Ignore the Georgian Elections at Your Own Risk

What with the Arab Spring, Israeli threats to attack Iran, and the bloodshed in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, the world has largely forgotten the troubled Caucasus region.

But European and Western leaders would do well to take another look at what is happening there, four years after Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia proved the dangers still posed by unresolved military conflicts from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On Oct. 1, Georgians will vote in the least-predictable election that the country has had since it gained independence more than 20 years ago. A quick look at a map or globe shows that Georgia and the pipelines it hosts to transport oil and natural gas to Western markets are all too close to the hot spots that so preoccupy the world’s leaders today.

The parliamentary campaign between the ruling United National Movement party, headed by President Mikheil Saakashvili, and the Georgian Dream opposition coalition that is headed by Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has been divisive, malicious and, at times, ridiculous.

Saakashvili’s second and final presidential term ends in late 2013, and he says he isn’t seeking the prime minister’s post. But he remains the hyperactive face of the ruling party.

Frenetic Drama

Given the acrimony between the two sides, and a history of less-than-perfect Georgian elections, there are genuine concerns that the losing party will refuse to concede defeat. In the current atmosphere of frenetic drama, this might set off confrontations that turn violent, or provide an opportunity for trouble makers to destabilize the country.

Foreign governments need to clearly convey the message that any party stoking violence or resorting to fraud will face international condemnation and isolation. More than 400 poll observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should provide assurance. Election-day complaints should be addressed via peaceful means. Georgia’s courts could play a useful role, but they haven’t effectively reviewed evidence of ballot fraud in the past; ideally, international observers should monitor that process, too, and offenders should be prosecuted, so that grievances don’t spill into the street.

The elections will choose the country’s 150-seat parliament, and under a new constitution the bulk of the president’s current powers will be taken over by the new prime minister, the position that Ivanishvili claims he will fill soon. While keeping a low public profile, the former recluse has built up political capital over the years by bankrolling almost $1 billion in philanthropic projects. Many of them were relatively modest in scale but very wide in reach, such as individual grants to members of Georgia’s struggling creative class, cash to pay for medical operations for poor people, and financing to put new roofs on every house in his home village.

Like Ivanishvili, most of the main opposition leaders were once allies of Saakashvili. Shifting alliances comes naturally to Georgians, who over most of the past 2,000 years have had to adapt constantly to rule by various empires: Roman, Mongol, Persian, Ottoman, and then Russian and Soviet. Since a five-day war in August 2008, Russia now effectively controls two regions: South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have declared independence from Georgia but have been recognized only by Russia and a handful of other countries. Russia has established military bases in both territories.

Saakashvili’s ruling party has accused Ivanishvili of being a stooge of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It says Russia has “poured 2 billion” into the election, without elaborating on the currency or what was bought. Ivanishvili scoffs at claims that he is a “Kremlin project.” He vows to gradually repair ties between Georgia and Moscow, while keeping his country on a “Western” orientation. Those promoting the “Russian agent” allegations usually connect them to Ivanishvili’s having made his $6 billion fortune in Russia during the wild 1990s. He returned to Georgia in 2004.

Russian Troops

Officials in Moscow have made no statement in favor of any party, although Putin’s antipathy for Saakashvili is well-known, at least partly because of the Georgian leader’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russia seems keen to remind Georgians of its proximity on the eve of the election. Last week, European Union military monitors in Georgia said Russian troops had been building up at the administrative border with South Ossetia, and that a Russian helicopter briefly touched down on Georgian-controlled territory. A major Russian military exercise in the North Caucasus organized uncharacteristically late in the summer also frayed nerves in the capital, Tbilisi.

Both the United National Movement and Georgian Dream have portrayed the election through Armageddon-tinged glasses, accusing the other of trying to rig the vote. Georgian Dream says the ruling party will use “massive falsification” of the ballot to win, and that it is abusing government resources in the campaign. The United National Movement says the opposition is engaged in tremendous “vote buying” and plans “mass destabilization” after the election in order to seize power.

Both sides have made miscalculations. Several Georgian Dream activists were recently given 20 to 40 day jail terms for relatively trivial infractions, and others have made claims of government harassment or pressure. This came after a major scandal was unleashed last week when secretly taken videos of torture in a Georgian jail became public. Some members of the broad Georgian Dream coalition, for their part, use crude nationalist rhetoric, repeating old claims that Saakashvili and key members of the government are not Georgians, but Armenians.

Campaign Tone

So far, the OSCE monitoring mission has found that election preparations are on schedule, and has noted no significant problems that would undermine the democratic outcome. In a report issued this week, however, the monitors warned that the tone of the campaign was “confrontational and rough.”

Although intense campaigning is understandable, both sides need to tone down their rhetoric and, once the elections are over, look to how they can govern together. No party is likely to win an overwhelming majority of the kind that the United National Movement now enjoys in parliament. Previous foes will have to sit together in the legislature to push ahead with needed reforms, such as overhauling the judicial system.

A more diverse parliament would be good for Georgia. It would create an opportunity for political debate to come in from the streets. For this to happen, without jeopardizing the legitimacy of the democratic process, no side should disturb the establishment of the new chamber, either by last-minute fiddling with election results, or by provoking violence.

(Lawrence Scott Sheets is the South Caucasus Project director of the International Crisis Group. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Lawrence Sheets at lsheets@crisisgroup.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

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