Is the future of Georgian democracy at stake?

On June 29, The National Democratic Institute (NDI) published a pre-election assessment of the political situation in Georgia, emphasizing that “The vilification of political adversaries has become commonplace.”

According to the assessment, hate speech against religious and ethnic minorities can “still” be found in Georgian campaign rhetoric. “Reports of politically motivated harassment, improper campaign spending, claims of the attempted bribery of state officials, and use of administrative resources persist,” the document reads.

The mission noted that in light of the multi-million lari fine imposed on Georgian Dream opposition coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, the authorities must “ensure transparent, equal and the reasonable application of campaign finance laws… [Government] should review and consider further reforms to address civil society’s concerns about the proportionate implementation of regulations.”

Earlier on June 8, the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai was published underlining the necessity of further strengthening human rights in Georgia and taking preventive steps to force government to stop using the law for its own purposes.

For all sides, there are reasons for concern regarding the future of Georgia’s democracy and some of the recent developments in Georgia are only strengthening this feeling.

Global TV, a Georgian cable operator and satellite TV provider, forcefully closed by the Chamber of Control, represented one of the most important examples of using the law for the government’s own interests.

The Chamber of Control, an independent public institution, conducts audits of the state budget, public finances and the activities of the public administration. Presently, this body is actively involved in auditing the activities of political parties during this pre-election period.

In June of this year, the Chamber of Control sent documents to the public prosecutor’s office emphasizing that Global TV was involved in attempts of vote-buying by Bidzina Ivanishvili. The court-ordered the seizure of Global TV-owned satellite dishes, which were distributed free in Georgia’s rural regions (Global TV is co-owned by Bidzina Ivanishvili’s brother Alexander).

According to the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a human rights NGO, Article 151 of the Criminal Procedures Code was violated; the article stipulates that a property can be seized only if the situation is concerned with the accused or a person who is related to the accused. The chief prosecutor’s office initiated a criminal investigation into possible vote-bribery, but no one has been charged yet in the case. Consequently, the GYLA underlined the fact that the court order on the seizure of property was not in line with the law.

Some experts considered the case to be the government’s attempt to use the law for its own political interests– in particular, by interfering with the free flow of information to the public leaving those in Georgia’s rural areas without an alternative point of view. The point is that Global TV is the only cable operator which is carried in the Channel 9 package, a television station co-owned by Ivanishvili’s wife Ekaterine Khvedelidze.

The lack of an alternative point of view and information is the main challenge within the Georgian media. Consequently, the US Ambassador and several Georgian-based NGOs have succeeded in urging the government to introduce the Must Carry principle, which obligates cable TV providers to carry all channels with news programming. The government has allowed this principle for 60 days before the elections.

The second disturbing event was the use of civil servants in attempts to prevent opposition leaders from communicating with Georgian voters in the regions. The Mereti village was one such case that became prominent: A fistfight erupted in the village of Mereti, in Shida Kartli region on June 26, as Bidzina Ivanishvili was holding a campaign meeting with locals.

The village is located in the immediate vicinity of the breakaway South Ossetian administrative border. The clash happened during conversations with the residents of the village when a group of people began shouting “Misha! Misha!” and women were exclaiming that Bidzina Ivanishvili is a traitor and he is controlled by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Consequently, two people, both supporters of the Georgian Dream coalition and one woman were hospitalized. Later, four men were arrested and jailed for ten-days following a fistfight incident in the village of Mereti. Two the four jailed men are activists of the Georgian Dream, who have denied involvement in the incident.

The Interior Ministry denied allegations that its employees were involved in the Mereti incident, though many NGOs and experts recognized civil servants as the main force which not only escalated the situation in the Mereti village and pushed it toward violence, but were also deeply involved in the fist fight.

The Public Defender’s Office launched an investigation into the Mereti village case, because of the video footage aired by various media outlets. “Those who were involved in the incident are public servants, including the employees of the Gori local self-government body and emergency situations service of the Shida Kartli region,” the statement of The Public Defender’s Office (PDO) read.

The last event which raised concerns was the recent appointments of interior ministry strongman, Vano Merabishvili as Georgia’s new Prime Minister. Some human rights activists were alarmed by the appointment of Merabishvili, as his tenure as the Interior Minister was tainted by the events of November 7, 2007 and May 26, 2011, when Georgian police and Special Forces were blamed for using excessive force and breaching human freedoms.

Darkening the picture is another fact: BachoAkhalaia’s brother, Data Akhalaia was allegedly involved in the notorious murder of Sandro Gvirgvliani, the head of the United Georgian Bank’s Foreign Department, in 2006. Data Akhalaia led the Department of Constitutional Security (DCS) at the Interior Ministry at that time and he was suspended from his post following the scandalous murder, which turned out to be one of the most serious challenges for Merabishvili.

Many people expressed fears that the appointment of such people to these high-ranking positions represents an attempt to shape a ‘police regime’ in the country. “They’ve done it probably in order to reinforce police violence against the people. But no reshuffle of the government will save these authorities,” commented Bidzina Ivanishvili.

By and large, it seems that the pre-election period will be difficult and the situation will become even tenser in the days to come. The ruling party feels a real threat and will probably try to use its administrative resources to stay in power by all means.

Consequently, we can just hope that the political game will stay within the bounds of democratic, free and fair competition. The government will undoubtedly require mechanisms of containment, and international observers and their assessments will surely have a key role to play in this.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

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