TBILISI (Reuters) - The United States urged Georgians on Sunday to show restraint and respect a Western monitoring report on the country’s presidential election after opposition leaders said the vote was rigged and called for protests.
Georgia is at the centre of a struggle between Washington and Moscow for influence in the South Caucasus — a volatile region wedged between Russia, Turkey and Iran which hosts a major pipeline pumping oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe.
An exit poll showed Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili, a U.S. ally, had won over half of the votes in Saturday’s election, around double that of his nearest challenger, who said the Georgian leader had cheated and that the opposition had won.
Washington’s top emissary to the region, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, urged calm.
“If the experts determine that the election was not rigged then there is absolutely no justification, and it would be absolutely undemocratic, to claim otherwise,” Bryza told Reuters by telephone.
“How unfortunate that would be for Georgian democracy.”
Saakashvili called the snap election after crushing opposition protests in November and raiding the country’s biggest opposition television station, provoking criticism from NATO and major European Union countries.
Western monitors are expected to give their assessment on the fairness of the election at around 3 p.m. (6:00 a.m. EST).
Levan Gachechiladze, leader of a nine-party opposition coalition, said on Saturday that ballots had been stuffed, voters intimidated and the results rigged by Saakashvili and he called supporters to rally at 2 p.m. in Tbilisi.
Reuters reporters saw a police water cannon and around six buses of uniformed men driving into Tbilisi on Sunday morning.
“I would hope very much that there would be no use of force whatsoever. The government has a responsibility, of course, to maintain the security of the country but protesters also have a right to demonstrate peacefully,” Bryza said.
“If rallies go to the street then the leaders of those rallies have enormous responsibility in their own hands.”
The West has lauded Saakashvili since he rose to power in a peaceful 2003 revolution then introduced liberal economic reforms and steered Georgia towards NATO.
But NATO and many European countries criticized Saakashvili after he ordered police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, raid the main opposition television station and impose a state of emergency.
The United States was more restrained and in a trip to Tbilisi a few days after the crackdown, Bryza shied away from criticizing Saakashvili.
He said then that the election was an opportunity for Georgia to reaffirm its democratic principles, a point he underlined again on Sunday.
“I think now is the time for people to look beyond the revolution and to the hard work of building democratic institutions,” he said.
Reporting by Margarita Antidze and James Kilner; editing by Elizabeth Piper