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Georgia election could herald change of allies back to Russia

TBILISI, Georgia--Public anger over a prison abuse scandal played into a parliamentary election in Georgia on Monday which could determine if the former Soviet republic keeps its close relationship with the West or moves back to Russia's orbit.

The election provides President Mikheil Saakashvili with the biggest test of his decade in power.

Saakashvili, who swept to the presidency after the Rose Revolution of 2003, says his main challenger Bidzina Ivanishvili will cultivate closer ties to Russia — with which Georgia fought a brief but disastrous war five years ago.

Ivanishvili, a billionaire tycoon with a fortune nearly half the size of Georgia's economy, hopes the prison scandal will convince undecided voters that Saakashvili has become an undemocratic leader who tramples on rights and freedoms.

The West is watching the election closely. It wants a stable Georgia because of its role as a conduit for Caspian Sea energy supplies to Europe and its pivotal location between Russia, Iran, Turkey and Central Asia.

Before the vote, video of torture, beatings and sexual assault of prison inmates led to street protests after it was aired on two television channels opposed to Saakashvili.

The furore undermined Saakashvili's image as a reformer who had imposed the rule of law and rooted out corruption.

“I'm voting against violence and abuse. How can I do otherwise after what we have all seen on TV?” Natela Zhorzholiani, 68, said outside a polling station at a school in the capital, Tbilisi.

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