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New era for Georgia as nation moves closer to Russia

By Matthew Chance, CNN
updated 9:50 AM EDT, Wed October 3, 2012
Georgia's triumphant opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili speaks at his campaign headquarters in Tbilisi.
Georgia's triumphant opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili speaks at his campaign headquarters in Tbilisi.
  • For the first time, power is set to be transferred by free and fair elections instead of revolution
  • Prime minister-elect Bidzina Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia during the 1990s
  • During a bitter election campaign, government officials accused him of wanting to return Georgia to Russia's sphere of influence
  • Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has welcomed the election result

(CNN) -- It is a momentous day for Georgian democracy -- but a painful one for the man who has led the former Soviet republic for nearly a decade.

For the first time in the strategically important former Soviet state, power is set to be transferred by free and fair elections instead of revolution.

As the results became clear, President Mikheil Saakashvili, a larger-than-life figure who was swept to power in 2003, appeared on national television to accept defeat.

After summing up the preliminary election results it is evident that the Georgian Dream coalition has achieved the advantage, he said, pledging not to hold up the process.

Opposition win rocks Georgia
Bidzina Ivanishvili on his historic win

But it must be a painful political blow to a man swept to power nine years ago in the popular Rose Revolution.

Bogged down and damaged by accusations of authoritarianism and human rights abuse, including appalling images that emerged last month of prison inmates being physically and sexually abused in a Georgian jail, his once popular support appears to have slid away.

Georgia's ruling party concedes defeat in parliamentary elections

Ambitions of Georgian membership into the European Union and the NATO military alliance tormented Russia with whom Georgia fought a brief war in 2008. They may be less of a priority for the new government now.

The prime minister-elect, who will take the reigns of power from Saakashvili next year, is Bidzina Ivanishvili, a controversial 56-year-old billionaire who made his fortune in Russia during the 1990s.

With interests in iron ore, banks, pharmaceuticals and real estate, Ivanishvili grew up in Georgia's rural west.

He is now estimated by Forbes magazine to be the 153rd richest man in the world, with assets worth more than half of tiny Georgia┬╣s GDP.

His eccentric tastes include a number of pet penguins he keeps in a private zoo, along with a zebra and other exotic beasts.

A multi-million dollar art collection, including works by Picasso, Gilbert & George and Roy Lichtenstein, is mainly housed in secure vaults in London, while he displays exact reproductions in his towering, James Bond-style glass palace in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

During a bitter election campaign, government officials accused him of wanting to turn his back on Europe, NATO and the United States, to return Georgia to Russia's sphere of influence.

More darkly, critics accused him of being part of a Kremlin conspiracy to topple Georgia's pro-Western leadership.

But that is an accusation he adamantly denies, telling CNN he merely wants to repair shattered links with Moscow and has no intention of turning his back on the West.

"Restoring relations with the Kremlin is one of our main tasks, and we will strive in every way to do this," he said.

"First, we have to convince the Kremlin that our strategy towards NATO and Europe is not harmful to and does not contradict Russian interests," he added.

For its part, the Kremlin -- whose tanks still occupy two breakaway regions of Georgia that Moscow recognizes as independent countries -- remained tight-lipped throughout the Georgian campaign.

Only now has there been comment from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

"If these results will become a reality, then [the] Georgian political landscape will be more diverse," he told Russian media.

"It should be welcome because it probably means that more responsible and constructive forces are coming to the parliament," he said.

If that means Russia and Georgia can rebuild ties without sacrificing the achievements of the past decade, this may be a momentous day in Georgian democracy indeed.

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