Analysis: Georgian Election Campaign Gets Under Way
In less than three weeks, on May 21, the Georgian electorate will vote in what promises to be a fiercely contested parliamentary election.
The outgoing parliament amended the Georgian Constitution in March in an apparent bid to strengthen the ruling Unified National Movement's chances of preserving its substantial majority. But recent opinion polls suggest that while it is the most popular of the three blocs and nine parties registered to participate in the ballot, it will not garner even 50 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, even before the campaign got under way, the opposition alleged malpractice on the part of the National Movement. It is now demanding the resignation of Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili, fearing he has orders to rig the outcome of the ballot in favor of the ruling party.
The Georgian political landscape has undergone a major transformation over the past eight months. In late September, former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili leveled accusations of cronyism, turning a blind eye to corruption, and considering the assassination of political rivals against incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili. Okruashvili was promptly arrested and pressured to withdraw those allegations, which he did.
But they resonated to such an extent with much of the political opposition that 10 opposition parties swiftly aligned in a National Council and on October 17 unveiled a manifesto that repeated many of Okruashvili's criticisms of the Saakashvili regime. It characterized the social, political and economic situation in Georgia as "grave," accused Saakashvili and his "corrupt team" of "usurping power," and claimed that "political terror...reigns, and basic human rights and freedoms are neglected." It called on Georgians to close ranks and elect in free and fair elections in the spring of 2008 a new leadership that would enjoy public trust and prove capable of tackling the serious problems the country faces. It further enumerated 12 "fundamental principles" to which the 10 signatories pledged to adhere.
On November 2, up to 40,000 people attended a peaceful protest demonstration in Tbilisi convened by the National Council in support of its demands. The rally continued for five days; early on November 7, police and security forces armed with shields, batons and guns used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the protesters, reportedly injuring hundreds of them. Blaming Russia for allegedly orchestrating the protests, Saakashvili declared a state of emergency and suspended broadcasting by the independent Imedi television station, then on November 8 he scheduled a preterm presidential ballot for January 5.
The National Council selected as its joint candidate to oppose Saakashvili in that ballot former businessman Levan Gachechiladze. The election campaign was marred by acrimonious exchanges and repeated opposition allegations that the authorities and the pro-state media unfairly favored Saakashvili, who cast himself as the sole politician capable of "saving" Georgia and warned of political chaos and economic collapse in the event of an opposition win. The actual voting and vote count were likewise deemed flawed by international observers, who nonetheless conceded that the irregularities were not on a scale that could have reduced Saakashvili's share of the vote (53.47 percent) to less than the 50 percent plus one required to avoid a runoff.
Gachechiladze, however, who according to official returns polled second of the seven candidates with 25.69 percent, alleged that Saakashvili polled no more than 44 percent while he himself polled some 36 percent, according to "The Times" on January 8. Gachechiladze accordingly called, without success, for a runoff between himself and Saakashvili, but dropped that demand following talks in Tbilisi with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, after which the National Council decided to treat the upcoming parliamentary election as a de facto second round and vote of confidence in Saakashvili's team. At the same time, they repeatedly stressed that they consider Saakashvili an illegitimate president and would under no circumstances agree to any "compromise" he might propose.
The tensions between the authorities and the National Council have been compounded over the past three months by the constitutional amendments pushed hurriedly through parliament in early March, and by the authorities' rejection of a list of opposition demands unveiled in late January and which gave rise to protracted and acrimonious discussions with then-parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, whom opposition representatives repeatedly accused of going back on her word. Thus, for the opposition at least, the upcoming parliamentary election is not about ideology, but ousting a leadership widely perceived as corrupt, duplicitous, self-serving, and chronically unable to deliver on its promises. The nine-party United Opposition-National Council-New Rightists bloc warned in early April that a mass uprising is "inevitable" if the election outcome is rigged in favor of the pro-Saakashvili National Movement, according to civil.ge on April 8.
