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Georgian Preterm Presidential Election A Concession Or Calculated Risk?

Saakashvili announcing the date of early elections to a nationwide audience on November 8 (AFP) November 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Both the Georgian opposition and the international community have construed President Mikheil Saakashvili's decision to hold preterm presidential elections on January 5, 2008, as a concession to the opposition's multiple political demands. But it may equally have been part of Saakashvili's larger strategy aimed at neutralizing any challenge to his authority and, depending on just how deep popular dissatisfaction and resentment runs, may likewise be a calculated risk.

Saakashvili announced the preterm ballot, to be held concurrently with a referendum on the timing of the next parliamentary ballot, in a televised statement during the evening of November 8, 36 hours after police used indiscriminate force to disperse opposition protesters in Tbilisi, injuring hundreds of people. In response to those clashes, Saakashvili proclaimed a state of emergency, first in Tbilisi and then nationwide, for a period of 15 days.

Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli claimed that the police intervention was justified given that "we have witnessed an attempted coup d'etat today." (Edward Luttwak of the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington, who is the author of "Coup d'Etat - A Practical Handbook," was quoted by the "Financial Times " on November 10-11 as differentiating clearly between a revolution, which "is a mass action," and a coup, "which is just a technique.") "The New York Times" on November 10 quoted parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze as echoing Noghaideli's argument of an imminent coup. "The threat that existed until now is still present despite the calm that has been restored," the paper quoted her as saying. A subsequent government press release on November 10 re-categorized Noghaideli's purported coup, terming it "a threat to constitutional order" that posed "a grave danger to liberal democratic values." "The state of emergency, foreseen by the constitution, was necessary to avoid plunging the country into chaos and to protect the constitutional order," the statement continued.

That argument is less than entirely convincing. The protesters had congregated peacefully outside the parliament building daily since November 2 in support of demands presented to the leadership in early October by the 10-party opposition National Council (see "Georgia: Opposition Unveils Political Manifesto,", October 26, 2007). Only on November 7 did police resort repeatedly to force to disperse them, indiscriminately using truncheons, rubber bullets, and tear gas on protesters and innocent passers-by alike. Nor is there any evidence of the remotest danger of destabilization nationwide that would have justified extending the state of emergency outside Tbilisi.

Similarly less than convincing is the Georgian government's claim that the opposition was acting in collusion with Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and financed by Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili -- who is wanted in Russia on criminal charges. Even before the police crackdown, Saakashvili argued in an extensive television interview on November 4 that "There is a concrete oligarch Russian force behind all this, which at the same time is in coordination with a concrete foreign country and its political circles, whose goal is to stir chaos in Georgia ahead of [parliamentary] elections in Russia, which are scheduled in December.... What is now happening in Georgia is an attempt by a dark, black force that has no responsibility to or love for Georgia and which is directly linked to Georgia's foreign factors -- to force us to share power, consult with me on how to rule Georgia. We will never let this happen."

On November 8, Georgian Deputy Prosecutor-General Nika Gvaramia told journalists that a criminal case has been brought against Patarkatsishvili on charges of conspiring to overthrow the Georgian government. Patarkatsishvili, who resettled in Georgia from Russia in 2000 and maintains close ties with his former business partner, self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, unveiled a political manifesto last month calling, among other things, for the abolition of the presidency and the creation of a bicameral parliament as a means of strengthening and promoting democracy, and for perfecting the distribution of power between the authorities and society at large in favor of the latter. On October 28, Patarkatsishvili offered to finance the Georgian opposition National Council, stressing at the same time that his aim in doing so was not to provoke a revolution. On November 2, he flew to Tbilisi to address the mass protest demonstration, urging participants to pressure the country's leaders to embark on a dialogue that would pave the way for elections that would result in a "people's government." Until late October, Patarkatsishvili owned a major stake in the independent Georgian television channel Imedi, one of two that Georgian special forces ransacked on November 7, threatening and abusing staff and systematically destroying equipment.

The "Economist" on November 10 made the point that "it is difficult to reconcile the Georgian claims that Patarkatsishvili sought at Russia's behest to overthrow the Georgian leadership with the fact that the Russian authorities have issued several warrants for Patarkatsishvili's arrest."

Nor was Patarkatsishvili the only Georgian opposition politician identified as having colluded with Moscow. The Georgian Interior Ministry released on November 8 video and audio of conversations four oppositionists allegedly had with employees of the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi. The four men are parliamentarian Levan Berdzenishvili (Republican party); former Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava; Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili; and Tsotne Gamsakhurdia, whose half-brother Konstantine Gamsakhurdia heads the Tavisupleba (Liberty) party. According to unconfirmed reports, Natelashvili has since requested political asylum either in Germany or the United States; but Saakashvili said on November 10 that Natelashvili does not face arrest and is free to participate in the January presidential ballot, according to the website

Former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, whose arrest in late September 48 hours after he went public with damaging allegations against Saaksvhili served as the catalyst for the opposition to close ranks, told Reuters in Berlin on November 9 that "I don't want to be a Russian advocate, but I should say that there is no Russian role behind this opposition."

