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Georgia's Toxic Presidential Run-off

Bruising rivalry between two political camps has led to an ugly war of words.
By Rusudan Machaidze
  • Georgian Dream candidate Salome Zurabishvili along with the billionaire and party chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili, who endorsed her candidacy for the presidential election. (Photo: IWPR/Rusudan Machaidze)
    Georgian Dream candidate Salome Zurabishvili along with the billionaire and party chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili, who endorsed her candidacy for the presidential election. (Photo: IWPR/Rusudan Machaidze)

Georgia is about to vote in a November 28 presidential run-off, following a tense campaign season characterised by harsh rhetoric.

A highly emotional campaign had already seen allegations of corruption and media intimidation ahead of the first round on October 28.  For the first time since Georgian regained independence in 1991, the ruling party’s candidate failed to win outright.

Salome Zurabishvili, an independent backed by the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, will now compete against Grigol Vashadze from the United National Movement (UNM) party, which leads the 11-party opposition.

Zurabishvili won the majority of votes with 38.6 per cent, while Vashadze came second with 37.7 per cent. A third candidate, David Bakradze from the European Georgia party, won 10.9 per cent. Since no-one won an absolute majority, the vote proceeded to a second round.

Zurabishvili and Vashadze are both former proteges of ex-president and UNM founder Mikhail Saakashvili who served under him in the role of minister of foreign affairs.

The GD threw its support behind Zurabishvili after the party’s chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili announced that it would not nominate its own candidate and would support an independent in the interests of democratic development.

Zurabishvili sparked controversy with statements she made on the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, repeatedly stating that Saakashvili started the war and “bombed his own citizens”.

Her comments were widely criticised by analysts and civil society organisations, some of whom warned that this could prejudice Georgia in the event of any future international court cases. The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into the 2008 war two years ago.

Nika Jeiranashvili is an executive director of Justice International, an organisation based in The Hague which researches, analyses and reports on war crimes. He said that Russia could use Zurabishvili’s statements to help derail any legal processes.

“For Russia it is Mikhail Sakashvili who is to blame for all crimes [during the 2008 war]. Having a presidential candidate talking like this… plays into the hands of Putin’s and Russia’s current narrative and may derail the legal proceedings. Politicians must show restraint and be more thoughtful when making this issue a key subject for pre-election campaigning,” Jeiranashvili told IWPR.

Others charged that the UNM had exploited reasonable comments by Zurabishvili for their own ends.

“Of course Russia started the war, of course Russia was the aggressor, however what Saakashvili and the National Movement did gave Russia the opportunity to develop that scenario and do what they did,” Irakli Kobakhidze, chair of the Georgian parliament, said in a statement.

The UNM’s goal, he continued, was “not only to bring maximum results to Vashadze, but to touch on the most sensitive subjects for Georgian society, which is the subject of the war with Russia. The National Movement built the entire pre-election campaign on who started the war, as if public opinion is split on this”.

GD lawmaker Anri Okhanashvili insisted that it was the opposition that had fomented discord.

“The re-election period is indeed very tense, but it’s not the fault of the ruling party,” he said.Salome Zurabishvili led the entire election period in European style and never made defamatory statements, personal insults or misleading promises. On the contrary, it was Salome Zurabishvili who was the object of assaults and insults and the whole country has witnessed the dirty campaign against her.”

Nonetheless, Zurabishvili’ statements served to convince some party leaders and former officials to switch their support to UNM contender Vashadze.

European Georgia, formed by politicians who broke away from the National Movement two years, became the first to back Vashadze for the run off. The Republican Party, the strongly anti-Saakashvili grouping which has been in Ivanishvili’s opposition since 2015, also decided to back Vashadze.

David Usupashivli is a former Republican Party leader who now heads the Development Movement party and also ran in the first round of the presidential race. He said that the political environment had become worryingly divisive.

