Wednesday

27th Oct 2021

Opinion

Georgia's democratic struggle - what's at stake for EU?

  • The Georgian parliament, with both Georgian and EU flats. The political crisis is set to deepen, as the thousands of citizens poured out into the streets of Tbilisi and other cities to protest the election fraud on Sunday (November 8) (Photo: EUobserver)

Building a ring of prosperous democracies around its border is the long-declared goal of the EU's Neighbourhood Policy.

Now, in a country which the European Union often holds up as an example of its success story - Georgia - something has gone very wrong.

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  • Bidzina Ivanishvili can either seek a compromise, or move forward with forming a one-party parliament, with no opposition parties. So far his response has been a PR stunt against the opposition, accusing us of plotting to overthrow the government (Photo: EUobserver)

Widely-held as the outpost of democracy in a region where strongmen and arbitrary rule prevails - and having gone through its own armed coup d'etat in the 1990s - Georgia's peaceful democratic revolution in 2003, and first change of government through free-and-fair elections in 2012, it seems the country is facing once again a historical milestone of its democratic journey.

The signing of the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU has certainly been a factor in strengthening both, Georgia's commitment to the European Union and promotion of democratic values and standards through the multitude of cooperation and assistance programs.

When the Georgians talk about the European values, they mean democracy. And when they talk about democracy and free world, they mean Europe.

The 31 October first round of parliamentary elections could secure yet another change of government through free-and-fair elections, the second one in Georgia's history.

That would be a remarkable achievement for Georgia's young democracy, and validation of the EU's success in transforming its neighbours through projecting its values.

The independent pre-election polls have shown a steady 40-percent support for the ruling party, Georgian Dream, chaired by the Russian-made billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

However, the opposition parties - the largest of them being the United National Movement, headed by former president Mikheil Saakashvili, currently in a political exile in Ukraine, together with the smaller pro-Western opposition parties - were set to win the majority of the proportional vote.

The opposition candidates also had a good chance of winning a number of single-mandate seats in a mixed system of elections. The likely result was a coalition government, the first one in Georgia's history.

If democracy had been given a chance.

Ballot stuffing

Instead, ballot stuffing and organised pressure on voters with the help of the criminal elements, marginalisation of the representatives of the opposition parties in the electoral commissions and finally, rewriting of the summary protocols by the Central Election Commission (CEC, staffed by the government loyalists), were the tools deployed by the government to force the hand of the democratic process to its advantage.

The CEC declared that the ruling party has won 49 percent of proportional seats, and gave the government candidates lead in all majoritarian races.

This in effect secures enough seats for Ivanishvili to form the next government.

NGOs which have been monitoring the elections in Georgia have concluded that this was the worst election in modern Georgian history, and a step back on its democratic development path.

The Georgian opposition refuses to recognise the results of the election, given the scale of irregularities, which rigged the elections in favour of the government, by the most conservative estimate, by four percent.

The real scale of falsification is still to be estimated, given that the summary protocols studied so far do not add up in a staggering 50 percent of precincts, the percentage of the falsification might increase to 10 percent.

Criticism from the Western governments, and monitoring organisations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Euroe (OSCE)/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), has been substantial, calling the parties to work constructively to improve the election process.

That means different things for the opposition parties and government though.

All opposition parties have signed a pact vowing to refuse the parliamentary mandates which they have already won as the result of the rigged elections.

Street protests

The political crisis in Georgia is set to deepen, as the thousands and thousands of Georgian citizens have poured out into the streets of Tbilisi and other cities to protest the election fraud on Sunday (November 8).

As of the time of writing, peaceful demonstrators picketing the building of the Central Election Commission have been attacked by special police forces.

The opposition is demanding the replacement of the chair of the Central Election Commission, the release of the political prisoners, and a re-run of the election.

The street protests will continue until the demands are met.

Ivanishvili can either seek a compromise, or move forward with forming a one-party parliament, with no opposition parties. So far his response has been a PR stunt against the opposition, accusing us of plotting to overthrow the government.

The state-affiliated media outlets released recordings of the private conversations of opposition representatives, including myself, to prove this and undermine opposition unity.

The only point they have proven is that the government is engaged in an illegal wire-tapping of the citizens, including the members of parliament.

In the coming days the EU has a window of opportunity to help Georgia's young democracy to overcome this political impasse.

The negotiations mediated by the US, EU and other European diplomatic missions in March of 2020 were crucial for securing adoption of the new constitution. Successful intervention by the European Union has strengthened commitment of the Georgians to Europe.

A similar process this time can lead to the negotiated framework for addressing the electoral framework, changing the head of the election administration and preparing for repeat elections.

But as the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis hits the small and troubled neighbour of Europe, a prolonged political crisis can have a devastating impact on the lives of the Georgians and undermine the European interests.

The only player who will benefit from ensuing greater instability is Russia. Stability, at this point, means new, free, and fair elections.

The EU has invested enough political and financial resources in making Georgia a model democracy in the region. Our failure would mean a failure of Europe's democracy support policies and ultimately its Eastern Partnership policy.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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A majority of the Eastern Partnership countries are plagued by the security deficit and overall political stability in the region is not a given. Wars are a reality, borders are contested and poverty and underdevelopment are facts on the ground.

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The parliamentary elections took place amid the Covid-19 pandemic but sparked hopes among Georgia's western allies that the electoral deal reached with the help of US and EU officials could pacify the deeply-polarised political actors. But actually the opposite happened.

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Politically-motivated justice, the capture of state institutions by the private interests of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, rapid socio-economic decline, and increased corruption, all are making Georgians hopeless about their future, writes former Georgian ambassador to the EU.

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