Pro-Russian opposition tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili is "bribing" voters ahead of the October parliamentary election by providing satellite TV equipment free of charge, Giorgi Baramidze, Georgia's vice prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.
Giorgi Baramidze, born in 1968, was a member of the Georgian parliament from 1992 to 2003 and has served as a minister in successive governments since 2003. He spoke to EurActiv Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
What brings you to Brussels?
This time it is an Eastern partnership ministerial, which is a formal framework of the dialogue on the level of the ministers in order to fulfil the Eastern Partnership initiative and conduct necessary communications between the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries, which are European neighbours of the EU. So we will discuss where we stand today are what are the best practices for our cooperation.
Are you going discuss political issues like Russia’s ambition to create a Eurasian Union?
I don’t think so. It’s not a format to discuss that during these discussions. Of course we will discuss and raise our concerns over Russia’s behaviour vis-à-vis Georgia, and its continuous occupation [of South Ossetia and Abkhazia]. Russia is still not respecting Georgia’s territorial integrity and not respecting the cease-fire agreement that they have signed in August 2008; not allowing the EU monitoring mission crossing the occupation line, and to enter the occupied territory to monitor the security situation, [the] human rights situation. And also we express our concerns about Russia’s military exercises that they plan this year since October; and also the exercise of the collective treaty organisation that is going to be conducted around Georgia, in occupied Georgian territories.
Does this have something to do with the political situation in Georgia and the forthcoming parliamentary elections?
We are, exactly, worried because they planned this exercise in September and when we announced that we are going to have elections in October, they said that they are going to have this exercise postponed until October. So it’s very, very worrisome that they are coinciding this exercise together with the Georgian elections.
Can you send an observer to the exercise?
No, of course not.
But there was an agreement in the framework of the OSCE signed during the cold war about sending observers to military exercises to foster confidence…
Yes, but Russians were denying this access to Georgian observers, and Georgia also ceased Russia’s, let’s say, right to observe the situation in Georgia. We tried for several years but they denied.
But did you make a request this time…
Of course this time we are not making a request because we have been making requests for several years and they’ve been denying us, and as a result we stopped implementation of this vis-à-vis Russia. They stopped it de facto, we stopped it…
So you don’t monitor their exercises and they don’t monitor your exercises… How about the political situation? What are the political forces?
There are, let’s say, several political forces that unusually take part in elections but there is a new political force that was created relatively recently, less than a year ago, by an ethnic Georgian, a personal who’s wealth has originated from Russia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is let’s say very active. He has hired many lobbyists from the EU, the US, and he has promised to become a prime minister to people, despite the fact he is riding 15-20% lower in his ratings, according to independent opinion polls. He has said he’s ready to buy every TV channel, every news outlet, and politicians. This is was his statement, basically. And he is trying to spend his many, many millions, his fortune of $8 billion, according to some sources. And he has violated Georgian law, which prohibits seduction and bribery of the electorate. So he’s trying to be very active in using his wealth, including in an illegal way.
So that worries us a lot: why Russians coincide their elections [with the military exercise], why this person, who’s wealth originates from Russia, he is the single biggest shareholder of Gazprom, who is also shareholder of Rosneft and other Russian state-owned companies, why is he so active. But as long as he remains within the framework of the law, he has the right to run for office and make a campaign.
In order to ensure the full transparency of this electoral process, we invited as early as April, an OSCE observers mission, and Council of Europe as well as the European Union and other entities and states to observe the electoral situation in Georgia, not only on the electoral date, but well before, to have a much more full picture, not to allow false observers and false monitors to distort the opinion of the international community and have a strong, legitimate international presence on the ground, to have an objective picture.
How is the situation with media freedom in Georgia?
We made several significant steps forward including the latest one, which was proposed by the NGO community. We uphold the so-called must-carry, must-offer principle which we applied not only to state, public television but also to the private television [companies] and obliged them to put every TV station’s signal on the air - those who have 20% coverage of the country - so every signal TV station must be put by the private cable channels on the air in order to ensure greater availability of the information. Because there were speculations about whether the Georgian public has full access to the information and whether different political parties, including the opposition, have full ability to communicate their messages to the public.
So in order to completely eliminate this kind of speculation we oblige private channels, private cable channels, to put all these TV channels in the air. In many other countries where this principle is applied [and] is only applied to public television, not private television. But [we] oblige private TVs as well.
