Georgia's election could predict relations between US and Russia

It???s a major understatement to say that Americans are focused more on the election in their country than they are in the former Russian province-turned-independent country of Georgia. But the outcome of Georgia???s parliamentary elections Monday could be a turning point toward the next major clash between Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and the next U.S. president???whether it???s Mitt Romney or Barack Obama.

As Georgian President — and sworn Putin enemy — Mikhail Saakashvili battles for his political life in Monday???s election, the Financial Times reports ???a menacing build-up of Russian troops in South Ossetia, the breakaway province (from Georgia) where Russian forces have been stationed since the Russo-Georgian conflict.??? Whether an opponent considered more sympathetic to Moscow comes to power Monday or Saakashvili again emerges triumphant, Putin could easily move to strengthen his hand in Georgia — either through a closer relationship with a new and friendly regime there, much like that with friendly governments in Ukraine and Poland, or a concerted effort to destabilize a re-elected Saakashvili.

Either way, an aggressive move by Putin toward Georgia is very much a possibility. The Russian president faces unprecedented massive street demonstrations for his heavy-handed dealings with critics — notably the jailed Pussy Riot female singing group and the expulsion of American pro-democracy NGOs. In addition, he faces a growing rift within his inner circle, especially from his onetime alter ego and Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev. By focusing attention on Georgia, Putin could take attention away from these problems he faces in Russia. In so doing, it could easily invite a clash with a re-elected Obama or a newly-elected President Romney, the Republican nominee having voiced animosity toward Putin in his acceptance speech at the GOP convention last month.

Four years ago, with all-out backing from Russian tanks and troops, South Ossetia declared itself independent from Georgia over the opposition of Saakashvili. At that time, most Western leaders spoke out strongly against the Moscow???s military support of the South Ossetian rebels, with then-U.S. President George W. Bush having an intense exchange with Putin during the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

But it was to no avail. Russia got its wish, South Ossetia broke away, and both the Russian presence and the fervent anti-Saakashvili sentiment has grown over the past four years. On the one anniversary of the breakaway, the English-language Russian Today (RT) featured a report that showed South Ossetians speaking of Saakashvili???s ???mental illness??? and ???instability??? as if both were facts rather than opinions of the Georgian president.

Well-regarded in Washington since he led the pro-democracy ???Rose Revolution??? that deposed then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze — the last foreign minister of the old Soviet Union — in 2003, Columbia Law School graduate Shaakashvili faces a strong challenge Monday from the new Georgian Dream party. Its leader is Georgia???s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom Saakashvili charges made his $6 billion fortune through deals with Putin???s Russia — a charge the challenger denies. Last week, Saakashvili himself was rocked by released videos showing prisoners being tortured in a jail in the capital city of Tiblisi. The embattled president admitted there were failures in the penal system but insisted he was pursuing prison reform. Saakashvili also says that if he wins on Monday, Georgian Dream will take to the streets in a fresh attempt to undermine him — a move that would fuel world speculation that Putin is behind the attempt.

An election in faraway Georgia will probably not have much to do with the election in the U.S. But it???s a pretty good bet that its outcome will have a major impact on relations between Russia and the U.S., no matter who its president is after November.