Saturday 25th of January 2020, 14:19 CET|
|Georgia braces for elections|
October 31, 2003
BBC News Europe
Written by Robert Parsons
Posted by HW on January 24, 2020
The tiny Black Sea state of Georgia is basking in a bit of world attention again. No civil war this time and no assassination attempts on the president, but a parliamentary election that really matters.
It is serious enough, at any rate, for Washington to despatch a succession of senior politicians to warn the wayward Georgians that they had better get things right.
The visits, by former Secretary of State James Baker and others, underline a US commitment to Georgia that has seen Washington give more than $1bn in aid over the last decade - more per head of the population than to any other country bar Israel.
But the message has been tough: "Make sure these elections are free and fair. If not, the aid will be drastically cut."
Chaotic and corrupt
Georgia is chaotic and corrupt but there is just a whiff of hope - unlike nearly all post-Soviet exercises in democracy, the election on Sunday, is a real contest.
It is almost impossible to predict the outcome and, according to the polls, the pro-government bloc is running in fourth or fifth place.
Shevardnadze: friend of the West
The US message is directed primarily at Eduard Shevardnadze, a friend of the West who Washington appears to believe has outlived his usefulness.
In the last few years of his presidency, Georgia has featured regularly in the lists of the world's most corrupt and criminalised states.
What makes this election so important for Georgia is that Mr Shevardnadze is due to step down at the end of his presidential term in 2005. Whoever wins now will have a good platform for the presidential contest in 18 months.
It is not clear that he has been listening to his US visitors.
The pro-government bloc has launched a smear campaign against one of the opposition frontrunners, Nino Burjanadze, the speaker of parliament, who is widely seen as a credible presidential candidate.
Mr Shevardnadze himself offered some fatherly advice to Ms Burjanadze in his weekly radio interview.
"Politics is a complex affair," he said, "best to leave it to the men."
Georgians though appear to be ignoring this. The Burjanadze-Democrats bloc has consistently been in the top two in the polls.
The election campaign has also been marred by violence, which often seems to involve the outspoken Misha Saakashvili, the leader of the National Movement.
His main electoral slogan is "For A Georgia without Shevardnadze". He is a clever, articulate lawyer, who spent a year studying in Harvard, and he has a knack of getting under the president's skin.
The official response has been crude, and may play into Mr Saakashvili's hands. Campaigning in one strongly pro-government region, his convoy was met by a hail of stones, a massive fist fight ensued and gunshots were fired.
Last week, too, the authorities in Ajara region by the Turkish border beat up Mr Saakashvili's supporters in the regional capital, Batumi. One of his party's candidates was hospitalised.
The run-up to the vote has been dominated though by a long-running dispute over the electoral lists, which have been computerised for the first time.
This was meant to help make the electoral process more transparently fair. Instead there has been chaos.
By the central electoral commission's own admission, between 10% and 15% of voters will be disenfranchised because their names have not appeared on the lists.
It is almost impossible to predict the outcome of the polls
The opposition accuses the government of massive electoral fraud.
Ms Burjanadze, for one, says she "is worried that the government will attempt to use the lists to distort the result of the election".
But for all the cynicism about the electoral process, the opposition has been getting its message across.
It has its own newspapers and television stations, its leaders have been on the campaign trail for several weeks and their campaign posters are unavoidable. And the polls are suggesting there will be a big turnout.
Anger at falling living standards, anger at the in-your-face-wealth of the new-rich, anger at the arbitrary powers of the police, anger at the corruption of government officials, anger at the failures of Georgian foreign policy.
The fear must be - not least among US observers concerned about the stability of their growing energy investments in the region - that if a cynical government resorts to widespread fraud to cling on to power, the pent-up fury of the last decade of failure will explode.