Georgia's president Saakashvili bows out and faces an uncertain future
A revolutionary pro-Western moderniser to some and ham-fisted warmonger to others, flamboyant Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is set to leave office after transforming this tiny ex-Soviet state during a tumultuous decade in charge.
Loved or loathed, few would argue that Saakashvili - who must step down when his second term ends shortly after the presidential polls which were being held yesterday - has left an indelible mark on the Caucasus nation of some 4.5 million.
For Saakashvili, it's a bitter departure. The vote is expected to cement the control of his rival, billionaire Prime Minister Bezina Ivanishvili, whose coalition routed Saakashvili's party in a parliamentary election a year ago.
Ivanishvili's chosen candidate, Georgi Margvelashvili, a former university rector with little political experience, is expected to win the election. But much uncertainty remains.
Ivanishvili has promised to step down next month and nominate a new prime minister, who under Georgia's new parliamentary system will acquire many of the powers previously held by the president.
Much uncertainty also hangs over the future of Saakashvili. Since last year's election and what was in effect a transfer of power, dozens of people from Saakashvili's team, including several former government ministers, have been hit with criminal charges and some have been jailed.
Ivanishvili has called Saakashvili a "political corpse" and warned that he too could face prosecution for alleged abuses committed in power.
But Saakashvili, a gifted political survivor, has pledged to stay active in Georgian politics and said that even as he was conceding defeat in last year's poll he was already charting a way back.
"I told myself: 'This is not the end. This is the start for a comeback'," he told supporters.
To his supporters, since ousting former leader Eduard Shevardnadze in the 2003 rose revolution, Saakashvili, 45, has defied Russian bullying to drag Georgia closer to the West while pushing through radical reforms that slashed corruption and kickstarted the devastated economy.
But his rule also saw the country plunge into a disastrous five-day war with Moscow in 2008.
His reforms left many bitter and mass protests that dogged his tenure were faced down with police brutality.
As his era winds down opinion polls say that only 26 per cent of Georgians still like him and his proxy looks set to lose out at the polls.
"A more general mood in Georgia now could be said to be 'Saakashvili fatigue'," said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.