Ever since it lost power in the October 2012 parliamentary election, Georgia’s United National Movement (ENM) has consistently and systematically sought to portray the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition that defeated it as having abandoned the ENM’s pro-Western and pro-democracy orientation and as pursuing a witch hunt against blameless former government officials from the ENM with the aim of discrediting that party irrevocably, and thus facilitating a repeat victory for GD in the parliamentary ballot due in October 2016.
That imputed objective appears increasingly tenuous, however, given that popular support for both political forces is currently at around 13-15 percent. The ENM nonetheless launched a new campaign earlier this month with the stated aim of forcing the resignation of the government and the holding of pre-term parliamentary elections.
Three recent developments have furnished the ENM with new ammunition in its ongoing efforts to undermine its rival, even though its interpretation of the events in question is not always either logical or convincing. At the same time, the diverging assessments of those developments by senior GD officials have served to reinforce the perception of deepening rifts between them, especially between Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
The first is the lawsuit brought in early August by Kibar Khalvashi, a former co-owner of the TV station Rustavi-2, against its current owners. Khalvashi claims he was pressured in late 2006 by then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili into selling his stake in the business, and is demanding it back. Rustavi-2’s coverage has always been favourable to the ENM. The station has changed ownership several times since 2006; Levan and Giorgi Karamanishvili, who are believed to be close to Saakashvili, currently own a 91 percent stake.
Acting on Khalvashi’s request, a Tbilisi court froze Rustavi-2’s assets, a move that its general director Nika Gvaramia branded illegal. Gvaramia argued that insofar as the freeze would affect $6 million in new investment needed to ensure the broadcaster’s continued functioning, the court ruling must have been politically motivated and dictated by GD’s founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, with the aim of forcing the broadcaster to cease operations prior to the October 2016 parliamentary election.
Gvaramia said last week he will not accept as legal and valid a court ruling in Khalvashi’s favour. He further claimed that the government threatened to compromise him by making public incriminating video footage if he refuses to comply with the upcoming verdict. The Georgian prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into that allegation.
On October 16, GD parliamentarians voted down a ENM-drafted statement expressing concern over alleged government pressure on Rustavi-2. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have all issued statements repeatedly stressing the importance of upholding media freedom in Georgia. Senior ENM members, including parliamentarian Nika Chitadze continue to argue that the authorities are intent on closing down an influential opposition mouthpiece in the run-up to the 2016 ballot. That argument is less than convincing, given the timeframe involved. If that were indeed the government’s intention, it would make sense to wait until next year, rather than allow ample time for a new TV station to establish itself as Rustavi-2’s ideological successor. Prime Minister Gharibashvili said on October 28 that if Rustavi-2 ceased to exist tomorrow, its owners could simply open a new broadcaster with a similar name, such as “Rustavi-5.”
Repeating assurances he gave several days earlier, Gharibashvili said “I want to state firmly on behalf of our government that we will do everything in order not to ever restrict functioning of media outlets...regardless of whether we agree or not, whether or not we like biased coverage by the television stations. ...We will help them, because it is in our interests to have as many television stations as possible.”
The second development was the posting on a Ukrainian website on October 17 of video footage showing Georgian Interior Ministry personnel torturing a man detained on suspicion of involvement in a series of terrorist bombings in 2010. The video was found in a cache of weapons discovered in June 2013. It is not clear how the Ukrainian website acquired it.
As in the Rustavi-2 case, senior ENM politicians blamed the current Georgian government for leaking the footage with the aim of undermining the ENM’s chances in the October 2016 elections. But again, if that had been the rationale, it would have made more sense to wait until next summer – especially given that the leaking in late summer of 2012 of similar video footage of a prisoner being sexually abused was a factor in the ENM’s election defeat in October of that year.
Soso Tsiskarishvili of the Independent Experts’ Club made the point that a number of forces in both Georgia and Ukraine could have had a vested interest in circulating the video, including the Georgian Interior Ministry and lawyers representing the torture victims. So too, he added, could opponents in Ukraine of former Georgian President and ENM head Mikheil Saakashvili, who was named governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region in late May.
Tsiskarishvili did not say so, but there is also a faction in Russia that loathes Saakashvili and would be happy to see him utterly discredited. The third development -- the posting on a Russian-hosted website named Ukrainian WikiLeaks on October 23 of what is billed as a transcript of a conversation the previous day at Istanbul airport between Saakashvili and leading ENM member Giga Bokeria -- could conceivably be the work of that faction. The two men reportedly discuss staging an attack on Rustavi-2’s Tbilisi headquarters with the aim of provoking mass anti-government protests.
