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.