There is one television channel, TV9, which complains of harassment from the authorities also Global TV, which is a kind of provider of TV programmes…
TV9 and others are eligible for this law so they cannot speculate any more on this. As far as the satellite dishes are concerned, of Global TV, they have been seized, because it was illegal to distribute to the people for free. It’s a kind of bribery. That’s what is prohibited by law.
What was illegal?
To distribute these satellite dishes for free.
If I understand correctly, Global TV, which sells satellite broadcasting to subscribers, offers the satellite reception equipment for free. But this is not illegal in many countries. I used a similar bonus in my country, and it’s not seen as bribery, just a commercial trick to attract clients…
In order to avoid speculation that we block certain kinds of information, we now oblige cable channels to put their signal on the air…
Yes, but is it technically possible?
Everyone will be on air… That’s the whole thing. This decision was praised by very critical local and international NGOs as well as Europe and US.
When was this decision taken?
Less than a month ago.
So TV9 will be received by all?
Absolutely. That’s the whole thing. By doing this, we killed all the opportunities for speculation, that this channel or that channel will not be available for the public.
TV9 belongs to Ivanishvili?
And Global TV?
As well. And other opposition channels as well.
So you’re saying the government wants a level playing field for all media, right?
That was the idea behind this.
The cable or satellite distribution, you say, was unfair?
On the one hand, we didn’t allow Ivanishvili to bribe people by giving them free dishes. At the same time, we gave people the chance to hear and see the same signal of this TV [channel]. So they cannot blame us, that we denied, let’s say, access to the public.
But in many countries they give you the satellite dish for free, they even install it for free...
Not in Georgia. It’s never been used. After the elections, maybe it won’t be considered as a bribe for the electorate. I’m not a lawyer…
It’s like a mobile phone. Sometimes a mobile phone costs you as little as €1, because you become a subscriber…
I know, I know. I agree. This is not the practice in Georgia. That’s the case. So again, in order to kill every suspicion on this, whether it was politically motivated or not, to deny access to this channel, we put them on the air. So what is the then motivation of the government?
But you are aware that your country ranks pretty low in terms of media freedom… I think, according to Reporters Without Borders, it’s 104th out of 179 countries. That’s pretty low. How would you comment on this low ranking?
Well I think it’s pretty unfair to put us in this low ranking. I think they are judging according to old data, and not keeping up with the recent developments in the country in the last 1 or 2 years. For instance, in 2010 when we had local elections, we had an EU observation mission, we had the BBC as observing media and they announced that media coverage was pretty balanced. Public TV was pretty balanced, which was one of the demands of the international community. We introduced a second public channel - C-Span, a BBC, parliament type of channel - which was also our commitment. And recently this decision Georgia was criticised [for not having] an opposition supporting channel … With this new law everyone will have same chances. So I think international rating agencies should be judging Georgia on recent developments, not old data. I’m pretty sure all these things will be acknowledged and will be reflected in these ratings.
TV9 are complaining about the authorities damaging their equipment. They are saying that when their very expensive equipment, from the US, comes, and passes through customs, it gets destroyed. So they get it, but nothing works. Do you have something to say against these accusations?
What I know about Ivanishvili – people are trying to complain about the government in all ways. I’m pretty sure this part of accusation is part of their political campaign.
Do you think there will be media scandals in the elections?
Not necessarily but again as I’ve said, all independent opinion polls show that Ivanishvili is running 15-20% lower than United National Movement. But at the same time he’s saying that he doesn’t trust independent sources.
But all politicians say so, also in the West.
Yes, OK, but at the same time against what the politicians are saying is that he is promising to become prime minister. This is not an ordinary situation, promising to become prime minister.
Yes, but you know, even in the European Union, politicians with low ranking say the polls are serving those in power and they say that their small party will win the elections. Everyone says so. If they do not why do they participate in the election?
Nobody is saying to you, “I promise to become prime minister”, while they know that they have much lower scores. It’s not against the law, I’m not saying it’s against the law, but putting all this together certainly suggests that they might do something, some kind of scandal. I cannot exclude [that]. But this kind of thing will not necessarily happen.
Do you think that the European Union is aware of these problems?
I think that the European Union has a pretty clear picture of this situation.
So you think that they approve the way the government is handling the situation?
We have a statement from the EU, you can see the text. The statement is practically praising Georgia’s democratic achievements. At the same time, it is calling to meet international standards during the elections and is expressing readiness to support Georgia in its democratic transition and to conduct free and fair elections. And also it is calling not to use administrative resources of the Georgian government side, but also money to bribe the people. This is also important to be taken into account by non-governmental players.