In less than six months, parliamentary elections will be held in Georgia. As well as being a political test for the parties involved, these polls represent an important test of the democratic credentials of the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili and the impact of the EU’s calls for political pluralism.
On 15 May, the European Commission will present its action plan for Georgia. We expect a strong signal that the EU is closely monitoring Georgia’s young democracy and will follow through on the call made in February by EU foreign ministers for a genuine multi-party system. But the signs are not good. The Georgian government has ignored repeated recommendations from the Council of Europe and other international organisations to improve the state of democracy.
In December 2011, the government introduced legislation on political-party funding that places huge burdens on opposition parties and civil society. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of assembly said that these provisions “appear to largely violate international human-rights law”. Hundreds of opposition activists were interrogated in March, a systematic and blatant process of intimidation condemned by the country’s ombudsman.
After the EU and Western governments also called for “free and fair elections”, government-led interrogations stopped, but only briefly: as the spotlight has moved away, the interrogations have resumed. Opposition supporters and their families are being dismissed from government jobs. The ‘teacher of the year’ was fired – for supporting the opposition – a few days after gaining her award.
Most of the broadcast media remains under government control. There are worrying reports of volunteer militias being recruited to defend Georgia against undefined “enemies of the country”.
Last October, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who leads Georgian Dream, a coalition that includes the Republican Party, was stripped of his citizenship by presidential decree days after he announced his political aspirations. His efforts to regain his citizenship have been thwarted by spurious government rulings.
My party was part of the coalition that brought Saakashvili to power in 2003, but the hope of the Rose Revolution soon faded. We left the ruling coalition in early 2004, when it became clear that he wished to concentrate power in his own hands, to impose total political control over the judiciary, media and business. After cracking down brutally on the opposition in 2007, this authoritarian and unbalanced ruler made a disastrous mistake for the country in 2008, when he led Georgia into war with Russia.
As he nears the end of his final term as president, he has pushed through constitutional amendments to transfer power from the president to the next prime minister, who will take office after the presidential elections in October 2013. It is not impossible that he will emulate Russia’s Vladimir Putin and choose himself for that role.
The Georgian Dream coalition offers a different approach. We want a country that keeps the government accountable and not a “strong ruler” who makes arbitrary decisions. We would engage seriously in EU-led negotiations on the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, reflecting our desire to join NATO and the EU and to normalise relations with Russia. But we are not asking the EU or any other outsiders for favouritism – only fairness.
The EU must strengthen its calls for free and fair elections, and demand that the government adhere to its commitments and international obligations. The EU initiated a media monitoring programme in late April, but there needs now to be urgent international attention paid to the entire electoral process. Voter lists are a particular concern. To reduce the potential for manipulation, all the major opposition political parties last year requested biometric voter registration. The government refused the request. Allowing pre-registration of voters before the election – as many countries do – would prevent fraud. The government is, though, still refusing this option.
The EU must help deter further attempts at manipulation and intimidation. By speaking loudly and clearly now, the EU would show Saakashvili that it will judge the sincerity of Georgia’s European aspirations not by his rhetoric, but by his ability to deliver European standards of political behaviour.
David Usupashvili is the chairman of the Republican Party of Georgia, one of the members of the Georgian Dream coalition.