By Eka Janashia (06/18/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Election watchdogs groups have given a negative verdict on Georgia’s pre-election situation in the run-up to the June 15 local elections. According to their reports, pressure against municipal candidates and political violence has increased and reflect a deterioration of the political climate compared to that during the 2013 presidential polls.
Georgian legislation requires that at least 15 candidates are featured in proportional party lists in districts with more than 75,000 voters, and at least 10 candidates in districts with fewer voters. Hence, the withdrawal of one nominee could distort a party’s whole proportional list. The election watchdogs argue that pressure exercised by the authorities has caused the cancellation of the entire party list of some non-parliamentary opposition parties in several municipalities.
Former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze’s United Opposition party was disqualified from the proportional contest for positions in the Dmanisi Municipal Council (Sakrebulo) after five of its candidates withdrew from the race. In the same district, candidates of the Christian-Democratic and United National Movement (UNM) have allegedly also been under pressure to cancel their registration of candidates. The removal of three candidates from Georgia’s Way party, led by former foreign minister Salome Zurabishvili, caused the invalidation of its proportional list in Akhaltsikhe municipality. In addition, the election observer groups disclosed that nine UNM candidates had refused to run in Tsalka, Tetritskaro, Borjomi, Adigeni, Akhalkalaki, Dedoplistskaro and Lentekhi municipalities.
Meanwhile, the election commission of the Marneuli electoral district de-registered Akmamed Imamquliyev – the UNM candidate to head Marneuli’s municipal administration – allegedly due to a failure to meet the law’s requirement of a two-year term of residency. UNM insisted that Georgian Dream (GD) MP Ali Mamedov personally required that Imamquliyev should withdraw his candidacy. The Tbilisi City Court later restored his candidature.
Aside from tensions incurred by the authorities’ alleged pressure on municipal candidates, physical confrontations and assaults against people involved in political activities have become frequent. One of the UNM leaders, Zurab Chiaberashvili, was attacked in a downtown Tbilisi café on May 27. Although the assailant hit Chiaberashvili several times in the head with a cup, the offender was charged with deliberate infliction of minor injuries, instead of hooliganism which would have implied a much stricter punishment.
On June 6, protesters surrounded UNM’s local office in Zugdidi, Samegrelo region, throwing stones and condemning the party’s candidate for the head of the Zugdidi municipality administration, Tengiz Gunava. The rally occurred after PM Irakli Garibashvili stated that Gunava had been involved in the murder of Paata Kardava, a military intelligence officer in Zugdidi who disappeared on August 27, 2008 and had officially been considered missing until June 5, 2014. Attacking and hitting Gunava and his supporters, demonstrators were screaming that he had no right to run in the elections. The next day, a scuffle broke out in Batumi when a few GD activists arrived at a meeting held by the UNM’s leaders with a small group of voters as part of their election campaign.
The U.S. embassy in Tbilisi expressed concerns over the violent incidents and called on authorities to investigate cases objectively, and to take measures both technically and politically to meet high standards of elections. The EU’s special adviser for legal reforms and human rights in Georgia, Thomas Hammarberg, even suggested that the authorities should launch “a national campaign against violence.”
In a survey conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) from March 26 to April 18, 48 percent of the likely voters said they intended to vote for the ruling GD coalition, followed by UNM at 12 percent. United Opposition and the Labor Party got 4 percent each. Of the respondents, 19 percent were undecided, 8 percent refused to answer, and 3 percent rejected all candidates.
Whereas GD still enjoys higher popular support than other parties, the government’s actions and rhetoric have been accompanied with reduced support, especially in regions outside Tbilisi. Garibashvili’s statement, “we will not allow the victory of any political force [other than Georgian Dream] in any region or city” drew heavy criticism from the civil society sector and was assessed as wording typical for totalitarian leaders.
Two years after coming to power, GD desperately needs to maintain the image of a functional political unity capable of synchronizing the multiple interests of its various member parties. While victory in the local elections is a matter of prestige and political survival for GD, it seems that UNM’s immediate goal is simply to gather a sizable amount of votes. If the UNM would gain a grip on local power, that would enable GD to place part of the blame for potential misconduct on the UNM, and possibly to divert popular anger towards the opposition party. Thus, the UNM seemingly strives to allow the ruling coalition space to discredit itself through unfulfilled promises, after which it hopes to regain its own popularity among voters.
