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Opposition Victory Signals New Direction For Georgia

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Parliamentary elections in Georgia, the former Soviet republic, delivered a resounding defeat for the ruling party of President Mikheil Saakashvili on Monday. Preliminary election results showed the opposition winning 57 percent of the vote.

A day later, the president conceded defeat. In a televised address, Saakashvili said he respected the decision of the voters, and that he would clear the way for the opposition Georgian Dream party to form a new government, a move that would install opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili as prime minister.

Saakashvili — who rose to power after the peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003 — made it clear, however, that he intends to mount a strong opposition. He said Ivanishvili's views were unacceptable to him and "extremely wrong."

For his part, Ivanishvili said the concession paves the way for a peaceful and orderly transition of power, but he also struck a combative note. He dismissed the government's reforms over the past eight years as "a joke" and said Saakashvili's ideology was "based on the lies."

The hostile tones of the two leaders don't bode well for cooperation as the two sides prepare for a transition of power.

"There's a lot of polarization, there's a lot of anger, [and] there's still a danger of a desire for retribution overriding a desire to have sort of a normal, rough-and-tumble democratic politics," says Cory Welt, an expert on the Caucasus region. "We still need to see how that evolves."

Welt, of George Washington University, says that before the vote, he feared that disputed election results could trigger a potentially violent standoff between the two sides. Things could still get messy in the struggle between the two leaders.

Saakashvili's term as president doesn't end for another year, and under current law, he remains a powerful executive.

Under a constitutional change that was approved last year, some of what are now presidential powers will be transferred to the prime minister. But that won't happen until Saakashvili's term is up.

Meanwhile, Welt says he's cautiously optimistic.

"If this does get channeled into the political system properly, then we're going to be able to see some of the most vibrant debates in the ex-Soviet Union that we've been able to see," he says.

Saakashvili's government has been strongly pro-Western, aiming to bring Georgia into NATO and the European Union.

Ivanishvili has said he will maintain the government's pro-Western stance, but he will also seek to restore normal relations with Georgia's powerful neighbor Russia.

That is, if the two leaders can find a way to get things done.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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