The incriminating material has not been authenticated. ENM law-maker Giorgi Gabashvili has confirmed that Saakashvili and Bokeria did meet in Istanbul on October 23.
Bokeria, who was summoned by Georgia’s State Security Service on October 24 for questioning about “a plot to seize power,” dismissed the purported transcript as “ravings.”
Among senior GD politicians, the most outspoken in his comments on those developments, and specifically on the role of the ENM, was Prime Minister Gharibashvili. Gharibashvili’s unguarded statements have raised eyebrows on at least one previous occasion. Campaigning for GD in the municipal elections held in May 2014, he declared that “in the local elections as in the parliamentary and presidential elections, Georgian Dream will win worthily and convincingly and will not permit the victory of any other political force in a single region or town.” The ENM publicly construed that exhortation as a call to rig the outcome of the vote in GD’s favor.
Twice in the past week, on October 22 and 24, Gharibashvili has adduced the torture video to excoriate the ENM, arguing that “there is no place for these people in [Georgian] politics,” and that a subsequent spate of attacks by outraged citizens on ENM offices were a natural and justifiable reaction to such abuses. He warned that the party has “one last chance” to apologize to voters for the abuses it condoned.
Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili responded to that outburst with a written statement saying that all politicians, whether in government or opposition, should unconditionally eschew “any statement justifying and making direct or indirect calls for any kind of violence and physical confrontation.” He said this is a precondition for him to continue “cooperation or dialogue” with any politician.
Usupashvili delivered the same message at a meeting on October 26 with lawmakers from the opposition Free Democrats party, telling them that “politicians should unequivocally and unconditionally denounce all forms of violence and contribute to civil accord.”
Usupashvili was more circumspect when asked on October 26 by ENM parliamentarians to comment on the investigation into the purported coup plot. Explaining that he is not empowered to intervene in that investigation, Usupashvili opined that it could prove extremely damaging to the State Security Service if it was found to been launched solely on the basis of unverified information.
President Giorgi Margvelashvili, whose relations with the prime minister are strained, deplored Gharibashvili’s denunciation of the ENM as compounding tensions and “creating the preconditions for civil confrontation.” Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, who is married to Usupashvili, promptly rejected that statement as irresponsible.
Finally, Ivanishvili, who is Gharibashvili’s political patron and predecessor as prime minister, was quoted as telling Imedi TV on October 24 that Gharibashvili’s comments on the ENM were “over-emotional,” and that he should have demonstrated greater self-restraint.
In the same interview, Ivanishvili also criticized as “totally irresponsible” Margvelashvili’s prediction of imminent civil unrest. He added that Margvelashvili had no right to appeal publicly to the judge in the Rustavi-2 case “not to hand down a hasty ruling.”
On October 28, Gharibashvili belatedly sought to distance himself from his earlier comments, calling at a government session for the population to maintain “maximum calm” in the interests of “preserving stability.”
That appeal suggests that whether or not GD is as divided and dysfunctional as it sometimes appears, some at least of its senior members realize it is not in the coalition’s long-term interests to risk alienating the electorate and the international community by engaging in retaliation against the ENM.
There is, moreover, little need to do so, given that the ENM’s current approval rating is just 13 percent, according to the most recent poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute. Admittedly, approval for GD itself is only 1 percent higher.
The same survey found that if elections were held tomorrow, 35 percent of voters do not know which party they would vote for, and a further 14 percent would not vote for any existing party. That tallies with the observation by Gia Khukhashvili of the Institute for the Study of Georgia’s Development that voters are waiting for the emergence of a new, third force, and as yet it remains unclear who will manage to capitalize on those expectations.
In his interview with Imedi TV, Ivanishvili said that up to half the current 87 GD parliamentarians may not be included among the coalition’s list of candidates for the October 2016 ballot. That pronouncement raises the possibility that the coalition, which currently comprises seven factions, may split, possibly with Usupashvili’s Republican Party contesting the ballot independently or in tandem with the Free Democrats. The latter party was originally a member of GD, but pulled out a year ago after Gharibashvili dismissed its chairman, then Defense Minister Irakli Alasania.