Erica Marat and Deborah Sutton (06/04/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The reform of Georgia’s police, starting from 2004 under former President Mikheil Saakashvili, represents an unprecedented success in the post-Soviet region. Corruption among rank-and-file police personnel was largely defeated, and the police in general became more professional in responding to citizens’ concerns. However, the reform proceeded without public oversight and participation of the parliament, leading to a politicization of the security sector. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, the Georgian Dream opposition coalition pledged to open the security sector for public input. After a brief period of openness to external oversight in 2013, the window of opportunity for public-police collaboration is again closing.
By Eka Janashia (05/21/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On May 2, Georgia’s parliament unanimously adopted a contested anti-discrimination bill required under the Visa Liberalization Action Plan in order to attain the short-term visa-free regime with EU.
The law on “Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination” envisages the introduction of mechanisms against discrimination conducted on the grounds of race, color, language, gender, age, citizenship, native identity, birth, place of residence, property, social status, religion, ethnic affiliation, profession, family status, health condition, disability, expression, political or other beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, and “other grounds.”
The law triggered enormous criticism from different groups of society and was preceded by heated debates in parliament.
The legal advocacy and watchdog organizations insist that the anti-discrimination law is a watered down version of the original document drafted by the Ministry of Justice, with the active engagement of a broad range of civil society groups and that it provides less efficient mechanisms, as well as financial penalties for discrimination cases, than the initial one. Whereas the original version envisaged setting up a new institution – an inspector for the protection of equality – in charge of overseeing the implementation of anti-discrimination legislation, the adopted law places this competence under the Public Defender’s Office (PDO).
According to Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), the existing legislation already empowers the PDO with almost the same authority. The purpose of the bill thus should have been to establish new and more effective legal instruments, rather than replicate the old ones. Further, while the anti-discrimination law foresees an expansion of the PDO’s authority, it does not ensure relevant financial support for it. An explanatory note accompanying the bill says that the anti-discrimination legislation will not incur any increase of state budget expenses necessary to recruit additional staff in line with the PDO’s new responsibilities.
Another, more powerful, group which has severely attacked the bill is the Orthodox Church and its radical followers. According to the Georgian Orthodox Church’s statement, released on April 28, the anti-discrimination bill legalizes a “deadly sin” by including “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. The EU represents a conglomerate of different nations and religions claiming to recognize and respect the culture and traditions of various people and expresses its readiness to take into consideration Georgian values as well, but this bill overtly contradicts these principles, the statement reads.
Those against the bill also argue that it allows sexual minorities to be employed even in the preschool education sector, which is alarming as it could have negative implications for children’s mental development. Some radical priests even suggested that the visa-liberalization should be categorically rejected “rather than making such inclinations as homosexuality a legal norm.”
Commenting on the bill, Speaker of Parliament Davit Usupashvili said it is a question of whether Georgia will continue its European path, recognizing that “we should not chase people with sticks, we should not fire people from jobs if we do not share their opinions and their way of life, or else we should stay in Russia, where it is possible to expel people whom you dislike from a city.”
Despite the strong support provided by the liberal wing of politicians, heavy pressure from the clergy forced the lawmakers to make significant modifications to the bill.
Initially, some lawmakers including the Vice-Speaker of Parliament, GD MP Manana Kobakhidze, insisted that the entire list of prohibited grounds of discrimination should be removed, as was suggested by spiritual leaders. While this initiative was not met by the parliament, a note of “protection of public order and morale” was added to the draft law. According to the law, actions committed for this purpose will now not be considered as discrimination against a person. The human rights groups fear that the inclusion of terms such as “public order” and “morale” risks encouraging discriminative interpretations of the law. The special post of an inspector in charge of monitoring the implementation of the anti-discrimination legislation, as well as financial penalties, have also been removed from the draft.
On March 28, as the government adopted the bill and sent it to the parliament for approval, PM Irakli Gharibashvili appealed to the state constitutional commission, currently drafting constitutional amendments, to reformulate the definition of marriage in the constitution as a “union of man and woman.” He claimed that such an explicit definition will eschew wrong perceptions and interpretations of the planned anti-discrimination law. For most Georgian lawyers, the PM’s statement does not make sense because Georgia’s constitution says that “marriage shall be based upon the equality of rights and free will of spouses.” Further, Georgia’s civil code defines marriage as a “voluntary union of man and woman,” meaning that same-sex marriage is already banned in Georgia.
The government seemingly seeks to accommodate the clergy’s demands while simultaneously maintaining the trust of the pro-European electorate.
By Eka Janashia (05/07/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On April 22, Georgia’s ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) dismissed information about the mass distribution of Russian passports to ethnic Armenians residing in Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region. Armenians constitute 54 percent of the population in the region, which borders Armenia and Turkey to the south and southwest.
