Could Georgia Be 2012's October Surprise?

By Lincoln Mitchell

As the U.S. presidential campaign enters its final two months, President Barack Obama finds himself with a narrow lead, hoping that his opponent, Republican candidate Mitt Romney, does not suddenly become an inspiring campaigner; that no new bad economic news hits; and that there are no events in the foreign policy arena that create problems for his administration.

The Georgian election, scheduled for Oct. 1, has the potential to create precisely the kind of problems that Obama does not need or want.

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The Georgian election has been a hotly contested race where the ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM) - which controls almost all of Georgia's one-party state - has pursued a path of repression of political and media freedoms that is antithetical to free and fair elections. Although the UNM may win the election on Oct. 1, its victory will be met with widespread, and probably accurate, beliefs from the Georgian people that the election was stolen due to the political climate and absence of basic freedoms throughout the campaign period.

It is not hard to imagine a scenario where the Georgian people, angry at seeing their votes stolen, engage in demonstration, protests and other actions while demanding that their concerns be addressed. If this occurred in any country, it would have some potential to create problems for an American president seeking reelection, but in Georgia, this might be even more problematic. Georgia is a close ally of the U.S., heavily dependent on foreign, largely American, assistance. Moreover, despite its increasingly autocratic regime, Georgia has been portrayed in the U.S., in what might generously be described as an enormous overstatement, as a democratic outpost in one of the world's least democratic regions.

More significantly, Georgia, under President Mikheil Saakashvili's leadership has sent troops first to Iraq and now Afghanistan. In the latter country Georgia now has the third largest contingent of troops. This contribution of support in Afghanistan has been a major reason why the U.S. has been relatively silent regarding Saakashvili and his government's authoritarian excesses within Georgia.

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Lincoln Mitchell is a professor at Columbia University's Harriman Institute.

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