE ALSO
Q&A: Georgian election
06 Jan 08 |  Europe
Profile: Mikhail Saakashvili
06 Jan 08 |  Europe


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