Page last updated at 14:45 GMT, Thursday, 22 May 2008 15:45 UK

Democratic test for Georgia's leader

By Matthew Collin
BBC News, Tbilisi

Mikhail Saakashvili
Mr Saakashvili faces the daunting task of trying to heal deep divisions

Just days before the parliamentary elections, President Mikhail Saakashvili was in a confident mood as he dined with journalists in the historic Georgian hill town of Sighnaghi.

Under pressure from his Western allies to prove his democratic credentials after Georgia's image as a pioneer of democracy in the former Soviet Union was tarnished by a crackdown on opposition protests last November, Mr Saakashvili explained why it was essential for the polls to be genuinely free and fair.

"You know, this is a small country with no energy resources," he said, between bites of traditional Georgian khachapuri cheese pie.

"The only way to make it successful is to release internal energy. The only way to release internal energy is through freedom, and freedom comes with democracy - as simple as that."

Mr Saakashvili, who was first swept to power by a wave of popular protests known as the Rose Revolution in 2003, dismissed threats by the country's main opposition coalition that it would start a "people's rebellion" if it believed the polls were rigged.

"I think every poll indicates that Georgians are not in a revolutionary mood," he smiled.

Political rows

But the opposition supporters who gathered at about midnight on polling day were in a distinctly revolutionary mood.

Opposition protesters hold a midnight rally in Tbilisi, 21 May 2008
Opposition protesters accuse the government of electoral abuses

They chanted and cheered as their leaders - some of them former allies of Mr Saakashvili - denounced the Georgian president as a fraudster, a criminal and a dictator.

One protester accused the governing party of misusing state resources, intimidating voters and falsifying the vote to ensure it remained in power.

"If they win, they win - I have no problem with that. But when they lie, we have to react to that," she told the BBC.

But the night-time rally only attracted around 3,000 people - far fewer than opposition leaders had promised.

He needs to legitimise himself both internally and internationally, because there are still very big question marks over both elections
Giorgi Margvelashvili
Georgian Institute of Public Affairs

After months of protests outside the country's parliament and a lengthy opposition hunger strike, it has been suggested that some Georgians have become tired of the almost constant political rows, recriminations and insults.

But after victories in both presidential and parliamentary elections this year, it is Mr Saakashvili who faces the daunting task of trying to heal the deep political divisions within Georgian society.

"He needs to legitimise himself both internally and internationally, because there are still very big question marks over both elections," Giorgi Margvelashvili, head of research at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, told the BBC.

"It's one thing for him to win, but it will be a much bigger challenge to show he can rule."

Powerful neighbour

Mr Saakashvili wants to push through more radical economic reforms and attract much-needed investment while tackling poverty and unemployment.

BBC map showing Georgia and its breakaway regions

But he will also have to deal with a deeply embittered opposition which views him as the man who used force against his own people last November.

One thing many people in the country do agree on is that the country needs to join Nato to boost its security amid its disputes with its powerful neighbour, Russia, which gives support to separatist rebels in two regions of Georgia that have been trying to break away for more than a decade.

International election observers voiced some criticism of Wednesday's parliamentary polls, although they also said progress had been made.

The government had been hoping the observers' verdict would help to convince the Western military alliance that Georgia has made enough democratic progress to take the next step towards eventual Nato membership.

Mr Saakashvili insists the polls were the fairest since his country became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991 - and that they prove that Georgian democracy is "alive and well".

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