Nobody expected the campaigning for Georgia's upcoming parliamentary election to be polite or restrained, but the last few days suggest that the mud-slinging between President Saakashvili and the opposition is beginning in earnest.
On 15 March the three leaders of the opposition Georgian Dream coalition spoke at a meeting with foreign diplomats in Tbilisi. Irakli Alasania, head of the Free Democrats and widely considered to be one of the country's more pragmatic and level-headed political operators, (certainly more so than his political ally Bidzina Ivanishvili) launched a stinging attack on Saakashvili, his former boss.
"We are witnessing the transformation of increasingly authoritarian rule, the manner of governing of Saakashvili, to a totalitarian state. . . I'm not mistaking my words." He then raised the issue of 'paramilitary groups' in western Georgia, asking why they were being formed, and who was arming them. These groups, and Saakashvili's recent statements, suggested that the president is not preparing for free elections but for "the official execution of the political opposition" and "civil war". Without the support of the international community, Alasania said, it would be extremely difficult to avoid a confrontation or even a "Homs in Zugdidi". Strong words.
Saakashvili, not one to be outdone in political rhetoric, called the comparison with Syria's battered opposition stronghold "immorality" and "idiocy". This may be one of the few times where the president appears restrained and statesmanlike in comparison to his opponents: Alasania's statements are certainly over-the-top and alarmist.
The issue of 'paramilitary groups' is certainly an interesting one. The issue surfaced some time ago (I also heard a few vague rumours about it in Georgia in November): according to a useful article by Democracy and Freedom Watch, MP Kakha Mikaia also said recently that the government was organising military groups in the far west, near the border with Abkhazia.
The government has hit back at Alasania's ominous warnings by saying that the 'armed groups' are simply part of the voluntary reserve force, which was signed into law in October. Volunteers undergo temporary training and do not have access to weapons afterwards, only being mobilised in emergencies.
Still, the Free Democrats have promised to present journalists with evidence of these allegations next week. It will be interesting to see if they can come up with proof that Georgia may soon become Syria.