The Georgian government takes pride in having implemented reforms that have turned the country into one of the most business-friendly environments in the world. Officials, however, haven’t demonstrated the same kind of reform zeal when it comes to facilitating expatriate participation in Georgia’s October 1 parliamentary elections.
More than a million Georgians are believed to be living outside the country – most of them in neighboring Turkey and Russia, along with pockets in Western Europe and the United States. That estimate is based mainly on migration numbers compiled since the country gained independence following the 1991 Soviet collapse. While it is difficult to establish a precise number for those potentially eligible to cast ballots, 42,613 Georgians abroad are officially registered to vote, according to Georgia's Central Election Committee (CEC).
The possibility that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of potential voters living abroad will not be able to cast ballots could significantly skew the outcome of the parliamentary elections. Mikhail Hubutiya, who leads the Union of Georgians in Russia, an expatriate cultural association, contended that the current situation favored the incumbent government, which is dominated by President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM). Hubutiya estimated the number of potential Georgian voters in Russia at about 400,000, a figure that, if accurate, would comprise perhaps 10 percent of the electorate. Georgia’s population is estimated to be 4.5 million.
The expat-voter issue appears to be two-fold: Georgians living in Russia cannot vote unless they are willing to travel back home; and Georgians living in countries where voting is possible needed to clear high barriers to register – not just proving their Georgian citizenship, but also proving residency abroad. The local ID requirement, in particular, sowed confusion among Georgian expats: many interpreted it to mean that they had to produce proof of legal residency in the foreign country where they wished to vote.
In his capacity of head of a cultural organization, Hubutiya claimed that he endorses neither the UNM, nor the incumbent party’s main challenger, the Georgian Dream coalition, led by billionaire entrepreneur Bidzina Ivanishvili. At the same time, Hubutiya said that if all expats who wanted to vote did so, then a significant majority would probably cast ballots for Georgian Dream.
“Ten percent: does that play a role?” Hubutiya said, referring to the theoretical impact of the influence of the Russian-Georgian vote on the election. “Of course!”
Election rules established in Tbilisi do not provide for absentee voting. Thus, Georgian expats wishing to cast ballots must show up on Election Day at a designated polling station abroad, usually an embassy or consulate. CEC representatives explained that since Georgia does not currently maintain diplomatic relations with Russia, Georgians living there had no other option but to travel home if they wanted to vote.
“The election code of Georgia does not recognize vote by mail. Thus, all the citizens, whether registered in or outside the country, cast their votes in person,” Julie Giorgadze, a diplomat at Georgia’s Embassy in Washington, wrote in an email interview.
Hubutiya accused Saakashvili’s government of unfairly questioning the loyalty of Georgians in Russia, with which Georgia fought a disastrous war in 2008. “The current government has always treated Russian-Georgians as the enemy,” Hubutiya said.
Elsewhere, confusion over the paperwork required to register to vote abroad has had the effect of suppressing turnout, some partisan expats contended. In response to a complaint filed by Georgian Dream, the CEC offered a brief extension for voter registration – pushing the deadline back from September 10 to September 13, and waived the identification requirement beyond a Georgian passport. But given the brief window of opportunity and the short notice, relatively few expats availed themselves of the extended opportunity.
In addition, the CEC rejected a request to allow expats to vote during the weekend preceding the October 1 election date. The petitioners maintained that the existing requirements imposed a significant barrier on many expats, noting that October 1 election date falls on a workday, and would force those wishing to vote, and who are employed, to take time off from work.
Giorgadze, the Georgian Embassy spokesperson in Washington, stressed that the intent of the original requirements was not to have expats prove their legal status abroad. She said a household utility bill with the voter’s name and address printed on it would have been sufficient to meet the requirement. A similar requirement is common in order to obtain many governmental services in the United States. But the perception among some potential Georgian voters that the registration process had indeed required them to prove their legal status, as well as other misconceptions, appeared to persist long after the deadline had passed.
Giorgi Passiashvili – an expat who showed up at a protest in New York held opposite the United Nations headquarters when Saakashvili addressed the General Assembly – attributed the wide discrepancy between the number of Georgian expats registered to vote and the actual number abroad to the fact that, in his estimate, 80 percent don’t have legal residency in their host country. The belief that they would have to show proof of legal residency, then, scared them away from trying to register to vote.
Identifying himself as an “election monitor for the opposition,” Passiashvili said he planned on observing the vote on behalf of the Georgian Dream coalition during the October 1 balloting at the Georgian Embassy in Washington. He expressed concern that the large number of unregistered voters abroad could raise the chances of electoral fraud at home.
Tamar Kapanadze, a spokesperson for the Georgian Central Election Committee, said all potential voters appear in an online roster: those who are not registered properly have a checkmark next to their name.