June 5, 2008
At a large manifestation with thousands of participants on the national day, May 26, the opposition parties of the South Caucasus republic of Georgia escalated their accusations against the Saakasvili regime for ruling the country on the basis of electoral fraud and suppression of alternative opinions.
Levan Gachechiladze, who came second at the presidential election in January this year, threatened that the opposition will refuse to take the few seats they won according to the official result of the parliamentary elections some days earlier – May 21st – and prevent the new parliament from convening ”if necessary by force”.
If this really comes true it would be an ironical repetition of the method the present regime used to take power through the ”Rose Revolution” in November 2003. Then angry representatives of the opposition of that time, considering their loss at the parliamentary elections a couple of week earlier to be the result of manipulation and oppression, invested the Parliament building when president Shevardnadze was giving his inauguration speech. The present President, Micheil Saakashvili wrote his name into the history of Georgia by sipping some of the still tepid tea that Shevardnadze hade left behind when he fled, accompanied by his body guard. Some days later ”Shevy” resigned and in January 2004 Saakashvili was elected president by some 98 per cent of the votes – without anyone claiming it to be the result of fraud.
But during the following year alarming reports from Human Rights organisations and independent observers painted a picture of power abuse, suppression of dissident opinions and authoritarian methods by the new rulers. After the mystic death of prime minister Zurab Zhvania early 2005 in a gas accident, which many Georgians are convinced was a covert assassination, the regime seems to have given up all restraints and has, according to many commentators, started to commit the same type of abuses that it accused its predecessors for. November 2007 saw an explosion of discontent, enhanced by the fact that the growth figures that the World Bank refer to for praising the Tbilisi rulers, so far haven’t improved every day life for the majority of the population. After manifestations of protest because of the enforced closure of a TV station, the regime was forced to go for early presidential and parliamentary elections. When Saakashvili was reelected in January he managed to pass the 50 percent barrier by a narrow margin, just enough to avoid a second round against Levan Gachechiladze. The opposition claimed that the victory was possible only through massive fraud, started a hunger strike and mobilised for the parliamentary elections. Some independent opinion polls showed that the elections could end by a draw or even a victory for the opposition.
That is why the dismay was great when the official election results were published and showed a landslide victory for the ruling party, the National Movement. Out of the half of the Parliament which is elected proportionally the government got 60 seats. Only three out of eleven opposition parties passed the 5 percent barrier and received together 15 seats. Out of the other half, which is elected according to the majority system, the ruling party received 70 seats, the opposition only 5 (including 2 from a party that did not pass the 5 percent barrier). This means that the regime by a good margin controls a two thirds majority, which is required for amendments to the constitution, maybe to give Saakashvili a possibility to remain as president longer than the two terms allowed by the present constitution. The opposition rapidly gave its verdict: Massive fraud. The report by the observers from OSCE also contains quite a lot of criticism, but all the same is phrased so that it could be used by the government as an international approval.
When I after the election met with one of the most vivid leaders of the Georgian opposition, Salome Zurabishvili, she was disappointed with the Europeans: ”The too hasty approval by the OSCE and the EU will make lots of pro-European Georgians furious and disappointed”. Zurabishvili was brought home from France by the present regime to become its first minister of Foreign Affairs, but resigned after a short time and joined the opposition. Zurabishvili, who just like the majority of the opposition, is, if possible, even more pro West and pro EU than the government, even did not mind comparing the Georgian president to Vladimir Putin. A similar opinion was expressed by the opposition newspaper Resonansi, which came out two days after the election with the main headline: ”The ghost of Putinization”. And in an interview in the same newspaper the respected political scientist Soso Tsikarishvili, who is also president of the European Integration Forum, fully supported the sometimes seemingly exaggerated accusations by the opposition against the regime and declared that ”unfortunately fraud and manipulations have increased”.
When I met with him personally and asked how that judgment corresponds with the fact that parallel vote counting by independent groups has shown almost the same result as the official one, Tskikarishvili explained that the methodology of fraud has been developed. It is not any more a matter of manipulation of figures but of much more sophisticated methods of intimidation, pressure, bribes, vote buying, abuse of public offices and resources, total control over major TV stations.