“This presidential election is like a referendum, where the question is whether we want change or not, and I believe that people are for change. But change is not easy, because before the second round both parties were sending messages as if the winner takes control of the power in the country,” Usupashvili said. “This is wrong, because the president is not the chairman of the government. Such approach creates a ‘fighting tooth and nail’ tension and it is important to take the edge off such radicalised feelings and jointly think of specific plans for the future.”

The Georgian Youth Lawyers Association, Transparency International Georgia and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy issued a joint statement warning that political rhetoric had reached dangerous levels.

“Statements made by political office holders within the pre-election campaign of the presidential run-off contain elements of propaganda for civil war and encouragement of violence, which puts the conduct of election processes in a violence-free environment at risk,” they wrote.

“Such aggressive rhetoric undermines the idea of democratic elections and contradicts political rights guaranteed by international law, according to which voters should be able to express their opinions independently, without any violence, threats of violence, coercion, bribery and any other types of manipulative intervention.”  

Irma Pavliashvili, an executive director of the Young Lawyers Association of Georgia, agreed that the atmosphere had turned particularly toxic.      

“The process was marked by harsh rhetoric, and xenophobic statements provoking ethnic and religious conflict were quite frequent,” Pavliashvili continued. “There were statements about the threats of civil war, which were only intended to cause fear in society and undermine the country’s stability.”

Noting allegations of bribery and illegal donations during the campaign, she warned that the October elections had been less free and fair than previous ones.

For its part, GD denied that there had been any election irregularities.

“Since we came to power, we have created a system that makes it impossible to rig elections,” said GD lawmaker Gia Volski. “It’s an opposition conspiracy to create expectations that the elections will be fraudulent. This is part of their plan. Our advantage is clear and we don’t need [to act illegally].”

However, several sensational disclosures of audio and video recordings further battered public trust in the government.

One involved the Omega Group, a business conglomerate owned by Zaza Okuashvili, in what Transparency International described as “major corruption schemes involving high-level government officials and representatives of various state bodies.”

Another leak related to the so-called Khorava street murders of December 2017, an incident in which teenagers Davit Saralidze and Levan Dadunashvili were stabbed to death.

Saralidze’s father has been protesting for nearly a year outside parliament, accusing the authorities of a cover-up, and the recordings appear to show a suspect bargaining with government representatives.

Then, in a move which incensed transparency NGOs, Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhatadze declared that the debts of 600,000 citizens with loans lower than 2,000 GEL (750 US dollars) would be written off.

Making the announcement just over a week before the run off vote, Bakhtadze thanked the Cartu Foundation, which undertook the responsibility to cover the debt and which is closely associated with Ivanishvili.

“These initiatives aim at improving the social conditions of people on the one hand and on the other, encourage them to engage in economic activities,” Kobakhidze told reporters, adding,

“This is an unprecedented initiative, which proves that our primary objective is that we care about the people… Of course, the resolution of these issues required several months of planning. This work started already several months ago and has nothing to do with the elections.”

Election watchdogs condemned the move, warning that it was akin to vote-buying. Georgia’s public defender Nino Lomjaria also expressed concerns, calling for an immediate investigation.

“Vote-buying implies any type of financial resource made available to voters in favour of a specific political party, its representative or an election issue,” she said in a statement. “I think this leaves many questions open, and law enforment agencies and the election administration should explore this case.

Tornike Sharashenidze, a political analyst who teaches at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA) said that the ruling party had not anticipated such a close fight with the candidate of UNM, a grouping it had battled for the last six years.

“Georgian Dream treats the second round as a last battle for decisive victory, as the return of the UNM to power is the main threat for them,” he continued. “Losing this round would mean a complete disaster for them and therefore they would do anything not to make this happen, especially after their leaders repeatedly made predictions about civil war and unrest.”

Okhanashvili acknowledged that the government needed to do more to build public trust.

“The first round’s outcome was due to the lack of close connection of the government with the public, and we will improve it for the second round. Therefore our victory is inevitable.” 

Rusudan Machaidze is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi.

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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