Could Georgia Be 2012's October Surprise?

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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.

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.

The notion of hundreds of thousands of Georgians protesting an election falsified by an authoritarian leader with strong backing from the U.S. a few short weeks before the U.S. election cannot possibly be comforting to an Obama administration anxious to avoid any unnecessary pre-election drama. A stolen election in Georgia followed by protests that, judging by the size and nature of campaign events by the opposition Georgian Dream block, could be enormous and will leave the administration with few good options.

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. 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.

Attempting to resolve the political crisis after the election would likely be the better approach for the Obama administration, but leaves the president vulnerable to charges from Romney and the Republican Party that he has betrayed a key ally. Saakashvili remains a darling of the right, where he, despite years of evidence to the contrary, is still viewed as a radical reformer and democrat. If Obama distances himself from Saakashvili on the eve of the U.S. election, Romney would likely redouble his critique of Obama as not being sufficiently supportive of America's friends.

It is possible that the Georgian election will go smoothly and will not be news in the U.S., but that is becoming less likely every day as fines, harassment and efforts to prevent the opposition from campaigning become even more frequent in Georgia. It is, therefore, likely that the Obama administration will be faced with this all-too-foreseeable October Surprise from Georgia. A year ago, there was much the U.S. could have done to make elections better in Georgia. The window for doing that is rapidly closing, but in the next few weeks the U.S. should do whatever it can to effect at least some change for the better.

Right now, the Georgian elections look like a minor event far away from the presidential campaign in the U.S., but if President Obama wants to keep it that way, he needs to act immediately.

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