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Allies of Georgian Leader Win Big

Georgians handed President Mikheil Saakashvili's allies a big victory in a parliamentary election Sunday, but tensions in the autonomous region of Adzharia and reported violence threatened to overshadow the poll.

An exit poll for privately owned Rustavi-2 television forecast that Saakashvili's National Movement-United Democrats bloc had won 78.6 percent of the vote and no opposition party would clear the 7 percent hurdle needed to win seats in parliament. Saakashvili, elected president by a landslide in January after leading a bloodless revolution, has pledged to unite the divided Caucasus nation and stamp out rampant corruption.

The United States, which backs Saakashvili, is keen to see a stable Georgia as the Caucasus country lies on the route of a Western oil pipeline due to start pumping Caspian oil to the Mediterranean next year without the need to cross Russia.

The head of the Central Elections Commission, Zurab Chiabesashvili, said there had been "a clash" at Tsikhisdziri, a village in Adzharia, and some voters had been prevented from casting ballots elsewhere in Adzharia, whose leader Aslan Abashidze has been at odds with Saakashvili. Saakashvili's success in tapping deep-seated frustration with a post-Soviet history marked by civil wars, corruption and Russian efforts to wield influence has left many opponents discredited and in disarray. But U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles had hoped opposition parties would win some seats. "Any democracy needs an opposition in the parliament," he said.

Sunday's poll was for 150 seats in the 235-seat chamber, the other 85 seats were not nullified after the November vote. If the exit poll proves correct, the only parliamentary opposition will come from a handful of deputies elected the first time around.

Saakashvili's attempts to bring Abashidze to heel have sparked accusations on both sides that free voting in the province bordering Turkey would be hindered.

Kalashnikov-toting supporters and military units loyal to Abashidze have increased the danger of armed conflict in a country that has two openly separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are not participating in the vote.

For his part, Abashidze accused the government of planning to falsify results in Adzharia to prevent his Revival party returning to parliament. Adzharia has jealously guarded its autonomy and control of the oil-exporting seaport at Batumi.

(The Moscow Times 29.iii.04)

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