Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze responded in bantering fashion to the news that that McCain, Shalikashvili, and Talbott were arriving. However, his response--"I don't know what they are planning to do with us. Are they coming to help us or to bury us?"--indicated the increasing seriousness of the intense Western scrutiny into the elections and the growing pressure that he and his government are coming under.
On 24 September, the U.S. State Department unexpectedly announced that it would make a large but unspecified cut in aid to Georgia, while in the summer the World Bank suspended social and energy-industry programs, citing concerns over corruption.
The delegation could hardly have comprised more senior, non-government figures. Talbot was a deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, Senator McCain was U.S. President George Bush's chief rival for the Republican Party nomination for the 2000 presidential elections, and Shalikashvili is former chairman of the U.S. military's joint chiefs of staff.
They also came representing an organization, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), that is highly influential in Washington and which is headed by Madeleine Albright, Clinton's secretary of state.
Europe, too, has been increasing its pressure on Georgia. In May, the Council of Europe, a wide-ranging organization set up after World War II to promote democratic values, warned Georgia that it might be put on its black list because of its lack of reform and failure to curb corruption. In late September and early October, it sent another group of representatives.
The U.S. and European delegations made clear they view the elections as fundamentally important for Georgia. "The upcoming parliamentary elections will be a critical test for Georgia's progress," the Council of Europe stated, a view echoed by the NDI, which called the parliamentary elections a "critical test of the country's democratization." The NDI added that the elections would indicate "the potential of Georgia to advance economically and integrate into the institutions of the democratic community."
While neither organization made a clear declaration of the possible consequences of bad elections for Georgia, there were some specific statements about the criteria by which the elections would be judged. However, some commentators in the Georgian media were surprised at what they saw as unusually forthright statements.
Still, earlier U.S. pressure failed to achieve its goal. Baker's visit, in July, was intended to end a stalemate between the government and the opposition over the composition of the Central Electoral Committee (CEC). Baker proposed that the opposition and government have equal seats in the commission. However, after he left, the Georgian parliament approved a deal in which the parties that won the 1999 parliamentary elections and 2002 local elections were granted privileges.
Some fears about the composition of the CEC, though, receded when Shevardnadze chose Nana Devdariani from a shortlist of three names provided by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Devdariani is largely seen as neutral. The NDI did, though, point to inadequate funding for the CEC, and the potential for electoral abuses at local and regional levels.
Arguably, an even bigger danger than manipulation at the polling station or after the vote are the voting lists. The danger came into public focus early in October when a full list of voters was published online. This revealed the presence of many "dead souls," voters long dead but still registered and entitled to a vote, as well as major gaps, and confusing data.
Incomplete lists have given birth to a term widely used in the Caucasus--carousel--that is merry in name but grave in nature. This has come to be applied to an electoral phenomenon in which the same person votes in several areas using different identities.
The discrepancies are vast, though how big is unclear. The opposition New Rights party and some civic organizations believe that there might be as many as 650,000 names that are not on the lists or should not be there.
The publication makes a mockery of government claims made last July to revise the voting lists. The drive for a thorough vetting of the lists came after local elections in summer 2002, which were heavily criticized for the faulty voting lists and administrative chaos, and prompted demonstrations across the country.
The CEC now has the difficult task of sorting out the lists by 20 October, the final date for registration.
At least, though, voting procedures have hardened. Voters' hands will be stamped in an effort to prevent double voting.
The consequences of badly flawed elections are unclear. The NDI spoke of a "serious blow to [Georgia's] international standing." The United States had already dealt a severe blow to Shevardnadze's domestic and international standing when it said it would cut aid, a move whose timing played into opposition hands and fostered some resentment.
The U.S. State Department did not link the decision to democratic flaws. Instead, the stated reason was that Georgia had failed to implement economic projects for which it had received aid.
However, the coincidence of financial pressure and greater surveillance by the U.S. authorities is leading to fears of further cutbacks. Shevardnadze, a wily and vastly experienced politician long seen in the West as crucial to ensuring a degree of stability in Georgia, angered the United States in August, when the government agreed to sell an electricity distributor in Tbilisi and roughly half the country's transmission grid to the Russian heating and electricity giant, Unified Energy Systems (UES). This followed an agreement in July by which Shevardnadze tied Georgia into a 25-year contract with Russian gas giant Gazprom.
Steven Mann, a U.S. government advisor on energy issues, had visited Tbilisi in June to deliver the message that "Georgia should do nothing that undercuts the powerful promise of an East-West energy corridor."
The biggest Western investment in the Caucasus and a key component in U.S. and European efforts to reduce dependence on the Middle East and on Russia is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. A gas pipeline running alongside it should be built later.
The importance of geopolitics came to the fore again during the visit of the NDI delegation, when Senator McCain said that, as well as wanting free and fair elections, "we would want Georgia to become as independent as possible from Russia or any other country."
Even if the U.S. makes further sharp cuts, Georgia could still be a major aid recipient. Georgia has enjoyed a privileged position, receiving in some years aid per capita second only to Israel.
While the elections are causing international tensions, they are leading to disturbing, though still relatively low-grade violence within Georgia. In recent weeks there have been six major incidents. The authorities have stepped on the opposition on two occasions. On 22 September, an activist for the National Movement, a leading opposition group, was detained in Bolnisi, eastern Georgia. On 26 September, there were dozens of injuries when local authorities tried to stop an opposition rally.
The opposition has also fallen victim to unknown assailants three times. On 10 October, activists for the Enough movement were beaten up in Zugdidi, and on 8 October a short was fired into a building in which the Revival faction was meeting. On 3 October an opposition newspaper in Poti, western Georgia was burgled.
The violence has not all been one way. On 11 October, a pro-government CEC member was badly beaten in Tbilisi.
The war of words is also bitter. The speaker of the pro-government alliance, Irina Sarishvili, has accused Nino Burjanadze, the leader of one of the major opposition alliances, of being in Russia's pay, while Burjanadze herself accused the authorities of being "ready to do everything in order not to hold the election at all" since they have no hope of victory.
Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the National Movement party, has accused Shevardnadze of orchestrating the violence. "You intend to finally destroy and blow up what is left [of the country] in order to keep your office," he said in televised comments.
The extent and bitterness of the fighting on the election campaign suggests a difficult post-election period as opinion polls indicate that a coalition will need to be formed.
It is also drowning out many of the complaints of ordinary Georgians. The familiarity of many of the faces, the change in many of the politicians' allegiance, and their failure to deliver on earlier promises is compounding alienation from the political scene.
The NDI warned of a "crisis of confidence" if there are not "genuinely democratic elections." Many Georgians were already suffering from a crisis of confidence in their politicians.