As Georgians head to the polls Monday, analysts are warning that rising tensions could boil over just as the Russian military is conducting exercises near the de facto border line, a situation the Georgia government is worried Moscow could exploit.
"We hope it will be made clear to Russia that a military invasion into Georgia with the goal of destroying Georgia's sovereignty, which is still the goal of the Kremlin, will have a huge at minimum political price for Russia in its relationship with Western powers," Georgia's National Security Advisor Giga Bokeria told The Cable in a phone interview from Tbilisi.
The European Union's monitoring mission, which patrols the administrative boundary between Georgia and the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhasia and South Ossetia, noted in its most recent report that while the observers saw no movement of military equipment on the Georgian side that could be perceived as instigating an attack, the Russian forces on the other side of the boundary line are increasing.
"The Mission has raised its concerns about this activity with the relevant Russian command structures," their report stated.
The Russian buildup comes against the backdrop of increasingly violent protests that are spreading ahead of the Oct. 1 parliamentary elections, in which the ruling United National Movement party is facing its greatest challenge to date from the Georgian Dream Movement, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia but is now spending it to huge effect in the Georgian political arena.
Ivanishvili's party and the ruling party led by President Mikheil Saakashvili have been engaged in a bitter fight over the future of Georgia. The government accuses Ivanishvili's camp of inciting violence, while the opposition charges Saakashvili's police forces of abusing their power.
A scandal over videos showing torture in a Georgian prison, played on a television station owned by Ivanishvili, was quickly followed by the release of footage of an Ivanishvil relative attempting to bribe officials. Ivanishivili has disavowed his relationship with that relative.
Suspicions that the Georgian opposition is using the potential unrest after the election to influence foreign and Western governments rose when Ivanishvili penned an Aug. 2 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal's European edition that warned of regional and international fallout from the Georgian elections.
"Without hope for freedom and liberty, our society will eventually explode with internal strife. The pot is already boiling," Ivanishvili wrote. "The Caucasus could experience sectarian conflicts similar to the one in Syria. And with both Russia and Iran on our doorstep, this is not a risk any of us should wish to take."
Bokeria said that the Georgian government is now concerned that the opposition plans to make good on its warnings by declaring the polls illegitimate next week, setting off more violence.
"The ridiculous suggestions about Syria were alarming at the time because they were completely groundless and irresponsible and without any evidence to suggest that, but in the current context they are even more alarming because in recent days we see an upsurge of violent incidents, mostly connected with opposition activists," he said.
On Sept. 22, Columbia Professor Lincoln Mitchell, an Ivanishvili supporter and advocate, wrote an article entitled, "Could Georgia be 2012's October Surprise?," which Ivanishvili tweeted to his followers, in which Mitchell wrote that if the Obama administration doesn't come out on the side of the opposition and decry the Georgian elections as illegitimate, the entire country of Georgia could erupt in anti-American violence.
"If the administration does not intervene at that time, the demonstrations will likely continue, but could take a tone critical of western, and American, inaction in response to the administration's tacit endorsement of Saakashvili's election fraud. This would not be good for Obama and will remind voters of his administration's reluctance to take an early and strong position in support of peaceful demonstrators in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa in early 2011," Mitchell wrote. "Continued protests in Georgia could even destabilize the country, creating immediate security problems for the U.S. in a region where the possibility of conflict between and within states is already very real."
In an interview with The Cable, also from Tbilisi, Ivanishvili accused the UNM party of using the organs of state power to institute a policy of intimidation and persecution of opposition leaders and activists. But Ivanishvili said that despite the governments' tactics, "We have a lot of support from the public and we will definitely win the upcoming elections."
If the opposition doesn't prevail, it is prepared to declare the elections were not free and fair, he said.
"We have enough evidence right now to say that the elections are already fraudulent and already being stolen. We don't have to wait for the first of October because the amount of material is already so large that we can prove and say that this is already election-rigging and this is already a stolen election," Ivanishvili said. "There's no point in waiting until the first of October. But we're continuing to fight the political fight, no matter what."
The opposition is not calling for civil unrest, either before or after the elections, Ivanishvili insisted.
"I'm doing everything in my capacity not to allow Syria in Georgia. If you see each and every one of my actions, you will not see any call for aggressive actions nor calls for civil unrest," he said. "We're trying our best to show the people how to have peaceful elections no matter how the situation unfolds. No matter how much the elections are rigged, no matter how much they steal them, neither I nor the coalition is going to call for any type of civil unrest, or cause any type of civil unrest."
There could be some conflict with Russia following the election, but that would be Saakashvili's fault, according to Ivanishivili.
"Saakashvili brought in Russian troops in Georgia through his actions, through his silliness. He already allowed Russian troops to occupy Georgia and now he's saying that I'm going to bring in Russian troops... Do I exclude him playing out some scenario with Russia? No, but I hope that's not going to be the case."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.