Also the joint European report, which has been presented as an approval of the elections, did contain criticism. Some of it becomes quite severe if looked upon by eyes that are acquainted with Georgian fraud methods. One of the problems mentioned in the OSCE report is ”problems with inking”. All voters shall after having voted be marked on one finger with ineffaceable ink. Tsikarishvili explained to me that if so is not done, it is not just a mere example of regrettable negligence, but a part of a very sophisticated fraud method where large groups of voters, extended families or clans, are bribed to abstain from voting and hand over their ID cards to agents of the ruling party who will vote in their place. This is possible if inking is not taking place, because then a few agents can vote a large number of times. Most Western Europeans probably consider this to be wild conspiratorial theories by ”bad losers”. One OSCE-observer also publicly at the press conference in Tbilisi the day after the elections, accused the opposition of not having understood an important element of democratic states – that the losers in elections should congratulate the winners! But to somebody, as me, who has observed several Georgian elections, it its clear that the method Tsikarishvili described is only on of several very imaginative fraud methods that the present regime rightly criticized its predecessors for using, but that it has apparently inherited and developed further, methods that cannot be discovered by parallel vote counting.
But of course there are other contributing causes for the landslide victory of the government. Some improvement has taken place since November 2003, such as some economic growth which could be seen especially in Tbilisi where new buildings and shops for luxury commodities increase every day – although one third of the population lives in absolute poverty.
The Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta (the newspapers where the murdered Anna Politkovskaya worked) quotes an anonymous member of the Georgian opposition who claims that the opposition parties were amateurs in modern campaigning, had non-professional marketing etc. More serious probably was that the opposition is divided, populist and has no really alternative political program. Almost all opposition parties are just as neoliberal, pro-West, anti-Russian and pro-NATO as the regime. There was virtually no debate about political programs, only about who is the most despicable liar, oppressor, abuser of power and manipulator, which made many voters rather exhausted and depressed.
The paradox is that this very pro-West opposition is feeling deceived by the West. Or as it was put by Tsikarishvili: More and more Georgians who are basically pro-West get the feeling that the West, primarily the USA but also the EU, don’t care about democracy in Georgia but only have an interest in having Georgia as a strategic ally against Russia. ” They want us to be satisfied with third class democracy, but we aren’t!”
The paradoxical result is that Georgia may be pushed closer to Russia despite the serious conflict about the separatist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Russian boycott of Georgian wine and mineral water (however direct flight between Russia and Georgia have been restored since spring this year). It is true that virtually no Georgian politician is ”pro-Russia”, but the reality is in favour of Russia. Almost all investments come from Russia – or Kazakhstan, politically close to Russia. The dependence on energy from Russia is almost complete. The potential for Georgian goods is the Russian market. And in the every day life everything Russian is still very much more present than anything American or European. Still everybody speaks Russian; there are Russian newspapers, TV-stations. Bookstores are full of Russian books, at least ten for every English one. One evening I checked twenty radio stations in Tbilisi and found only music on five, song or talk in Portuguese on one, in French on one, in Georgian on three, in English on four and in Russian on six.
In an interesting article in Novaya Gazeta Julia Latynina accuses the Putin regime of having made Russia into a copy of the Mongols which after their rule left nothing but desert behind. Why not behave like the Romans or British which kept an enormous cultural and ideological influence long after the dissolution of their empires? When the Soviet Union of Jagoda and Beria was gone the Russia of Dostojevskij and Pushkin still had a chance, she writes. This is very obvious for Georgia. If it was not for the bullying tactics of Putin, the Georgian society is still prepared for another relation to Russia.
Salome Zurabishvili told me she thinks it was an insult by the EU to give Georgia 2 million euro in order to guarantee a democratic election without consulting the opposition. And the visit by several EU-ministers of foreign affairs a few days before the elections, which formally was to show support for Georgia against Russia, was interpreted by many as a support for the ruling party in the elections. When such a pro-EU politician as Salome Zurabishvili starts to doubt the intentions of the EU, maybe Brussels should start to reconsider its unreserved support for the more and more Putin-like rule by Michael Saakashvili.
Former Member of he European parliament and rapporteur on South Caucasus, member of the advisory council of the Regional Environmental Center for South Caucasus, Tbilisi, Georgia. President of the Swedish Green Think Tank COGITO, Stockholm, Sweden.