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Georgian President Saakashvili Wins Narrow Re-Election

Mikhail Saakashvili has won a second term as Georgia's president, election officials said Sunday, giving preliminary results from a ballot denounced as fraudulent by an opposition threatening to organize prolonged protests.

For the U.S.-educated Saakashvili, the prospect of major protests is an ironic echo of the mass demonstrations that swept him into office four years ago after rigged elections in the former Soviet republic.

The observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, gave Saturday's election a mixed assessment, calling it a "triumphant step" for democracy in Georgia, but pointing to an array of violations. But Russia, which vies with the West for influence in Georgia, sharply criticized the vote.

Based on a nearly complete tally of Saturday's voting, Saakashvili had 52.8 percent of the vote — narrowly clearing the 50-percent threshold for a first-round victory — Central Elections Commission head Levan Tarkhnishvili said. Main challenger Levan Gachechiladze had 27 percent.

About 27,000 votes from Georgian abroad and 25,000 at home had yet to be counted, the election commission leader said, but they would not be enough to bring Saakashvili's total below the 50-percent majority needed to avoid a runoff.

The narrow victory underlined the deep divisions in Georgia. The OSCE criticism puts Saakashvili under pressure to bring true democracy to a country once seen as a paragon of reform in the former Soviet Union, and doubts could torpedo Saakashvili's aims of bringing Georgia into both NATO and the European Union.

His democratic credentials already came into question when police violently dispersed anti-government demonstrations in November and Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency and shut down an independent television station.

He defused the political crisis by calling the early presidential election, cutting short his own five-year term, clearly confident of winning a new mandate. But opposition leaders said the campaign was held under unfair conditions and claimed widespread violations during the vote.

Opposition leaders drew some 5,000 of their supporters to a protest rally Sunday.

Addressing the crowd on a snowy square in Tbilisi, Gachechiladze claimed he came first in the vote and called for a second round. He cited a tally by his supporters who served on election commissions across the country.

"Saakashvili lost, and it cannot happen that Georgia will not defend its freedom, that we won't win," said Gachechiladze, 43, a businessman and lawmaker.

Nino Burdzhanadze, the parliament speaker who is serving as acting president during the campaign, conceded there were some violations, but said her government welcomed the criticism from foreign observers and would seek to correct the mistakes in future elections.

"What is most important is that, in general, as a whole, the elections were free and fair and democratic," Burdzhanadze told The Associated Press. "You should take into account that Georgia is a new democracy ... we still need to continue to develop democratic institutions, to develop democracy in the country."

Russia, which imposed an economic blockade on Georgia after repeated disputes with Saakashvili, was quick to criticize.

"The election campaign can hardly be called 'free and fair,"' the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Sunday.

Gachechiladze said the opposition would contest the election results in court, but would return to the streets if their efforts proved futile. He called for another rally Tuesday.

Burdzhanadze said she doubted the opposition would be able to organize mass protests, saying "there will be no serious support for opposition rallies after a few days."

But even if such protests were held within the law, "nothing will happen," she said. "They will protest, and we will listen."

Saakashvili, 40, has been accused of arrogance and an unwillingness to tolerate dissent, though in the final days of the campaign he made a point of reaching out to his opponents.

International observers urged him to do more to ease tensions within the country.

"Belonging to the democratic community means that political ideas, political visions are competing to gain political support," Hungarian legislator Matyas Eorsi said. He appealed to both sides to "respect the legitimacy of the election for the stability of Georgia."

The OSCE report cited a blurring of government activities and Saakashvili's campaign, including the distribution of vouchers for utilities and medical supplies.

"The president has not behaved like a mature democrat, and many feel that he bought votes with promises and benefits," Swedish observer Birgitta Ohlsson was quoted by the newspaper Dagens Nyheter as saying. "We regard this with anxiety."

Alcee Hastings, a U.S. congressman who headed the observer mission, said the election revealed problems that must be addressed urgently.

"In Georgia yesterday, democracy took its triumphant step," he said. "But the future holds immense challenges. The leaders and followers have many roads and bridges to cross on the road to democracy."

The observers' report cited violations on election day, including cases of multiple voting. The most damning section was on the vote count, which they said was very slow in most polling stations they visited and basic procedures were often not followed.

During his four years in office, Saakashvili has cracked down on organized crime and corruption, modernized the police force and the army, restored steady supplies of electricity and gas, and improved roads.

The economy has grown by about 10 percent annually, and foreign investment has increased steadily. But poverty persists, and after the November protests Saakashvili made social welfare a top priority.

He has been unable, however, to bring the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under Tbilisi's control.

He also has antagonized Russia, which regards Georgia as part of its historical sphere of influence and which resents Western aid to Georgia's military and the use of Georgia as a transit country for Caspian oil headed for Turkey.