TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Here's a guide to understanding Georgia as it holds a heated parliamentary election that will determine the future of the pro-Western government of President Mikhail Saakashvili.
Q: WHERE IS GEORGIA?
A: Georgia is located in the Caucasus Mountains with its western border on the Black Sea. Russia looms over Georgia from the north, while Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan are on its southern and southeastern borders. Annexed by the Russian Empire in 1801, Georgia had a few brief years of independence after the 1917 Russian Revolution before being absorbed into the Soviet Union.
Q: HOW DID IT GAIN INDEPENDENCE?
A: Georgia declared its independence in April 1991 as the Soviet Union was crumbling. Its first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was soon ousted in a violent military coup and fled the country in January 1992. Eduard Shevardnadze, who had served as the Soviet foreign minister, returned to his homeland and remained Georgia's leader until the end of 2003.
Q: WHAT IS GEORGIA KNOWN FOR?
A: Georgia is the birthplace of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who was born in Gori in 1878 and ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953.
Georgia also is considered the birthplace of wine, with archeological evidence showing that it was where wine was first produced at least 6,000 years ago. The country still takes great pride in its reds and whites.
Georgian wines and food were considered the best in the Soviet Union, and Georgian restaurants remain popular in Russia. Georgians also are known for their warm hospitality, with Russian visitors joking that the most difficult part about visiting Georgia today is getting up from the table or freeing yourself from an embrace, despite the chill in relations between the two countries.
Georgians were also among the first to adopt Christianity, which they did in the 4th century. Stone churches built in the 10th century still stand, and the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church is by far the most respected figure in the country today.
Q: WHY DOES THIS ELECTION MATTER?
A: Georgia sits on pipelines carrying Caspian crude to Western markets and has been the subject of tense rivalry between the West and its former imperial master, Russia. This vote ushers in a political reform that will give more powers to parliament and allow the winning party to name the prime minister, who will become more powerful than the president once Saakashvili, the incumbent, steps down next year.
Q: WHO ARE THE MAIN PLAYERS IN THE ELECTION?
A: Saakashvili's party is struggling to retain its control over parliament in a battle against the opposition Georgian Dream coalition led by the nation's richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia.
Some 3.6 million people are eligible to vote.
Q: WHAT ARE THE CAMPAIGN ISSUES?
A: Saakashvili has sought to cast the vote as a choice between further movement toward economic prosperity and integration with the West with him or falling back under Russian domination under Ivanishvili, whom he has accused of serving Moscow's interests.
Ivanishvili, the challenger, has rejected the claim. He has accused Saakashvili of authoritarian trends and promises to make Georgia more democratic while continuing to move toward eventual membership in the European Union and NATO.
He also promised to normalize ties with Russia that were ruptured in a 2008 Russian-Georgian war.