Uncivil in Georgia

By bne IntelliNews March 22, 2012

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

Allegations of government-condoned violence toward opposition party activists are prompting new concerns about the conduct of the autumn parliamentary elections in Georgia. While the ruling party has denied any wrongdoing, the accusations have already added to the politically charged rhetoric, and threaten to turn the election campaigns into another round of protests and confrontation.

Opposition leader Irakli Alasania, a former UN diplomat for Georgia, has accused President Mikheil Saakashvili and his National Movement party of organising "paramilitary" groups in western Georgia. Alasania, an ally of billionaire-turned opposition financier Bidzina Ivanishvili, claims the country's defence minister, Bacho Akhalaia, and his family are creating unofficial armed groups in Samegrelo to control and oppress people who support the opposition. A poor region in western Georgia that borders Abkhazia, the contested territory currently occupied by Russian troops, Samegrelo has been a focus of Saakashvili's large infrastructure projects and tourism development programmes.

During a special press briefing on March 20, Alasania cited evidence of the armed groups, even listing names of supposed members and the men who are financing them. The opposition leader, however, declined to provide any proof of his claims, instead stating that he plans to send "this information today to the National Security Council for further evaluation and hopefully for an immediate reaction." He also refused to say when the evidence would be publicly available, but would give the National Security Council - headed by Saakashvili ally Gigi Bokeria - "a reasonable" amount of time to react.

The political reaction to Alasania's accusations has been swift, however. Saakashvili called the comments "immoral" and "idiocy", and Defence Minister Akhalaia has referred to Alasania as "delusional."

Political opponents have also been slow to take up Alasania's cause. Giorgi Targamadze, leader of the Christian-Democratic Movement, a moderate opposition group largely perceived to side with the government, asked politicians to refrain from using inflammatory language about "paramilitaries" during the parliamentary session on March 20. "The existing political spectrum in Georgia fuels such talk - both the authorities and the part of opposition, which believes that threatening the population is the only right way to raise the political temperature," he said. "I once again call on the Georgian authorities and President Saakashvili, I call on all political parties and leaders, to be cautious about even mentioning 'civil war', because something that politicians start talking about actively, it usually then becomes a reality."

The international community has also weighted in. US Ambassador John Bass told reporters on March 20 that he is "distressed" to hear of "allegations or predictions of violence related to campaigns or electoral environments."

Chilling effect

Alasania's accusations against the ruling party come just a week after stories of heavy-handed treatment of opposition supporters in western Georgia by the Chamber of Control's State Audit Chamber. The Chamber, empowered to track political campaign finances, has reportedly started its own campaign against Ivanishvili supporters in the western Georgia regions of Guria (where Ivanishvili's brother lives) and Samegrelo. Similar cases were also reported in other regions around the country.

Amnesty International issued a statement on March 16 claiming the government-condoned questioning was having a "chilling effect" on opposition activists and risked violating citizens' rights to freedom of expression and association. Questioning was reportedly done in an "aggressive" manner, with a "heavy" police presence. Some interrogations included strip searches and denial of requests for lawyers to be present during the questioning.

The Chamber has denied the charges, and reportedly is prepared to video tape "interviews" with people brought in on suspicion of illegally funding parties. The parliament, however, has changed the controversial campaign finance law that gave the State Audit Chamber wide reaching powers over the finances of political parties, individuals, and businesses. Under the newly revised - and former - law, the State Audit Chamber has already fined Ivanishvili a reported GEL6.6m (€3.0m).

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