European democracy watchers have secured a temporary cease-fire in the increasingly nasty battle between the Georgian government and billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili over campaign finance. This begs the question of what role Tbilisi's concerns about its international image will play in keeping the country's October 1 parliamentary elections on a democratic track.
Since Ivanishvili declared war on President Mikheil Saakashvili last year and formed his six-party Georgian Dream coalition, state auditors have been pounding the billionaire and his political allies with one fine after another for alleged violations of campaign finance laws. Local rights groups repeatedly have challenged the legality of the penalties, but the government has maintained adamantly that "Bidzina," as he is known, is a compulsive vote-buyer.
And then the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe came to town. Call it a coincidence, but the moment the PACE envoys, on hand to size up democracy during Georgia's campaign season, questioned the legitimacy of the fines, the auditors put the collection of one set of fees on hold.
The length of the "postponement" has not been defined, but the odds are strong it may well last as long as Western observers are keeping their eyes peeled on the election campaign.
Ever determined to play the international big time, Tbilisi is known for trying to keep its nose powdered during elections. The growing controversy over the financial face-off with Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition (energetically highlighted by Ivanishvili's press people in the US) does not exactly make for the kind of PR that works well for cozy chats with Washington or Brussels.
[That said, image deeply concerns Team Ivanishvili, too. A PR manager in Washington wrote to EurasiaNet.org that auditors' alleged takeover of Georgian Dream funds means the group now has "no money to carry out campaign activities" -- an allegation that contrasts oddly with the coalition's subsequently announced plans for a wrap-up rally in downtown Tbilisi on the eve of the vote.]
Granted, PR and politics are natural bedfellows, but those who've long followed Georgia's political reforms might well wonder which will prevail this election season -- principle or PR?