Bitter feud dominates Georgia election

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Bidzina Ivanishvili: Georgia's "first European-style election"

There might be 23 candidates in Sunday's presidential election in Georgia but in recent months two men already in power have been dominating the country's politics. And both are about to step down.

They face each other from their palaces on opposite sides of the River Kura, which flows through the capital Tbilisi.

One is the glass-domed structure of the country's President Mikheil Saakashvili, the second is an ultra-modern steel and glass mansion - the residence of the country's billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Mr Ivanishvili took office last year after his Georgian Dream coalition defeated President Saakashvili's allies in a parliamentary election.

But there is very little face-to-face interaction between the two leaders, and their public statements are full of bitterness towards each other.

Rights 'abuses'

In the West, President Saakashvili is known as a man who brought democracy to Georgia, which has been plagued by political violence since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But Mr Ivanishvili refers to the outgoing president as a "liar" and a "dictator".

Image source, AP
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The election campaign has been dominated by rivalry between the outgoing president and outgoing prime minister

"He said one thing to the outside world, and did totally different things inside the country," Mr Ivanishvilli told the BBC from his residence.

"Under Saakashvili, abuses of people's rights inside Georgia were widespread. Anyone could have been targeted and sent to jail. Prisons were overcrowded. Properties were illegally confiscated," he said.

Addressing a group of students on Thursday, Mr Saakashvili said he and the prime minister had nothing in common.

"I and Prime Minister Ivanishvili are from different planets, or to put it more correctly I am from this planet, from this country… We represent two different Georgias."

Since coming to power in the bloodless 2003 "Rose Revolution" Mr Saakashvili has implemented reforms which helped root out corruption.

He cut bureaucracy and improved public services in the Caucasus republic, where poverty remains widespread.

The World Bank in a report in 2012 suggested Georgia's experience in fighting corruption could be exemplary for other nations facing similar problems.

At a recent UN General Assembly meeting, Mr Saakashvili said he was proud of Georgia's accomplishments during his 10 years in office.

'Elite' corruption

But the country's prime minister has dismissed these achievements.

Image source, AP
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President Saakashvili sees himself as the man who eliminated corruption

"Corruption was eradicated among the police, his government was proud of this for years. But later, they used the police force to commit violence against people. So we can't say it was an achievement," says Mr Ivanishvili.

"The biggest achievement, I would say, was the improvement of tax collection. Money started flowing into the state budget. But the budget was then abused - so this also cannot be counted as an achievement."

His allegations of "elite" corruption have led to a number of arrests and investigations of former officials from Mr Saakashvili's administration.

Mr Ivanishvili, who credits his own government with establishing a transparent judicial system, does not exclude the possibility that Mr Saakashvili could also find himself under investigation once his presidential immunity is lifted.

"The process of restoration of justice is continuing, therefore such a probability cannot be ruled out," he said.

Behind the scenes

In August, he announced that he would step down before the end of the year.

Image source, AFP
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Prime Minister Ivanishvili says he has brought money flowing into the budget

"When I entered politics I said that I would stay for two or three years, accomplish my set goals and leave. Well, it took me less than three years. I put the country on the right path and no-one can reverse this process."

Following Sunday's vote, constitutional amendments introduced in 2010 will come into effect that significantly reduce presidential powers.

Georgia in effect will become a parliamentary democracy.

But even after Mr Ivanishvili steps down there are concerns he could still run the country from behind the scenes, especially if his chosen presidential candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili - ahead in the opinion polls - wins.

Mr Ivanishvili has not yet named a successor as prime minister.

The presidential candidate of Mr Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), Davit Bakradze, is a former parliament speaker who accuses the ruling coalition of failing to deliver on its promises.

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