Georgian media reported in April that lines of people were queuing to obtain Russian passports outside the former Russian embassy in Tbilisi. The rising demand for obtaining Russian citizenship was triggered by the amended law on citizenship that came into force in Russia recently. The law envisages fast-track procedures for granting Russian citizenship to foreign citizens or persons without citizenship, who or whose families live within the borders of the former Russian empire or the Soviet Union, and speak fluent Russian. The special commission will determine the applicants’ eligibility through interviews conducted in Russian consulates across the post-Soviet area. Approved candidates must renounce their prior citizenship, according to the law.
Allegedly, the amendment encouraged applications from Russian-speaking Georgian citizens, especially those who seek jobs in Russia to provide for their families through remittances.
However, Georgia’s MFA said the reports about distribution of Russian passports have been overstated. According to Deputy Foreign Minister David Zalkaniani, the Georgian government is studying the amendments cautiously to elaborate corresponding legal mechanisms, and reminded that Georgian legislation rules out multiple citizenships.
Whereas Russia’s new citizenship legislation could be considered a cause for concern, the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition has reacted calmly. President Georgi Margvelashvili said Georgia should remain alert but must not overstate the danger. Margvelashvili does not believe that isolating Moscow is a right choice, “because alienating Russia makes Russia even more aggressive, unpredictable and dangerous.”
There is “nothing special” about the law facilitating the issuance of Russian passports, according to Zurab Abashidze, Georgia’s special envoy to Russia, who put the Russian legislation in relation to the developments in Ukraine and doubted that it had any relevance to Georgia. Abashidze’s comment came after he met with Russia’s deputy foreign minister for a sixth round of talks in Prague on April 16. According to Abashidze, Karasin assured him that Russia did not plan to prevent Georgia from signing an Association Agreement with the EU this summer.
Whereas GD is downplaying the issue, one of its leaders, Minister of Defense Irakli Alasania, declared that the Kremlin intends to split public opinion on foreign policy to increase its leverage in Georgian society. This method has already been tried in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, and is now actively being carried out in Ukraine, Alasania said. According to Alasania, the distribution of Russian passports to Georgian citizens is not alarming because the situation is under control. However, anti-state organizations have been appearing like mushrooms recently in Georgia and the government needs to confront it through consolidating its resources and enhancing its counterintelligence services, the minister said.
On April 23, the NGO Eurasian choice of Georgia held a meeting at Tbilisi’s international press-center. The head of the organization, Archil Chkoidze, strongly questioned Georgia’s pro-Western course and insisted that Georgia’s foreign policy priorities must be determined by a referendum. The restoration of territorial integrity and economic prosperity is only possible through rapprochement with Moscow, he said.
Such opinions may indeed reflect the approaches mentioned by Alasania. Likewise, Georgian analysts claim that the threats coming from Russia are real and should be countered adequately.
Many Georgian residents hold both Georgian and Russian passports, often illegally, to simplify travel to Russia. Migrant workers constitute a considerable share of these, though some also seek Russian citizenship in order to obtain a state pension – which is higher in Russia than in Georgia – or other economic benefits.
The distribution of passports in Georgia may reach out to vulnerable segments of the population and incentivize them to obtain Russian citizenship, which may be what Alasania implied by the division of society and potential threats coming from the Kremlin. This is especially true for the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, densely populated by ethnic Armenians who hardly know Georgian but speak Russian fluently. The “passportization” of compactly settled ethnic minorities may well enable Moscow to repeat a Crimean scenario in Georgia. The government’s immediate task should thus be to better explain the advantages of the Association Agreement and the visa liberalization policy with the EU.
The Ukrainian case demonstrates that the Kremlin can use its proclaimed right to protect its citizens as a reason to invade any post-Soviet country. Notably, the 2008 Russia-Georgia August war was preceded by a process of intense “passportization” in Georgia’s breakaway regions.
By Johanna Popjanevski and Carolin Funke (04/23/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Tensions are again rising between the ruling Georgian Dream coalition (GD) and the main opposition party United National Movement (UNM) ahead of the local elections, scheduled for June. Over the last month the government has stepped up its campaign of investigating and prosecuting former government officials, including former President Mikheil Saakashvili and his National Security Advisor Giga Bokeria, who have both recently been summoned for interrogation by the authorities. The targeting of UNM officials carries troublesome implications for Georgia, as they give rise to perceptions of selective justice. Like in Ukraine, political instability in Georgia can open up to national unrest, external manipulation and may ultimately delay the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.