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Georgia: ODIHR Spokesman Talks About Monitoring Task Ahead

NATO said free and fair parliamentary voting was essential to Tbilisi's chances of receiving a membership action plan (AFP) The conduct of Georgian elections has come under the microscope in recent months, with many observers accusing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his entourage of taking advantage of their near-total domination of the political scene to unduly influence the outcome of the January 5 presidential ballot. The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) will have close to 550 observers on hand for this week's voting. RFE/RL spoke to ODIHR spokesman Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher about the monitors' perspective.

RFE/RL: ODIHR has released two interim reports ahead of the May 21 vote. What have been some of the trends you've witnessed, both positive and negative, as Georgia prepares for the elections?

Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher: It's always difficult to make overall evaluations in the middle of a process. But in the issues we've highlighted so far on the positive side, you could argue that the campaign has been quite active. We've seen this from the government party, but also from the opposition parties, which have campaigned very actively, but sometimes used very strong language in the campaign. We've seen that there is relatively good access to the media. Public television in particular has shown a more balanced approach, compared to previous elections.

On the negative side, there have also been a number of allegations of intimidation, illegal campaigning by public servants, and cases of abuse of administrative resources. Some of these allegations could be substantiated by the mission, and we are looking into others. What we've also seen so far is that there have been a number of formal complaints and appeals directed at the election administration, and those complaints haven't been dealt with in a proper way in all cases.

RFE/RL: The United Opposition bloc has already indicated that it believes the vote will be rigged, and is calling on the Georgian public to come out and protest the election virtually as soon as the ballots are closed. Critics have countered that the opposition is simply using vote-rigging claims as a pretext to boost its own standing. ODIHR is clearly obligated to help resolve allegations of vote-rigging. But does it also have a responsibility to monitor potentially fraudulent claims by political competitors?

Eschenbaecher: In every election mission, there are reports of irregularities and complaints. And to the extent possible, we try to verify them -- which is not always possible, of course. We also always say that we are not the election police. This isn't our main role. Our main role is to observe what's happening. It's the role of domestic law-enforcement structures and the court system to investigate allegations of serious misconduct of illegal activities. But of course, we look at the overall environment of the election and the conduct of the campaign, and certainly, if there's a pattern of verbal abuse or a pattern of false allegations, that would form part of our overall assessment of the elections.

If there's a complaint lodged by someone in the opposition, then it's the role of the election administration to investigate and make a decision on this complaint and whether it's legitimate or not. We're present at the sessions of the Central Election Commission when these complaints are dealt with. So our role would be to assess whether the election administration has dealt with complaints and disputes in a proper way -- that is, on the basis of the laws and regulations of the respective country. It's everyone's right to lodge a complaint. The complaint, if legitimate, should be dealt with; if it's not legitimate, it should be rejected. I think you should be able to rely on the judgment of the responsible authorities and institutions to deal with these.

RFE/RL: OSCE/ODIHR came under some criticism in January for appearing to give the Georgian presidential vote a clean bill of health one day after the ballot, and coming out with much more serious criticisms only later, once Mikheil Saakashvili's very narrow first-round victory had been accepted as fact. Were such complaints legitimate? Is there anything you'll do differently this time around?

Eschenbaecher: There was a joint preliminary statement published the day after the presidential elections which concluded that in essence the elections were in line with most OSCE commitments. The assessment of ODIHR in this statement -- which was subscribed to by the parliamentary delegations as well -- was a nuanced one. The preliminary statement included a number of indications of concerns that were, as more information came in, detailed more comprehensively in an interim report, and then of course in the final report. But the preliminary statement indicated a number of concerns already, and this is why we always insist on people reading the whole statement in its entirety, and not only the headlines of the press release.

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