Georgia plans to finalize a pact with the European Union on June 27 that would bring Tbilisi closer to Brussels. Even so, the campaign environment ahead of Georgia’s local elections suggests that the country has quite a bit of distance to cover before it reaches the standards of a European democracy.
The former Soviet republic has yet to experience a campaign season that does not smack of a rowdy soccer match. After a peaceful change of government via a 2013 presidential election and 2012 parliamentary vote, Georgian officials can certainly point to democratization achievements. But the run-up to June 15 mayoral and local council elections still has seen bloody noses, egg-throwing and allegations that the governing Georgian Dream coalition is intimidating opposition candidates.
In Tbilisi for a quick check-in ahead of the association-agreement signing ceremony, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, the EU’s chief executive, speaking during a June 12 news conference, voiced concerns about Georgia’s political process.
“It is … key that Georgia remains on the path of political pluralism, media freedom and [an] independent judiciary,” Barroso said. “It is important there are no doubts about freedom and fairness of the elections, so I expect this to happen.”
Campaign incidents already have prompted the European Union’s own human rights adviser to Georgia, Thomas Hammarberg, to urge officials to start a national campaign against violence, including against political figures. The US Embassy in Tbilisi has called for an investigation into the reports of violence and pressure, and for Georgia to keep up “the highest standards of democracy in this region.”
The task is not straightforward. Thirty-one-year-old Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili’s government faces the challenge of not only maneuvering the country toward closer integration with the EU, but sidestepping any funny business by confirmed Euro-skeptic Russia. As has been the case for earlier Georgian governments under pressure, the temptation to use heavy-handed means to maintain political control can run strong.
The government maintains the June 15 elections, which feature 12 mayoral and 2,145 local-council and council-chair races, will occur without incident. But minority parties charge that Gharibashvili and his coalition are trying to create a single-party rule.
The main target of the attacks this election season is former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), the country’s largest opposition force, which 31-year-old Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili says should “vanish” after the vote. “We, together with you, have to remove the UNM from government in every district, every city and village,” Gharibashvili declared at a June 9 campaign stop in the Black-Sea city of Batumi. Earlier, Gharibashvili had asserted that his team would not let any party other than his Georgian Dream coalition score victories at the polls. The prime minister put such comments down to campaigning.
The UNM, which has claimed political persecution, questions that definition of diversity. “We are seeing a systematic, well-orchestrated harassment of our candidates to quit the race and to wipe out the opposition,” charged UNM lawmaker Giorgi Kandelaki. The prime minister’s statements only testify to the government’s orchestration of the attacks, he added. [Editor’s Note: Kandelaki once served as an editorial associate at EurasiaNet.org].
Civil rights groups also point to a string of violent clashes. Several men scuffled with UNM officials at a recent campaign event in Batumi. In Tbilisi, one high-profile UNM member, Zurab Tchiaberashvili, had a glass crushed on his head in a café, while a group of unknown assailants tried to abduct another senior UNM member, Nugzar Tsiklauri.
Overall, political groups and election observers attribute to political pressure the withdrawal of “up to 50 candidates” from six parties, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy reported. Only four out of 80 candidates interviewed by prosecutors said the same, however, the government has announced.
"They are trying to convince us that all the 80 candidates caught some kind of virus and started withdrawing en masse," quipped opposition figure Nino Burjanadze, a former parliamentary chair, to Maestro TV.
The prime minister has dismissed criticism of his governing style, claiming that the Georgian Dream is diverse enough to find an opposition within its own ranks.
The Georgian Dream’s deputy chair, Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze, as well as several Georgian Dream members did not respond to requests from EurasiaNet.org for comment. In public statements, the governing coalition has attributed the violence to those who suffered injustices under the UNM’s tenure in power from 2004-2012. Georgian Dream MP Eka Beselia, a senior coalition figure, alleged that UNM withdrawals from the race are part of a conspiracy to damage the Georgian Dream’s democratic credentials.
Those credentials carry particular weight now. Aside from the EU, Tbilisi is holding its breath for a membership-overture from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization this September.
There may be only so much public criticism the EU can dish out. Determined to hold firm against Russian pressure in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, it already has pledged tens of millions of euros to ensure Georgia’s European transformation sticks.
Signs do exist that its democratic health has improved. Observers note a largely pluralistic media environment, free of “political money,” and a more independent judiciary is taking root. An April 2014 survey of 3,915 voter-age respondents commissioned by the Washington, DC-based National Democratic Institute found that half of all Georgians believe the overall election environment has improved since 2012. Nonetheless, the democratization process in Georgia still has a way to go, according to 40 percent of those polled, the highest percentage on that particular question.