Georgian foreign minister lashes out at EU centre-right party

Foreign Minister Maja Panjikidze has resigned.

Georgia's foreign minister has accused several conservative Western politicians, including the leader of the European People’s Party, of being biased against the two-month-old government of Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze told EURACTIV on Thursday (20 December) that the cohabitation between Prime Minister Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili was a difficult one.

Panjikidze, who is a career diplomat and has served as Georgia’s ambassador to Germany and the Netherlands, said that after this year’s elections Saakashvili has been travelling abroad, spreading the message “the government in Georgia is doing terrible things”.

She said the president had “a big network of lobbyists” who worked around the clock to spread his narrative that democracy in Georgia is in danger since the prime ministers Georgian Dream party took office. Saakashvili, the president since 2004, must step down next year.

A number of conservative Western politicians have been receptive to Saakashvili’s messages and were amplifying them for the international audience, Georgia’s top diplomat said. She accused Wilfried Martens, president of the European People’s Party, of repeatedly badmouthing Georgian Dream.

Panjikidze cited an election rally in the town of Kutaisi, where Saakashvili’s camp had accused Georgian Dream of “buying” prospective voters by giving them vouchers for household appliances, such as washing machines or refrigerators. These accusations had proven to be a lie, she said, but Martens repeated them without checking the facts, she insisted.

She also said that Martens had refused to meet with Georgian Dream representatives. The minister said that there were a number of EU politicians who acted in a biased way, but Martens is the only one she agreed to name.

Other accusations of bias

This is not the first time that Georgian Dream activists complain of a pro-Saakashvili bias in EU circles. Georgian Dream activists contend that Philip Dimitrov, the EU ambassador to Georgia and a former Bulgarian prime minister from the centre-right, was maintaining contacts only with the pro-Saakashvili NGOs. EU officials strongly denied the allegations.

Asked to respond to the foreign minister’s allegations, including the comments attributed to Martens about the political rally in Kutaisi, EPP spokesperson Kostas Sasmatzoglou said Martens never visited this city.

For the rest, he referred to a recent EPP press release, which in his words “vindicates the serious misgivings” voiced by Martens about Georgian Dream, ahead of the elections in Georgia.

The press release, dated 7 December, cited “very worrying developments” in Georgia: “Vindictive statements from Georgian Dream ministers against [United National Movement] leaders, firing of journalists, harassment and prosecution of opposition leaders and representatives.”

A battlefield for European political parties?

Martens has also lashed at the liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe for supporting Georgian Dream.

“I call on the other European political parties to condemn Ivanishvili and especially the ALDE party and its leader Graham Watson, who enthusiastically endorsed – even via paid adverts – Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream,” Martens stated.

Two of the six political parties in the Georgian Dream coalition are ALDE Party members: The Republican Party of Georgia, and Our Georgia – Free Democrats.

However, the main partner in Georgian Dream, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, has plans to join the centre-left Party of European Socialists, Panjikidze told EURACTIV.

Panjikidze also said that Georgian Dream was not cutting its bridges to the EPP. She said that after her return from Brussels visit, she would meet in Tbilissi with Elmar Brok, an MEP from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Relations between the EU and Georgia appear less dramatic. A Commission press release on 18 December said Brussels “very much” appreciates “the readiness of the new government team to maintain continuity” in efforts to bring the country’s EU integration process further.

Panjikidze said that her country’s ambitions were to sign an Association Agreement, as well as a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreement, at the Vilnius Summit of the EU’s ‘Eastern Partnership’ in November 2013. She also expressed hopes to bring forward the visa liberalisation process.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group says Georgia’s peaceful change of government after the October 2012 parliamentary election was “an encouraging and rare example of a democratic post-Soviet power transfer”.

The opposition coalition Georgian Dream won the parliamentary elections held on 1 October and its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia, became prime minister.

Ivanishvili first asked his political foe President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose United National Movement (UNM) took 40% against 55% for Georgian Dream, to resign. Later, under Western pressure, the Ivanishvili’s government and Saakashvili entered in cohabitation.

Saakashvili’s mandate expires in the autumn of 2013 and according to the constitution, he cannot be elected for a third term. He has been in office since 2004.

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