A US delegation has cautioned the Georgian government that if the international community deems the country's upcoming parliamentary elections to be unfair, Georgia's international standing will receive a "serious blow." There are indications, meanwhile, that the US admonition is stirring resentment in Tbilisi.
The US delegation which included Sen. John McCain (R-AR), former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott held talks with opposition politicians, government leaders and election officials in Tbilisi from October 4-7. According to a summary prepared by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the delegation emphasized in their discussions that, in the view of American policymakers, Georgia's November 2 vote represents a "critical test for the country's democratization."
If the elections are held in a free and fair manner, Georgia "will be able to achieve greater political stability and will more easily integrate into the community of democracies," the NDI statement said. NDI organized the US delegation visit.
"If these elections fail to meet Georgia's domestic legal requirements and its international commitments to hold genuinely democratic elections, the country's representative institutions will face a crisis of confidence, and Georgia will suffer a serious blow to its international standing," the statement added.
Political allies of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who form the core of the pro-government For a New Georgia election bloc, are facing an uphill struggle to retain control of the legislature. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Opposition leaders and human rights activists believe that incumbent officials are likely to try to fix the election results. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Observers say that no one political party is expected to win control of parliament, creating the possibility of a protracted coalition-building process.
The United States has taken a keen interest in the Georgian parliamentary election. Given the country's strategic location, including the fact that it is a transit country for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, Georgia has emerged as a significant recipient of US economic and military assistance. In early July, former Secretary of State James Baker, visiting Tbilisi on a special diplomatic mission, brokered a deal on the composition of the country's Central Election Commission that was aimed at promoting a fairer election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Georgian government subsequently backtracked on the agreement. Since then, however, the United States has maintained steady pressure on Tbilisi, indicating that a rigged vote could cause a significant reduction in the quality of relations and quantity of economic assistance. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The NDI statement said the US delegation offered praise for several recent steps taken to improve the electoral environment, including revisions to the Unified Election Code and improved media access for political parties. The delegation, however, said more action was needed to ensure a transparent election. It urged that political party activists, along with domestic and international observers, should be guaranteed "full access to voting and counting procedures in polling stations." The statement also said that precinct-level voting results should be "made immediately available as consolidated results are released." In past elections, a delay in the release of precinct-level results "made it difficult to detect irregularities and contributed to speculation about electoral fraud," the NDI statement said.
According to the statement, local government and law-enforcement authorities have in several instances acted to "gain political advantage for specific parties and candidates." It called on the Georgian government to ensure that the state apparatus maintains neutrality towards the campaign and the election itself. "State resources ... must be secured and used strictly for the public's interest," the statement said.
NDI also expressed concern about the potential for campaign-related violence. The statement called on authorities "to ensure the security of every citizen, while protecting and promoting the exercise of political rights." At the same time, it urged the campaigning political parties to "act responsibly."
There are signs in Tbilisi that US hectoring about election transparency is alienating some Georgians. A commentary published by the Georgian newspaper Dilis Gazeti on October 7 complained that Georgia has been unjustly singled out for scrutiny, and is being used as a US "laboratory" for democratic development.
"Senator McCain clearly wants to teach democracy to all the [former Soviet] republics by using Georgia as a visual aid," the newspaper commentary said.
"At first glance we should take pride in this," the newspaper continued, referring to the strong US interest in promoting a free election. "But in effect it is quite regrettable because, if we do not live up to US expectations, the full force of the only superpower's righteous wrath will fall upon us."
The newspaper suggested that Washington was picking on Georgia in part because of the country's weak central government. "Delegations of even the most powerful countries would not be able to pay this kind of inspection visit to, say, Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. The reason is simple. They would be kicked out of there by the local regimes," the commentary said.
In concluding, Dilis Gazeti condemned the actions of the entire political elite, and not just Shevardnadze's administration, saying it had "confirmed the banana-republic image" of Georgia in the international arena. "No matter how the forthcoming elections are staged, they have already damaged Georgia's reputation."