Council of Europe bolsters Georgia’s opposition
Council of Europe representatives expressed concern today (21 August) about complaints from the Georgian Dream opposition coalition that government authorities have seized its bank accounts ahead of the parliamentary elections due on 1 October.
The two representatives of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) condemned the government’s action following complaints from the Georgian opposition. An opposition spokeswoman announced earlier in the day that the Georgian government had seized all funds of the Georgian Dream coalition on 17 August.
The main figure of the Georgian Dream coalition is billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who left business to enter politics, saying he will win the parliamentary election and is ready to repair ties with Russia that were damaged by a brief war in August 2008 (see background).
Over the past week, the Georgian government has taken all of the funds out of the bank accounts of Georgian Dream political coalition and its six member parties, as well as those of the Georgian Dream Civic Movement, an NGO, said Georgian Dream spokeswoman Maia Panjikidze.
The government is seizing all new campaign donations sent to these parties, she said, undermining the coalition’s ability to carry out campaign activities. Individuals may donate services to the campaign, but risk fines and asset seizures, she warned.
“This latest action makes clear that the Georgian government is using its campaign finance laws not as a mechanism to keep campaign spending fair, but rather as a weapon to destroy the democratic opposition and target Georgian Dream supporters and any entity that is allegedly associated with the campaign,” Panjikidze said.
Georgian Dream released a document asserting that the government has imposed nearly €100 million in fines on the opposition coalition and its leaders, companies that have provided services to Georgian Dream, and dozens of contributors.
‘Excessive and disproportionate’
The PACE co-rapporteurs for Georgia, Michael Aastrup Jensen (Denmark, ALDE) and Boriss Cilevics (Latvia, SOC), appeared to take seriously the allegations of the opposition.
“The excessive and disproportionate fines levied by the State Audit Service effectively undermine normal political activity by an opposition party. This is of concern, especially in the context of recurrent allegations of bias of the State Audit Service and reports by credible organisations, such as the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, that question the fairness of the court decisions in this respect,” the co-rapporteurs said in a statement.
Jensen and Cilevics, who are due to visit Georgia on 11 and 12 September, called on the Georgian authorities “to demonstrate maximum restraint and to ensure that all parties, including the Georgian Dream Coalition, can participate fully in the electoral campaign.”
Asked by EurActiv to comment, the Georgian Mission to the EU released a statement stongly dismissing the allegations of frozen funds.
"No party account has been frozen," the statement said. "Georgian Dream has masterminded a complex web of illegal conduits to channel illegal funds to its campaign, bypassing Georgia's liberal campaign finance legislation."
As in previous cases, it is difficult to make sense of the mutual accusations between the authorities in Tbilissi and Bidzina Ivanishvili. On a recent visit to Brussels, Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze accused Ivanishvili of using his enormous fortune to buy the media and “bribe” voters by providing satellite dishes free of charge.
Ivanishvili’s media power is built around the TV9 television channel, which has complained of harassment by the government, as well as arbitrary arrests and destruction of their equipment by national authorities. TV9 was developed by US professionals as a sort of Georgian CNN.
EurActiv asked the EU Commission to comment. A spokesperson said that the EU executive was following the developments and lamented that the political climate was worsening on the eve of the elections.
Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in August 2008. The conflict saw Russian troops repel an assault on the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, which broke free from Tbilisi's rule in the early 1990s.
Russia later recognised South Ossetia and Georgia's second breakaway region of Abkhazia as independent states. Russia has thousands of troops stationed in both regions.
Vladimir Putin, then the prime minister of Russia, was quoted at the time by a French diplomat as saying that he wanted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili hanged.
Privately, EU representatives generally recognise that Saakashvili was to blame for the August war. However, he still enjoys Western support as a symbol of the 2003 'Rose Revolution' in Georgia.
The Government of Georgia sent EurActiv the following statement:
“The Government of Georgia categorically denies accusations being circulated by the lobbyists representing Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition claiming that the Government has frozen the bank accounts of the Georgian Dream party or affiliated political parties. No party's account has been frozen.
“Georgian Dream has masterminded a complex web of illegal conduits to channel illegal funds to its campaign, bypassing Georgia's campaign finance legislation. Georgian dream coalition leaders publicly announced that they would not abide by the law several time.
“In several cases, the Audit Chamber has succeeded in building solid legal cases that have led the courts to fine the Georgian Dream and its coalition partners for clear-cut violations of the Georgian campaign finance legislation.
“In the specific case raised by Georgian Dream's lobbyists, The National Bureau of Enforcement (NBE) enforces the writs issued on the Tbilisi City Court decision of 27 June 2012. The Court found members of the political coalition Georgian Dream in violation of party financing legislation and collectively fined them with GEL 2,850,717.06 (€1.391 million).
“Collection Order allows the NBE to enforce the court decision without freezing the accounts, thus, without interruption of the cash flow or otherwise use of the account. Up to date, only small portion of the fine, 122,000.00 GEL (€59,500) has been collected by the NBE through the Collection Orders.
“To be precise, the Georgian Dream has raised officially in the last month 730 000 GEL (€356,257). Only 17% of it has been collected in order to enforce the fine.
“In general, since 1 November 2011, up to 25 July 2012, the Georgian Dream has raised 44.539.123 GEL (€21.732 million), more than 26 millions [GEL] legally and more than 18 millions [GEL] identified illegal contributions.
“It is therefore not a 122,000 GEL (€59.500) collection of fines (less than 0.3% of total income) that can prevent the Georgian Dream coalition from campaigning freely and actively all over the Georgian territory.
“Though throughout the campaign the Georgian Dream affiliates have willfully ignored the boundaries of the law and have even publicly claimed to do so.
“These false allegations are the latest in a series of attempts by the Georgian Dream to discredit Georgian institutions in advance of the October elections. The Government of Georgia calls on all parties to refrain from the campaign of slander and to focus on electoral objectives rather than trying to preemptively discredit the outcome of the elections. The Government of Georgia will make sure that every single party can compete in an open and transparent campaign,” the statement ends.
Maia Panjikidze, the Georgian Dream spokesperson, refuted the statements by the government quoted in the article that “no party account has been frozen”
She called the statement by the National Bureau of Enforcement “misleading” and “a game of word play”.
“Georgian Dream never claimed that the accounts were frozen, only that the Government stole the money in the accounts and is seizing all new money being transferred to those accounts. Whether an account is frozen or the money in that account is confiscated has the same result. Having free access to an account with no money is a fiction without distinction.
“The net result of the Georgian government's action is to instantaneously confiscate any funds in these accounts or any funds directed to the party's accounts and to redirect the monies into the Government's coffers.
“As originally explained in the campaign's statement, technically, the accounts remain open but going forward it is impossible to replace or replenish the accounts of the six Georgian Dream affiliated parties because any funding directed to these accounts is confiscated,” Panjikidze concluded.