Georgia Faces International Criticism over Campaign Finance Crackdown on Billionaire Ivanishvili
Widespread and reportedly roughshod questioning of Georgian billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili's supporters by state audit agency employees has sparked concerns by US Ambassador John Bass and human rights group Amnesty International that Georgia, already limbering up for its October parliamentary elections, is crossing the line between enforcement of campaign finance regulations and political intimidation.
Bass, an influential figure in staunchly pro-American Georgia, weighed in via Facebook late last week with a comment that the Chamber of Control’s recent activities do not “increase public confidence in this institution or in a competitive campaign environment.”
In a March 16 press release, Amnesty International* took a tougher stance, saying that “selective examination of only opposition of only opposition members party members and presumed supporters, the manner in which many examinations took place, the nature of many questions being asked and sheer number of those called in for questioning suggests that the operation is politically motivated and aimed at intimidating current and potential opposition party sympathizers.” Georgia's ruling United National Movement on March 19 agreed to revisions in campaign-finance laws, Civil.ge reported , but details are not yet available.
Earlier revisions had given the state audit agency, the Chamber of Control, broad authority to monitor campaign financing and punish non-compliant political players.
While the United National Movement and one non-governmental organization have also been targeted, most public attention has focused on several hefty fines imposed on Ivanishvili's Georgian Dreamers, his Cartu Bank and affiliated companies. State auditor-in-chief for party finances Natia Mogeladze has even become something of a celebrity for her frequent TV appearances with PowerPoint presentations about alleged violations and scams involving the Dream movement.
The Chamber of Control has denied allegations of intimidation and political bias. The organization’s head told Civil.ge that they considered making audio and video recordings of such interviews in the future to rule out such accusations.
The gloves, though, have long been off in the battle between President Mikheil Saakashvili and Ivanishvili. In fact, to hear Ivanishvili ally Irakli Alasania, Georgia's former ambassador to the United Nations, tell it, the sparring could involve paramilitary groups and possible civil war. Or, as he put it in comments last week to diplomats, "another Homs in Zugdidi or some other places . . . " Saakashvili shrugged off the claims as "idiocy" designed to scare voters.
The confrontation, accompanied by heavy mud-slinging from either side, has also stretched certain legal boundaries, some observers contend. The moment Ivanishvili stepped onto Georgia's political stage, bringing all his fabled wealth and eccentricity along, his Georgian passport was revoked for alleged conflict with his Russian and French citizenship.
The Georgian Dream claims that the Chamber of Control’s investigation is meant to provide arguments for denying Ivanishvili's request to have his Georgian citizenship restored; an absence that, for now, means that his wife, Ekaterine Khvedelize, is acting as lead Dreamer.
*In 2011, Amnesty International received funding from the Open Society Georgia Foundation, part of the Soros foundations network. EurasiaNet.org is operated under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, a separate part of that network.