In a thoughtful and perceptive analysis posted last month on opendemocracy.net, Jonathan Wheatley listed four key hallmarks of the current stage of "suspended transition to democracy" in many former Soviet republics, including Georgia. He argued that the presidency "appears to have taken over many of the functions of the old Communist Party.... It has been proximity to the president -- whether formally through membership of the presidential administration, or informally through close personal connections -- that determines the political influence of an individual bureaucrat. The presidential networks (again both formal and informal) have more influence than either parliament or even the cabinet of ministers, undermining any checks and balances that can be brought to bear on the presidency." The "party of power" that has coalesced around the president also shows marked similarities to the CPSU.
Second, opposition parties tend for the most part to be "non-ideological" and serve as a vehicle for "charismatic leaders," many of whom are themselves former, now alienated members of the "party of power."
Third, the lack of an institutionalized party system on the one hand, and the vast political and economic interests at stake on the other, make elections "a zero-sum game and therefore prone to falsification. 'Parties of power' will not survive a period of opposition and the bureaucrats that manage elections at local level depend on the president and the ruling party for their positions. There is therefore a very strong incentive for these bureaucrats to 'deliver the correct result' in elections." Thomas de Waal made the same point in a recent analysis in the "National Interest," affirming that "being in opposition in these countries is a miserable lot: ceding power to your opponents means risking being stripped of everything and perhaps going to jail or into exile." That fear is so great, de Waal continued, that, paradoxically, the authorities may resort to vote rigging that calls into question the validity of the election outcome even in circumstances where the incumbent stood an excellent chance of victory without it, as was the case in Georgia in January 2008 (and, although he does not cite that example, in Azerbaijan in 2003).
Fourth, "a consolidated democracy requires the agreement of most, if not all political players on the fundamental rules of the game: in other words the constitution and electoral laws." In Georgia, however, Saakashvili and the parliament have repeatedly amended, in some cases without prior consultation with the opposition, both the constitution (five times between 2004-07) and the election law to suit and further their immediate political agenda.
On January 15, Gachechiladze said he hoped the National Council would participate in the upcoming parliamentary ballot as "a single, united strong opposition coalition" that would encompass not only the nine-member National Council but also the Labor party, the New Rightists and others. Those hopes proved unfounded, however; although the New Rightists aligned in a bloc with the National Council, the Republican Party decided to quit the Council, of which it was one of the original members, and run separately in the election.
The findings of a survey of 1,200 people conducted in late April by the New Region agency registered 38 percent support for Saakashvili's United National Movement, followed by the National Council-New Rightists (32 percent), the Republican party (12 percent), the Labor party (7 percent), with the remaining parties or blocs enjoying no more that 1-3 percent backing.
Even before the election campaign kicked off, the opposition alleged foul play on the part of the authorities, accusing the United National Movement of submitting a revised list of candidates to the CEC after the deadline for doing so on April 21 in light of Burjanadze's withdrawal from the ballot at the last minute. In its interim preielection report made public on May 1, the OSCE Election Observer Mission noted that that controversy "undermined" confidence in the CEC's proclaimed strategy of ensuring the maximum transparency of the ballot, civil.ge reported. The Georgian Young Lawyers' Association on April 18 accused seven United National Movement deputies in the outgoing parliament of vote-buying, and Gogi Topadze, founder and chairman of the Industry Will Save Georgia party, announced on May 1 that his party will withdraw from the ballot unless intimidation of its candidates running in single-mandate constituencies ceases.
Such allegations are all the more potentially damaging insofar as the final declaration adopted at the NATO summit in Bucharest in early April implicitly pegged Georgia's chances of being offered a Membership Action Plan at the NATO foreign ministers' meeting scheduled for December 2008 to the parliamentary elections being assessed as free and fair.
Analysis: Legal Expert Aims To Chronicle, Publicize Chechen War Crimes
As large-scale fighting subsides in Chechnya and people attempt to rebuild their lives, the issue of addressing the injustices of the protracted conflict looms large in the minds of its numerous victims.
