By MARIA DANILOVA
BATUMI, Georgia (AP) - Wherever she goes, journalist Ekaterine Dugladze is followed by a group of men carrying video cameras. Saying they're reporters, they shove microphones into her face and pester her with meaningless questions and vulgar remarks.
Dugladze, who works for an opposition-funded news agency, claims they're henchman of President Mikhail Saakashvili sent to harass her.
"They prevent me not only from working, but even from moving around," said Dugladze. "This is the authorities' way of responding to the questions we ask them."
Saakashvili boasts that Georgia has become a "beacon of democracy" since he took office in 2004. But critics charge that democracy is dimming: Opposition leaders, watchdogs and journalists complain of official intimidation and accuse the government of resorting to Soviet methods of clamping down on dissent.
The small, but strategically located South Caucasus nation is the West's most loyal ally in a troubled region. The United States has indicated it will be closely monitoring the Oct. 1 parliamentary election and the state of democracy there.
Ahead of the vote, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the multibillionaire who leads the largest opposition grouping, has been hit with gargantuan fines and stripped of his citizenship. The global watchdog Amnesty International last month urged the government to "stop violence against (the) opposition ahead of elections." In February, UN special rapporteur Maina Kiai voiced alarm over an "increasing climate of fear and intimidation against opposition parties, labor unions and members of non-governmental organizations."
There's no doubt that the energetic, U.S.-educated Saakashvili has driven impressive reforms since leading the peaceful Rose Revolution demonstrations in 2003 that drove out a sclerotic and corrupt regime. The traffic police once infamous for extorting bribes from motorists have been transformed into a respected force. Formerly suffocating bureaucracy has been streamlined by establishing offices where citizens can obtain birth certificates or register businesses in a matter of minutes.
Saakashvili has rooted out corruption in the education system by introducing standardized university admission exams, ending the notorious practice of parents bribing university officials to get their children accepted. Georgia now ranks 64th on the Corruption Perception Index compiled by Transparency International watchdog, compared to 130th in 2005.
The president has also assiduously pursued closer relations with the European Union and NATO and Georgia has contributed sizable troop contingents to the international military campaign in Afghanistan.
"Saakashvili's best legacy will be as Georgia's great modernizer," said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus scholar at Carnegie Endowment.
But critics say that Saakashvili's reforms came at the expense of democratic freedoms.
In 2007, police used tear gas to break up demonstrations calling for his ouster and temporarily banned newscasts by independent television stations. Saakashvili's popularity also soured after the devastating five-day war with Russia in 2008, which damaged the impoverished nation's infrastructure, turned tens of thousands of people into refugees and tightened Russia's grip on two separatist regions. Last year, police violently dispersed protesters who had occupied the capital's main avenue for days. A policeman and a demonstrator died after being hit by a car speeding from the scene.
The 56-year-old Ivanishvili, whose party is called Georgian Dream, made most of his estimated $6.4 billion fortune in the Russian banking and mining industries and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on charity projects in Georgia.
Ivanishvili's entry into politics has energized and united Georgia's notoriously fragmented opposition and he has emerged as Saakashvili's main opponent.
Saakashvili's party remains Georgia's most popular but Georgian Dream is gaining ground. A June opinion survey by U.S.-based National Democratic Institute suggested that Saakashvili's United National Movement leads the polls with 36 percent support, down from to 47 percent in February, while Georgian Dream has 18 percent, up from 10 percent.
"I've taken the mask off his face: he is not a democrat, he is a pure dictator," Ivanishvili told The Associated Press in an interview at his residence outside the Black Sea resort city of Batumi. "It doesn't even smell of democracy here."
Ever since Ivanishvili announced his political ambitions, he has faced an array of legal actions against him.
The government stripped Ivanishvili of his Georgian passport last year because, while Georgian from birth, he also holds a French passport from years living in France _ and Georgia prohibits dual nationality. That effectively banned Ivanishvili from the race. But Saakashvili relented under Western pressure and pushed through a law allowing EU citizens to run for office.
Ivanishvili also had Russian citizenship from living in Russia during the 1990s, but he renounced that when he launched his campaign.