"Two months away from a critical electoral test of Georgia’s young democracy, opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream movement are under intense pressure from a government fighting to cling to power.
Time is running out for the international community to ensure a free and fair election and boost stability.
So the clock is ticking on setting the record straight. With Mr. Ivanishvili’s movement showing strong gains in a number of opinion polls, including one indicating a statistical dead heat, the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili is waging an iron-fisted campaign to sabotage Georgian Dream’s chances.
That campaign has included Soviet-style tactics, including attacking opposition rallies, and seizing or damaging the assets of the opposition and non-government media. Tactics the European Union should take more decisive action against or face potential instability in a country vying for EU and NATO membership.
At the same time Mr. Saakashvili is waging a charm offensive in the West, using untruths to paint Mr. Ivanishvili as a Russian oligarch with sympathies toward the Kremlin who is trying to bribe Georgian voters.
Part of that disinformation campaign is to send official, like Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze, to Brussels in July for an Eastern partnership ministerial to spread untruths about the opposition to the media.
Why is the Saakashvili government behaving as it does? Because the latest polls, including by the US-based National Democratic Institute and by Penn Schoen Berland, indicate Georgian Dream is on the rise across the country.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International says it is “concerned that the authorities are failing to protect the opposition supporters and journalists from what appears to be politically targeted violence.”
From the European Parliament, the vice president of the European Liberals and Democrats, Lousewies van der Laan, issued a statement saying the ELDR are “deeply alarmed at the continuing harassment of the opposition.”
Attempting to draw attention away from that growing alarm, the Saakashvili government is waging a smear campaign to discredit the opposition in the eyes of voters and the West. Here are some of the arguments in the slander:
- It contends Mr. Ivanishvili is cozy with Moscow, and that, according to Mr. Baramidze, he is Gazprom’s biggest shareholder. However, Mr. Ivanishvili has divested himself of all his Russian assets and he strongly backs Georgia’s bid for EU and NATO membership. He simply wants more cordial relations with Moscow and avoid the kind of warmongering Mr. Saakashvili used to drag Georgia into a lost conflict with Russia four years ago.
- The Saakashvili government has seized hundreds of thousands of satellite dishes belonging to the independent channel Globe TV, contending that handing them out to customers constitutes an electoral bribe. However, it is Globe TV’s commercial prerogative to expand its consumer base – a well-recognised business practice in the West - and is an attempt to break the government’s iron grip on information by state TV channels.
- The government has also seized assets belonging to Mr. Ivanishvili, contending they are being used for his election campaign. Mr. Ivanishvili is complying with all electoral laws in Georgia, and those seizures are illegal under international law.
- Mr. Baramidze contends a recent EU statement on Georgia “is practically praising Georgia’s democratic achievements.” Those were achievements in the wake of the Rose Revolution of 2003. He fails to mention the same statement on July 16 calls on the government to “address alleged intimidation of supporters of opposition parties.”
Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream offer an alternative to the government’s continued path toward an authoritarian state that has fallen far short in addressing corruption and poverty and continues warmongering with the Russians.
The Georgian Dream movement aims to stimulate the economy through market reform and lower taxes, ensure an independent judiciary, and seek more cordial ties with its neighbors to avoid another conflict that could destabilize the region.
Georgia’s future as a secure, stable and prosperous country depends on an ever-closer relationship with the EU. That can only be achieved by Georgia fulfilling its commitments under existing agreements - but the current regime is incapable of doing this, and in fact, has ignored numerous statements by EU officials calling for greater freedom and democracy in Georgia.
Georgian Dream can offer a government that is ready, willing and able to work with the EU, and is committed to the Europe-Atlantic agenda.
The choice is up to Europe and the rest of the international community: press harder on the Saakashvili government to hold a free and fair election, or see any progress since the Rose Revolution fall victim to an increasingly Soviet-style leader trying to crush a democratic opposition movement, raising the spectre of greater instability in Georgia and beyond."