Officials in Washington believe that, in spite of irregularities during the run-up to Georgia's parliamentary elections, the vote will be competitive because the opposition has money to overcome obstacles erected by incumbent authorities, a US State Department official said.
The governing United National Movement party, led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, has used administrative resources during the election campaign, and has “harassed” the opposition, said Thomas Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Melia also said it was “troubling” that among the UNM's candidates for parliament are the former head and deputy head of the State Audit Office, the organ which has levied heavy fines on the main opposition leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Nevertheless, the vote will be competitive, Melia said. “It is clear that largely due to the substantial financial resources that have been available to the main opposition coalition, this is the most competitive election in Georgia's history.” Melia spoke September 20 at a hearing of the US Helsinki Commission in Washington, DC.
US officials are closely watching the vote, and have said repeatedly that the proper conduct of the election is a “litmus test” for expanding ties. “Georgian officials are beginning to understand, that, in fact, they are being watched, that this [election] is being monitored closely and that it is a litmus test for their membership to NATO,” said Richard Norland, the new US ambassador to Georgia, at his confirmation hearing in March.
The United States will refrain from making a declaration on whether or not the election is “free and fair” until the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has a team monitoring the vote, makes its assessment, Melia said.
Georgia's political scene has been rocked this week by the disclosure of gruesome abuse of inmates in Georgia's prisons. Asked about the news, Melia said it was not surprising, noting that the State Department's annual human rights reports have highlighted prison abuse as one of the country's major human rights problems. But he said the State Department is approving of the Georgian government's response so far. “President Saakashvili acted quickly and in the right way,” he said, and noted that he was heartened by the appointment of the country's human rights ombudsman, Giorgi Tugushi, as the new head of the prison system.
The United States is not only looking at how the upcoming election is conducted, it will also be scrutinizing the presidential election process, specifically whether Saakashvili attempts to manipulate the rules in a way that can extend his political career. His term as president ends next year, and he is constitutionally forbidden from seeking another term. However, an amendment to the constitution adopted in 2010, and going into effect next year, gives much more power to parliament, and enhances the prime minister’s authority. There has been speculation that Saakashvili may follow the lead of his nemesis, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and retain power by becoming prime minister next year.
US officials have publicly and privately warned Saakashvili against this option. “We expect Georgia will hold free and fair elections this fall, and then complete a democratic transfer of power in 2013,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Georgia in June.
It's not clear to what extent Saakashvili is hearing that message, said David Soumbadze, an analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, DC. “The US government is sending signals that this [Saakashvili becoming prime minister] is not a good thing for Georgia, Georgia's image in the West, Georgia's future and for Saakashvili's legacy,” Soumbadze said. “I hope he will not try to become prime minister, but I don't exclude it. I'm sure there will be some voices from here and Europe that would criticize him for that, but, at the end of the day, I don't know if they have any tangible leverage either to avoid that scenario in advance or to change it afterwards.”
Georgia's ambassador in Washington, Temuri Yakobashvili, said that he does not expect the legislative elections to affect the level of cooperation between the two countries. “We should not be under the impression that [US cooperation] will be expanded or diminished. … I don't think anything will hinder this cooperation,” he told EurasiaNet. He said he did not interpret the “litmus test” formulation as setting up conditions for cooperation. “The litmus test is for a significant step forward in the democratic achievement – this election is important because it's shifting power to the parliament,” Yakobashvili said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.