Election season in Georgia can only mean one thing: a slugfest. Four years ago the nation did witness its first peaceful, post-Soviet handover of power by elections, but it has yet to experience an electoral process that does not involve broken noses. A recent brawl during municipal council by-elections came as a troubling theatrical trailer for this fall’s main attraction, a parliamentary vote.
On May 19, outside a polling station in the western village of Kortskheli, able-bodied supporters of the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, the flagship party in the country’s ruling coalition, brutally beat key figures from the party’s main political antagonist, the United National Movement (UNM). UNM leaders such as Giga Bokeria, an ex-national security chief and key political strategist for former President Mikheil Saakashvili, suffered beatings. The police have launched an investigation.
The UNM still managed to prevail in that particular district, for a total of two wins overall, according to preliminary results.
The party released a list of alleged attackers, among whom were recognized martial arts professionals, including Olympic athlete Vladimer Gegeshidze, a member of the national Greco-Roman wrestling team and a European wrestling championship medalist. How these individuals happened to be in the village at the time has not been clarified.
This was hardly an isolated incident, however. Throughout the last decade, international election monitors have observed instances of varying degrees of violence during all of Georgia’s major elections.
UNM members have been physically abused before, with one violent attack occurring in the capital, Tbilisi, in 2013. The Georgian Dream, too, faced its share of attacks and harassment in the run-up to the last parliamentary elections, which, in 2012, brought down the then ruling UNM.
The government, ever cautious of the reaction from the EU, is taking steps to crack down on Georgia’s time-honored tradition of political violence, but how far these measures actually will go remains to be seen. In response to the Kortskheli brouhaha, it has announced plans to introduce a bill in parliament that would make campaign-related violence a criminal offense.
“If we are dealing with group violence, the punishment could be up to four years in prison,” said Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani. “In less grave cases that result in no physical injuries, we are thinking to impose a financial penalty, which will have a preventive effect,” she said.
Some human rights defenders, though, responded skeptically. “The problem is not the laws are too liberal, but rather that they are not enforced,” commented Ana Natsvlishvili, chairperson of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a rule-of-law watchdog.* “If our law enforcement officers and courts fully enforce existing Georgian laws, it is possible to have a timely response to such incidents, to bring the perpetrators to justice and prevent future incidents.”
The UNM also reacted with doubt. Prime Minister Irakli Kvirikashvili, a westernized, moderate figure, backs the criminalization initiative, but the UNM charged that the attack was choreographed by Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze, a former professional soccer player from western Georgia and a close ally of the Georgian Dream’s influential founder, ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Some Georgian Dream members said that the UNM got what it deserved and should depart from the political scene. By contrast, Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli, whose Republican Party will not run with the ruling Georgian Dream in this fall’s elections, condemned the attack and ordered an investigation into one of the alleged assailants, Private Lasha Dvalishvili.
“Had he been an officer, he already would not be in the armed forces,” Khidasheli said, PalitraTV reported. “But he is a private and I am not authorized to dismiss him. The chiefs of staff will soon make a conclusion in this regard and will take the appropriate decision.”
Overall, the message seems to be that nothing has changed, one elections monitor charged.
“It is truly regrettable that governments change but nobody learns from the mistakes of the past,” Nino Lomjaria, a former director of the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, told Rustavi2 as she compared the recent incident and the 2012 attack on Kaladze.*
She predicted that a very difficult election season lies ahead.
*The Georgian Young Lawyers' Association and ISFED both receive funding from the Open Society Georgia Foundation. EurasiaNet.org is run under the auspices of the Open Society Foundation New York City, a separate part of the network of Open Society Foundations.