There are growing doubts whether Georgia’s “young democracy can prevail over an authoritarian past” after thousands of protesters took to the streets (right) following the release of graphic videos depicting the beating, rape and humiliation of prisoners in a Tbilisi prison.
Concern intensified today as the government “accused the opposition of attempting to bribe police officers amid a prison abuse scandal that has heightened tensions in the ex-Soviet nation ahead of a fiercely contested parliamentary election next week,” AP reports:
The Interior Ministry said four opposition-linked suspects have been arrested. It said the suspects are linked to a candidate of the opposition Georgian Dream coalition that is challenging President Mikhail Saakashvili’s party in the Oct. 1 vote.
The ministry alleged that the opposition tried to bribe police officers to resign in protest over the prison abuse scandal in order to increase pressure on the government. The opposition dismissed the claims as a “fraudulent provocation.”
“The big question now is what impact the scandal will have on the parliamentary elections,” The Economist notes.
The emergence of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition “poses the most credible challenge yet to the elite that has governed Georgia for more than eight years,” says Thomas de Waal, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia program.
A recent poll from the National Democratic Institute* gave Saakashvili’s ruling party (37%) a healthy lead over Georgian Dream (13%). But with 43% of respondents undecided or declining to answer, the election remains wide open.
The election result will have “profound implications not only for Georgia but also for other nations struggling to build free societies on a history of corruption and repression,” writes the Washington Post’s Kathy Lally:
Though President Mikheil Saakashvili and his circle have eliminated day-to-day corruption, turned the despised police into a trusted force and made government services citizen-oriented and easy to obtain, they have not permitted development of political competition, critics say.
“There is skepticism about the ability to manage political competition,” said Ghia Nodia, chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development. “Political opponents don’t just want to win the election, they want to destroy the government and put people in prison.”
The Obama administration has criticized Saakashvili’s United National Movement party for abusing administrative resources for electoral purposes and harassing the opposition,
It is “troubling” that among the party’s candidates include the former head and deputy head of the State Audit Office, which has levied heavy fines on Ivanishvili, said Thomas Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
Despite electoral malpractice, the election will be competitive, Melia told the U.S. Helsinki Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“It is clear that largely due to the substantial financial resources available to the main opposition coalition, this is the most competitive election in Georgia’s history,“ he said at a panel on Georgia’s parliamentary election.
“[T]his whole thing has a political dimension,” said Iago Kachkachishvili, a Tbilisi State University sociologist. “[The scandal] somehow brings people to . . . establish … more of a basis to vote against Saakashvili,” Kachkachishvili.
The poll is “seen as a test of how Georgia can manage a competitive election process,” writes Carnegie’s de Waal:
Speaking on a visit to the country in June 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told President Saakashvili, “the single best thing Georgia can do to advance your security, your prosperity, your democracy, your international reputation, is to hold free and fair elections that result in a fully democratic transition.” Both the government and opposition are also engaged in a parallel contest for approval in Western capitals, helped by well-known PR firms.
The U.S. has “invested deeply in Georgia and democracy,” Lally reports, “providing $3.37 billion in aid from 1992 to 2010, putting the country’s 4.5 million population high on the list of per capita assistance, according to the Congressional Research Service.”
But the generous of democracy assistance has been unable to counter illiberal trends and forces, observers suggest.
“They have accomplished many very good things, but they have failed to build a democratic system and protect human rights,” said Tamar Chugoshvili, chairwoman of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association. “A small group of people in the executive branch makes all the decisions, and there is no check or balance on this power.”
In a further indicator of Georgia’s illiberal democracy, labor unions have complained that Saakashvili has undermined freedom of association.
“Alone among former Soviet Union member nations, only Georgia has seen its ex-official union federation democratically reform and emerge as the biggest civil-society voice in the country,” the Washington-based Solidarity Center reports. “However, its efforts to promote worker rights and democracy have apparently rubbed the Georgian government the wrong way. Since 2008, the government has viciously attacked the Georgian Trade Union Confederation and its affiliates.”
NDI and the Solidarity Center are core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.