With Russia's justice system often failing to redress the wrongs of the Chechen wars, people increasingly seek justice in international institutions. In one recent case, the European Court of Human Rights awarded a 72,000-euro ($111,331) compensation to a Chechen woman, Khadizhat Kaplanova, whose son and son-in-law went missing after a group of Russian servicemen abducted them from their family home in May 2001. A number of human rights groups have been cataloging such atrocities for many years now. Yet so far there has been no comprehensive study of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Chechnya over the past 14 years. RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service spoke recently to a Connecticut University scholar, Emma Gilligan, whose forthcoming book "War Crimes In Chechnya" examines the war crimes committed by Russian servicemen against the civilian population.
Asked how she developed an interest in events in Chechnya and why she decided to write a book on war crimes, Gilligan explained that she spent four years in Moscow researching and writing a book tracing the evolution of the Soviet human rights movement following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. In the course of that research, she developed an interest in the figure of Sergei Kovalyov and his engagement publicizing and protesting the 1994-96 Chechen war. Consequently, when the second war began in 1999, she was interested in the shift in the Russian government's ideological approach and how that shift affected the extent and type of violence on the ground. Her new book chronicles how the nature and intensity of military violence changed during the course of the fighting, and attempts to explain why.
Asked how one defines war crimes, and how and where to draw the dividing line between war crimes and crimes against humanity, Gilligan replied: "Obviously war crimes are certain crimes that happen during a particular phase of a conflict, and although the Russians have tended to call this an antiterrorist operation I think we can easily apply the Geneva Conventions to this war despite the fact that it was extremely asymmetrical. So [the focus is] war crimes I consider were perpetrated by the Russian armed forces, and also war crimes that I think were conducted by the Chechen forces themselves. I'm interested in looking at those in terms of the legal categories that currently exist."
As for crimes against humanity, Gilligan said she thinks this definition needs to be thought about more extensively in the context of the second war in Chechnya, and not only in regard to the forced disappearances, which she thinks were systematic and widespread enough to be categorized as a crime against humanity. She said she definitely thinks the initial bombing of Grozny and the surrounding villages from September 1999 through February-March 2000 ranks as a crime against humanity, given that it was systematic, it was widespread, and that evacuation routes were organized only with delay and were not always observed.
She continued: "The distinction between war crimes and crimes against humanity is obviously extremely important here, and why I would define aspects of this war as crimes against humanity is precisely because you can include the racial component in the definition not so much of intent, but in the understanding of the motivation of the Russian armed forces on the ground. So there are three things that one has to look for [in applying the definition crime against humanity]: one is the racial motivation, [the second is] is it systematic, and [the third] is it widespread. We need to rethink -- we can't just reduce everything to a civil war gone awry. [The term] war crimes is not enough to explain what took place" in Chechnya between 1999-2002.
In that context, Gilligan stressed what she termed the "dire need" for a comprehensive documentation program for both wars in Chechnya, something she has been working on for some time, and for talking more extensively to people about what actually happened to them, because there are "serious gaps" about our knowledge of what happened in certain areas at certain times, largely because human rights groups couldn't get to certain areas.
Gilligan went on to discuss her research methodology and the empirical material on which she based her research, which was conducted primarily in Moscow, but also in Vienna and Berlin where she interviewed Chechen refugees. She said she also drew on reports compiled by human rights groups and the UNHCR; personal interviews with senior political figures, especially from outside Russia, who had first hand experience of conditions in in Chechnya or Ingushetia; and materials relating to cases brought by Chechens against the Russian Federation at the European Court of Human Rights.
She admitted that the research was "challenging," and entailed using multiple sources to build up as extensive a picture as possible, but said she does not claim to provide a definitive picture, which would take "many years," if indeed it will ever be possible to do so.
