Political tensions reach new heights ahead of Georgia vote
EXCLUSIVE: In an escalation of rhetoric, civil rights groups accused the Georgian authorities of preparing massive fraud in order to win the 1 October parliamentary election. In response, a Georgian diplomat told EurActiv that the government had evidence of links between some opposition politicians and organised crime figures in plotting a coup d’état.
Civil rights activists from Georgia and neighbouring countries accused the country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, of preparing massive fraud for the 1 October parliamentary election (see background).
Activists representing the organisation GUAM (named after the names of participating states Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova), made their case in Brussels yesterday (25 September), accusing the EU institutions of “keeping their eyes wide shut” on Georgia.
Mikhail Malkov, a Ukrainian expert on transborder conflicts, stressed that the visiting group were not lobbying for opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and represented a variety of political opinions.
Members of the group, who held a public conference yesterday at the Brussels Press Club, said that they rejected the stereotype promoted by the Georgian authorities that the opposition, represented mainly by Ivanishvili’s Georgia Dream coalition, was pro-Russian.
However, most of their statements indirectly favoured the Ivanishvili camp.
George Khutsishvili, director of the International Centre on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi, said the reaction of the authorities over recent protests – triggered by TV footage of inmates being tortured and sexually assaulted in the country’s prisons - was auguring for the worst. Some 20 protestors were reportedly arrested, adding to the number of 100-120 political prisoners, the existence of whom he said the EU didn’t want to acknowledge.
Nana Devdariani, former chair of Georgia’s electoral commission, said the GUAM group’s mission was to lobby “for civil society and human rights”, and to warn about possible major electoral fraud.
Devdariani said data from 1 August showed the number of eligible voters, 3,621,256, exceeds the figure for 1990, 3,440,000, even though the Georgian population in 1990 was higher - 5,424,400 compared to 4,497,600 people in January 2012. She contended that this showed the potential for the ballots to be filled by ghost voters.
EU accused of pro-Saakashvili bias
Devdariani described as “unbelievable” the repression that she said had been put in place after the 2003 ‘Rose Revolution’, which brought the current president to power, and slammed the EU institutions failing to respond. She accused European Commissioner Štefan Füle, responsible for European Neighbourhood Policy, for having asked Ivanishvili, according to Georgian media, to pledge to recognise the results of the election as the price for agreeing to meet with him.
The requested meeting never took place. According to EurActiv sources, Füle and Ivanishvili were both present at a conference in Georgia’s Black Sea resort of Batumi in July. Ivanishvili asked to visit Füle in Brussels, apparently with the aim of getting publicity ahead of the election.
Füle reportedly agreed to the meeting under the condition that Ivanishvili’s Georgia Dream would not contest the election results if they were deemed fair by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Another condition was that the opposition force would subscribe to a “code of conduct” proposed by GYLA, a local NGO. No political party participating in the elections subscribed to the code.
Ucha Nanuashvili, executive director of the Human Rights Centre in Tbilisi, accused the EU Ambassador in Georgia, Philip Dimitrov, of pro-Saakashvili bias. He said that Dimitrov, who is a former Bulgarian prime minister, was maintaining contacts only with the pro-government NGOs and that there were many reports to substantiate this. He also accused a Georgian official in the EU representation in Tbilisi responsible for the Union’s assistance to the civil society of providing help only to NGOs that bring a covering letter from the government.
Commission, authorities answer allegations
EU officials strongly denied the allegations.
Maja Kocijančić, spokesperson for EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, said Dimitrov had the full support of the Commission, and that he was carrying out his role “professionally and with dedication”.
On the issue of the EU working only with government-approved NGOs, she said: “This is absolutely not true, it's actually the opposite. We try to spread our support equally and have even been criticized by the government for this approach.”
The Georgian mission to the EU denied the existence of political prisoners in the country. “If there are allegations of existence of such, we would like to be given a concrete name, in order to give you a specific answer on the case concerned,” said Salome Imnadze, a Georgian diplomat.
During prison abuse protests, she said 13 people were arrested, 12 last week and one yesterday (25 September). She said the authorities did not exclude further arrests, but said that those detained were suspected to be implicated in “the torture and inhuman treatment of the inmates”.
Regarding the voters lists, Imnadze said that none of the specialised and reputable international organisations had voiced their concern regarding the voting lists. She also said that a special working group, led by an opposition politician - Mamuka Katsitadze – was checking the accuracy of the voters’ lists for last several months.
“Therefore, we are more confident in the accuracy of the voters’ lists today, than at any previous elections,” she said.
Imnadze also announced that the Georgian authorities had released “evidence of the connections of the some opposition players with the organised crime plotting an overthrow of the government, in case the ruling party wins the elections”.
Mikheil Saakshvili, president since 2004, has managed to stay in power despite provoking a five-day war with Russia in August 2008, following which Tbilisi lost control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia
Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose fortune is estimated at €4 billion by Forbes magazine, last year declared his intention to enter politics and win the Georgia elections, and repair ties with Russia.
In the meantime, he established a political alliance, called Georgian Dream, seen as the major challenger to the ruling United National Movement.
Ivanishvili’s media power is built around the TV9 television channel, which was developed by US professionals as a sort of ‘Georgian CNN’. TV9 competes with the three national broadcasters that are accused of promoting Saakshivili’s government.
The climate ahead of elections was poisoned by tensions following the broadcast by the opposition of video footage showing prison guards physically and sexually abusing inmates. [more]
The opposition party Georgian Dream said in a statement:
"The Georgian diplomat's claim that there are no political prisoners flies in the face of the facts. Georgia's prisons are filled with many inmates jailed on trumped up charges. In recent days, authorities have arrested more than 60 Georgian Dream activists on minor, unsubstantiated offenses."
"The OSCE Parliamentary assembly president, Riccardo Migliori, has said recently that he is 'very concerned' about reports of 'numerous arrests' of political activists."
“The Georgian diplomat requested names and examples. We can provide them," the opposition party continued.
“Among longtime prisoners is Tamaz Tamasashvili, father of a key advisor to Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and a former police chief. He was arrested In October 2011, four days after Mr. Ivanishbevili announced formation of Georgian Dream. Mr. Tamasashvili was arrested on trumped up weapons charges and was denied due process. He remains a political hostage held by the Saakashvili regime despite having suffered a heart attack and being threatened by those prisoners that he arrested while police chief," the party added.
"The Georgian government must be honest about its often brutal and unjust legal system, and stop using it to hijack elections," Georgian Dream said.
- 1 Oct.: Parliamentary elections
- October 2013: Presidential elections