TBILISI, Georgia – Georgians voted Thursday in municipal elections seen as a crucial test for President Mikhail Saakashvili during a diplomatic crisis with Russia.
Allies and opponents of the president are competing for more than 1,700 seats on municipal and regional councils, which in turn elect mayors and regional administration heads.
With the opposition Labor and Conservative parties hoping to gain seats, the outcome will likely be seen as a measure of Saakashvili's support among Georgia's 3.2 million voters.
Retaliating for Georgia's recent arrest of Russian military officers on espionage charges, Moscow has imposed a transport and postal blockade threatening the economy of its impoverished neighbor.
But a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official ruled out the use of force in the crisis. Asked by a journalist about the likelihood of a military solution to the dispute, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Yakovenko replied: "Of course there can't be any talk about it."
Georgia already is struggling with a sharp increase in living costs that has contributed to a decline in Saakashvili's popularity
Meat prices have doubled and prices for grains and sugar have risen by about 20 percent. Electricity and gas costs also have increased.
Saakashvili, who was elected after the 2003 Rose Revolution and has worked to shake off Russian influence over the former Soviet Republic, vowed the country will overcome the crisis with Moscow.
"We have a lot of support in the world," Saakashvili said after voting with his 9-month-old son in his arms. "Those who speak badly of us prove they don't know what to do, but they cannot stop Georgia's progress toward independence and a bright future."
Russia's chilly relations with Georgia have worsened steadily since Saakashvili came to power, vowing to take Georgia out of Moscow's orbit, rein in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and join NATO in 2008. Georgia accuses Russia of backing the separatists, an allegation Moscow denies.
Growing U.S. influence in Georgia has contributed to the strain.
Russia suspended air, sea, road, rail and postal links with Georgia on Tuesday, angry over the arrest of the four Russian officers on spying charges in Georgia last week.
Tightening the squeeze, Moscow on Thursday abolished a program allowing a certain number of Georgians each year to obtain Russian residency and work permits, Mikhail Tyurkin, deputy head of the Federal Migration Service, said on NTV television. Moscow has stopped issuing visas to Georgian citizens since the dispute, so the new measure affects those already in Russia.
Russian officials say about 300,000 Georgians live in Russia; some estimates put the number far higher — at about 1 million of Georgia's 4.4 million population.
Russia's lower house speaker said Monday that Georgians living in Russia send home an estimated $1 billion a year. In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin put the amount at $1.5 billion to $2 billion annually — an amount comparable to Georgia's state budget.
The closest-fought race in Thursday's election was in the capital, Tbilisi, whose mayor is Georgia's second most prominent political official. The head of the left opposition Labor party hopes to unseat Saakashvili ally Gigi Ugulava in the race.
Goderdzi Kimeridze, a 30-year-old office worker voting in Tbilisi, said he agreed with Saakashvili's foreign policy but that he had voted for the Conservatives.
"They are also for joining NATO, they're pro-Western. But they're calmer and they don't make such harsh statements," he said. "Politicians should be more diplomatic."