Two European diplomats, too, have implicitly questioned the official argument that Russia was behind the opposition protests. Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe rapporteur Matyas Eorsi was quoted on November 10 by Caucasus Press as saying that "We know that the incumbent Russian authorities are not on friendly terms with the Georgian government, and we have seen for ourselves how Russia can influence elections in neighboring countries. But nevertheless, I cannot say what the role of the Russian factor is in the current situation in Georgia." Playing up the alleged Russian involvement is not helpful, Eorsi added.

EU special envoy for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby was similarly quoted on November 12 as saying, "I do not want to go too far into this and I do not want to go into the issue of whether there was any serious threat to the state..., at least as long as I have not seen solid evidence."

Yet the flaws in the proclaimed rationale for the November 7 violence should not distract attention from the equally compelling question of motivation. Were the Georgian authorities planning all along to use force against the demonstrators, and then proclaim a state of emergency, even if there were no cogent grounds for doing so, precisely in order to create the rationale for a seeming major concession on Saakashvili's part? (Granted, in his marathon television interview on November 4, Saakashvili again affirmed that "both the parliamentary and presidential elections will be held in the autumn of 2008 as defined by the constitution and nobody can blackmail us. Everything in Georgia will happen whenever it is envisaged by the constitution, law ,and the country’s national interests.")

Or was the decision to bring forward the date of the presidential ballot a damage-containment exercise in response to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's statement earlier on November 8 warning that "the imposition of emergency rule, and the closure of media outlets in Georgia, a partner with which the alliance has an Intensified Dialogue, are of particular concern and not in line with Euro-Atlantic values"?

If the decision to bring forward the date of the presidential elections indeed predated, and even served as the rationale for, the November 7 crackdown, it was a masterstroke on at least three counts. It creates the illusion of willingness to compromise, while at the same time wrong-footing both the opposition (which has less than two months to conduct an election campaign) and the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which ideally requires a minimum of two months to organize and implement an election-observation mission. (Georgian officials, including parliament speaker Burjanadze, were swift to appeal to the international community to deploy as many observers as they could muster to monitor the vote.) And it excludes the participation of Okruashvili, who will not turn 35 -- the minimum age for a presidential candidate -- until November 2008.

Moreover, the deliberate destruction -- several hours before the formal declaration on November 7 of a state of emergency -- of the broadcasting equipment and the entire archive of the independent television station Imedi and similar reprisals against a second television company, Kavkasia, will severely limit independent television coverage of at least the early states of the election campaign. AP on November 11 quoted Imedi's U.S. director-general Lewis Robertson, as saying it could take "several months" to repair or replace the damaged equipment and get the station back on the air.

In Georgia -- as elsewhere in the former USSR -- television, rather than radio, the print media, or the Internet, is by far the single most important source of information on political developments.

Saakashvili's scheduling of the presidential elections has not proven a large enough concession to silence criticism of last week's violence. The international community continues to insist that the state of emergency should be lifted immediately as the ban on demonstrations and sweeping restrictions on the independent media cannot be reconciled with Saakashvili's professed commitment to the principles of democracy. Saakashvili on November 9 effectively defied Washington by rejecting the message from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, conveyed personally by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, that the state of emergency should be lifted immediately. "The state of emergency will be lifted when I, as the leader of this country, consider it necessary, and not when a foreign minister of a foreign state tells me," Saakashvili was quoted as telling Georgian businessmen.

Other international diplomats nonetheless continued to hammer home the message that the state of emergency should be ended. EU special envoy Semneby told RFE/RL's Georgian Service in Tbilisi on November 11 that "We would also expect that the state of emergency should be lifted as soon as possible. And that should of course involve all aspects of the state of emergency, including the possibility of the media to resume full operations."

Spanish diplomat Josep Borrell Fontelles, the special envoy of OSCE Chairman in Office Miguel Antonio Moratinos, was similarly quoted on November 12 by Caucasus Press as saying that during "frank and open" discussions with the Georgian leadership, "I...relayed the chairman-in-office's call to immediately lift the state of emergency, to restore full freedom of the media, especially all broadcast media in Georgia, to respect the freedom of assembly, and to ensure all conditions for free and fair elections."

The biggest unanswered question, however, is just how popular Saakashvili still is in light of his failure over the past four years to improve the lives of much of the population, the widely held perception that he turns a blind eye to corruption among his closest associates, and last week's violence. An opinion poll of 859 respondents conducted in July found that just 39 percent would vote for Saakashvili if presidential elections were held the next day -- less than half the 96.27 percent of the vote he garnered in January 2004. But a second poll of 300 people summarized by the weekly "Mteli kvira" on October 1 showed that no alternative candidate would poll more than 10 percent support with the exception of Okruashvili (12.2 percent), who, as noted above, is barred from running in January due to his age. Or does Saakashvili plan to salvage his waning popularity by launching an offensive in the next few weeks to restore Georgia's control over one of its two breakaway regions?

Article 70 of the Georgian Constitution stipulates that a candidate shall be deemed to have been elected president if he/she obtains more than half the votes cast; there is no minimum turnout requirement.