The Centrist party, one of three dozen registered so far to participate in the Georgian parliamentary elections on October 8, has been stripped of that registration following widespread protests over an election campaign clip broadcast on August 13 by Georgia's Public Broadcaster that was widely perceived as pro-Russian.
In the 10-second clip, the party's leaders, Lado Bedukadze and Temur Khachishvili, promised to raise pensions to 400 laris ($172, the equivalent of the Russian state pension, and more than double the current 180 laris), to introduce dual Russian-Georgian citizenship, and to legalize the presence of Russian military bases on Georgian soil.
Those campaign promises -- aired just days after the anniversary of the start of the August 2008 war that paved the way for Russia's formal recognition of Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent, sovereign states, and the deployment there on a permanent basis of some 4,000 Russian troops -- triggered a storm of outrage across the political spectrum.
The ruling Georgian Dream -- Democratic Georgia (GDDG) party, its former coalition partner the Republican party, and the former ruling, now opposition United National Movement (ENM), all declared their intention of formally asking the Constitutional Court to declare the Centrist party in violation of the Georgian Constitution (which upholds the country's formal territorial integrity.)
The NGO Fair Elections lodged a formal complaint with the Central Election Commission, arguing that the Centrists violated the article of the election law banning election propaganda directed against the country's territorial integrity.
In a statement late on August 14, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili criticized the Centrists' "antistate propaganda" and expressed approval of the Public Broadcaster's decision to suspend broadcasting the clip in question.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili's spokesman, Kakha Kozhoridze, noted that the public response demonstrated, on the one hand, an awareness of the importance of free speech, and on the other, the realization that in specific situations that right may have to be curtailed. He described the Centrists' message as "directed against the state and its independence."
Yet despite those negative reactions, the rationale cited by the Central Election Commission for withdrawing the Centrists' election registration made no reference to the disputed campaign slogans. Instead, the commission cited a technicality, noting that the party did not legally have a leader, given that Khachishvili's application for registration as party chairman was rejected by the Public Register on August 1. (The Central Election Commission was apparently not immediately informed of that rejection.)
Party In Turmoil
Khachishvili is a controversial figure whose political engagement dates back to the early 1990s, when he was a leading member of the paramilitary-group-turned-political-party Mkhedrioni (Horseman) headed by novelist and former crime boss Jaba Ioseliani. Following erstwhile Communist Party of Georgia First Secretary and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's return in March 1992 to take control in his native Georgia, Khachishvili served for a couple years as interior minister. In August 1995, however, he was arrested, and subsequently tried and jailed for 11 years, for his imputed role in a botched attempt to assassinate Shevardnadze, who was elected president in November of that year.
Khachishvili was amnestied in 2002, and founded a political party named Datvi (Bear) that advocated "good-neighborly" relations with Russia. But in early 2004, just months after Shevardnadze's ouster in the so-called Rose Revolution, he was detained on charges of illegal possession of weapons, and left Georgia to live in Moscow.
Centrist party leaders Khachishvili and Bedukadze are ill-matched political bedfellows. Bedukadze is a former prison officer implicated in the scandal over the recourse to torture in Georgia's prisons that erupted shortly before the 2012 parliamentary elections. (It was Bedukadze who clandestinely filmed and then made public the sensational video footage of a prisoner being sodomized with a broom handle.) Thanks to the intervention of prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili, Bedukadze concluded a plea bargain and was not held criminally responsible for his role in that institutionalized abuse.
Khachishvili has not yet commented publicly on the events of the past few days. Bedukadze, by contrast, appears unrepentant: in a statement on August 14, he warned the Republican party and other political forces that criticized the Centrists that "you are playing with fire," and declared that it was they, not the Centrists, who were "traitors" and "enemies of Georgia." He further declared that the only figures he respected were former Prime Minister and GDDG founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom the ENM claims continues to dictate the party's policy from behind the scenes, and Georgian Patriarch Ilia II.
The ENM gleefully seized on Bedukadze's expression of approval for Ivanishvili to discredit the ruling GDDG. ENM parliamentary candidate Elene Khoshtaria was quoted as saying that "the government and personally Bidzina Ivanishvili bear the responsibility for this. As a result of their full support, people who reject Georgia's sovereignty have turned into political leaders." A second leading ENM member, Sergo Kapanadze, suggested that the present Georgian government was funding Bedukadze and his party.
While it is unlikely that the Centrists' pro-Russian rhetoric would have found traction among the Georgian electorate at large, the ENM's attempt to use the scandal to blacken GDDG may well negatively affect support for that party. With less than two months to go before polling day, the outcome of the ballot remains impossible to predict: the most recent opinion poll by the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute showed the GDDG with 17 percent support, followed by the ENM with 14 percent, and The State for the People, founded earlier this year by opera singer Paata Burchuladze, with 4 percent; 38 percent of those questioned said they had not yet decided which party to vote for.