Georgia's President and the Dangers of Drinking Too Much Democracy in an Election Year
It’s election time in Georgia and, once again, just like summer swallows, accusations about political pressure have returned. This time, though, they come from the head of state himself, with the chairperson of Georgia’s highest court further broadening their scope.
Such allegations come at a sensitive time for the ruling Georgian Dream, which faces an October 8 parliamentary election. The coalition came to power in 2012 after itself facing down various forms of pressure from then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration. The group has long maintained that it doesn’t get up to the same sort of tricks.
The Georgian chapter of ISFED, an international elections watchdog group, said that this year’s campaign so far is an improvement compared to 2012, but that attacks, intimidation and abuse of administrative resources do persist. Things may get worse closer to the October 8 election, the group predicted, advising that current violations should be taken seriously.
But some seem to think that depends on the alleged violation. A senior Georgian Dream lawmaker this week suggested that President Giorgi Margvelashvili had been drunk when he claimed that a police run-in with a family member was meant to intimidate him. “He must’ve had a little too much on that day,” said Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Manana Kobakhidze.
“He likes alcoholic beverages, enjoys his whiskey and martini, so I think he might have had too much,” she surmised. “I mean that smile…If there are things like pressure, informal connections and the country is falling apart, why are you laughing, being the country’s president?”
While the deputy speaker thinks the president has a problem with decanters, Margvelashvili thinks Georgia has a problem with democracy. His allegations came after Constitutional Court justices claimed they have been pressured to rule on cases in favor of the government.
For Margvelashvili, a former political commentator, attempts to undermine checks and balances on the government are nothing new.
“Unfortunately, I have to tell you that this did not come as a surprise to me,” Margvelashvili told a July 25 news-conference. “About a month ago, there was an attempt to pressure one of my family members…who was stopped in the street [by the police] and then a search was conducted at his apartment without any court warrant.”
The police quickly confirmed that in late June they did search the car and apartment of Mindia Gogochuri, the son-in-law of First Lady Maka Chichua, for possibly carrying an illegal firearm. Gogochuri, who has a criminal record, did not have a gun on him, they said.
In response, presidential aide Giorgi Kozhoridze said that the police violated the law by making public mention of Gogochuri’s criminal record.
The president claimed that he only decided to go public with the incident once Constitutional Court Chairperson Giorgi Papuashvili, appointed to the court under Saakashvili, asserted that judicial independence is under attack. Prosecutors are looking into Papuashvili’s allegations.
The president also cited what he termed the government’s “inadequate” response to the May 19 beating of members of the opposition United National Movement as further proof that the police or other groups are being used as election-season tools against the government’s rivals.
The main fight for the October 8 vote is expected to be between the Georgian Dream and Saakashvili's opposition United National Movement, with the rest of the political field atomized between much smaller groups.
However, right now, “undecided” leads the race. That’s how 35 percent of over 4,100 respondents in a recent poll for the National Democratic Institute identified themselves. Nineteen percent said they would vote for the Georgian Dream if the elections were held tomorrow, and 14 percent gave their nod to the UNM.
Coming in third (4 percent) are the Alliance for Patriotic Georgia, a party branded as pro-Moscow, and the State for the People, led by Paata Burchuladze, the country’s most famous operatic bass, who also recently claimed police pressure on two of his party members.
The president’s own allegations of police pressure drew heavy vitriol from Georgian Dream members in parliament and the cabinet.
Energy Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Kakha Kaladze, whom critics accuse of organizing the attack on the UNM, scoffed that all the allegations were but “ladies’ gossip.” He later apologized for this remark, but reminded the president that he owes his position to Bidzina Ivinashvili, the billionaire founder of the Georgian Dream and Georgia’s perceived shadow ruler.
It is widely believed that voter support for Margvelashvili in the 2013 presidential election stemmed from support for the then widely popular Ivanishvili, who at the time treated the then rector of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs as a political protégé. Once Margvelashvili refused to comply with the Georgian Dream's preferences, most notably over his living in the Saakashvili-built presidential palace, the two men went their separate ways.