Asked which of numerous "horrible episodes" she would qualify as war crimes, Gilligan listed the firing on a Red Cross convoy leaving Grozny in late October 1999; closing the main border-crossing between Chechnya and Ingushetia to prevent fleeing Chechen civilians from leaving Chechnya; and the bombing of Alkhan-kala on the western outskirts of Grozny in December 1999 and early February 2000 when that village was still full of civilians but being used by resistance fighters as an escape route after their retreat from Grozny. She added: "I would stress that the indiscriminate use of force in Grozny itself was essentially highly disproportionate," as was the use of incendiary weapons that can reach cellars and basements and burn people alive. The use of those weapons, she said, was in violation of specific protocols of the Geneva Convention.
Gilligan then discussed the infamous "zachistki" and sweep operations in which Russian troops would surround a village and search every house, ostensibly in a bid to apprehend resistance fighters, frequently engaging in pillaging and gratuitous violence and on occasion apprehending or even shooting dead those who offered resistance. The most notorious such operations were in Novye Aldi and Staropromyslovsky in 2000, 2001, and 2002. She commented that one has to be aware of the semantic implications of the emergence of a term like "zachistka," of which the root 'chistka' derives from the term for the purges of the CPSU in the 1920s and 1930s. "One needs to think about what this tells us about the militarization of Russian language at the time and what it says about a particular type of mindset that I would argue was actually being perpetrated by the Russian propaganda wing."
Gilligan also qualified as a war crime the setting up of filtration points on the outskirts of Chechen villages, and the widespread use of detention and torture. She said she has been "trying to understand the motivation behind this, specifically whether we understand the motivation as purely military." She suggested that, on the contrary, there were "many different motivations, some military, and some probably legitimate, some economic, others plain sadistic, and others I would strongly argue were racial if one looks at the testimony, at the type of language used against Chechens, both men and women, we're all familiar with type of graffiti found on walls of schools or filtration points and what that actually says about the larger agenda or the larger psychological motivating factors" that pushed some members of special forces "over the edge." She stressed that her aim in doing so is not simply connected to the legal aspect, but that she wants to comprehend the motivation for the atrocities committed during the war that began in 1999, and how and to what extent that motivation may have differed from that of Russian forces during the 1994-96 war.
Asked whether the Russian authorities, and specifically the Russian military, cooperated in any way in her research, Gilligan said no, and that she did not even try to secure their input. Again focusing on Russian motivation, she recalled "strange" public statements by some of the leading Russian generals, including Vladimir Shamanov who commanded the Western group of forces.
She noted that "most of generals who played a key role in second war were products of first war," which could explain Shamanov's veiled threat to the top brass that "if you don't let us finish the job we started in 1994," there could be a massive defection of Russia's generals. Whether or not this was just hyperbole, Gilligan added, it suggests there was "some tension and some desire within the Russian army to go back to finish what was left unfinished" at the time of the 1996 cease-fire.
Asked if she sees any way to bring Shamanov and other Russian generals such as Gennady Troshin to justice for crimes they committed, Gilligan was not optimistic. She explained that the European Court of Human Rights is trying to deal with individual complaints by Chechens and having a difficult time in terms of securing cooperation from Russian authorities, for example in obtaining documentation. She noted that Chechens are being paid 30,000 euros ($46,666) in compensation for a family member having been killed, and then have to return to the same insecure environment in Chechnya. She said she has talked extensively to ECHR staffers who are very much aware of the limitations on what the court can accomplish. A further major obstacle is the fact that the Russian Federation has not yet ratified the convention on the International Criminal Court (ICC), and is unlikely to do so soon.
Gilligan said the one thing one can do, and that she has been doing for past four years, is to launch a documentation project, build up a body of evidence, and talk to as many people as possible about certain events. This is imperative not just for moral reasons, but because one cannot anticipate whether and when and how that evidence could be used in future, given that international law and concepts of international governance are changing and evolving. Who would have ever thought, she asked rhetorically, that former Liberian President Charles Taylor would end up before the ICC?