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Voters cast ballots in the capital, Tbilisi, on October 21.

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili appealed to all involved in the October 21 municipal elections to “hold these elections in such a way that it is a further step forward to strengthening truly European democracy in Georgia.” International observers’ assessments were not, however, as unequivocally positive. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

Speaking at a cabinet meeting two days before the October 21 municipal elections, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili appealed to all involved to “hold these elections in such a way that it is a further step forward to strengthening truly European democracy in Georgia.”

International observers’ assessments of the October 21 vote and the run-offs three weeks later for the mayors of six towns were not, however, as unequivocally positive as Kvirikashvili had clearly hoped. Instead, they noted that the dominance of the entire election process by the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party “poses a challenge to democratic governance going forward.”

In many respects, the elections followed the same pattern as the previous ballot in the early summer of 2014. On both occasions, Georgian Dream won a majority of seats on municipal councils across the country, polling 50.82 percent of the proportional vote in 2014 and 55.65 percent in 2017. In the first round of voting, its candidates won four out of five mayoral races, including in Tbilisi, and in the second, five of six. (Candidates from the former ruling United National Movement [ENM] withdrew from the run-offs in Kutaisi and Martvili.)

Apart from GD, of the 22 individual parties and five blocs that registered to participate, only the ENM (17.07 percent), its offshoot European Georgia (10.49 percent), and the Alliance of Patriots (6.56 percent), all of which are represented in parliament, polled the minimum 4 percent of the proportional vote to qualify for representation on municipal councils.

As in 2014, so again this year opposition parties alleged that GD’s strong showing, both on October 21 and on November 12, was the result of malpractice and systematic electoral violations, including multiple voting. Over 500 formal complaints of malpractice were submitted to the Central Electoral Commission (TsSK) after the October 21 vote. The ENM and the recently created Council of Leaders representing 16 nonparliamentary parties called separately on the TsSK to annul the results of the ballot, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported. The ENM plans to appeal the TsSK’s rejection of that demand. The TsSK likewise rejected demands for recounts in several polling stations.

International observers were less categorical and generally positive in their assessments. The U.S. National Democratic Institute noted “several cases of serious procedural violations, errors, and delays resulting from lack of officials’ understanding of the procedures, as well as instances of involvement of self-declared party-affiliated observers in the count,” but nonetheless concluded that overall “polling procedures were generally followed throughout the day and in most observed Precinct Election Commissions, the counting process was reported to be generally calm and orderly.”

The joint observation mission fielded by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, for its part, similarly noted “instances of pressure on public sector employees to support the ruling party that are at odds with OSCE commitments, “cases of misuse of administrative resources,” and procedural irregularities at some polling stations. At the same time, it acknowledged that “fundamental freedoms were generally respected and candidates were able to campaign freely” in the October 21 vote, with election day proceeding “in an orderly manner.”

Voter turnout was slightly higher on October 21 than three years earlier (46.65 percent compared with 43.31 percent), but lower in the second round runoffs (33.24 percent compared with 36.63 percent in 2014).

The one major difference in 2017 compared with 2014 was the number of independent candidates or those representing tiny parties who gave GD a run for its money. Independent candidate and former TV journalist Aleko Elisashvili placed second of 13 candidates in the Tbilisi mayoral election, polling 17.49 percent. (The winner, with 51.3 percent, was former soccer star Kakha Kaladze, who served from October 2012 as Georgia’s energy minister.)

A second independent candidate, Konstantine Sharashenidze, defeated GD’s Beglar SIoridze with 50.11 percent of the vote in the runoff mayoral vote in Ozurgeti, while a third, Ramaz Nozadze, placed second in the runoff in the second round in Khashuri.

Tamaz Mechiauri, a former lawmaker who quit GD in May 2016 to form his own party, For a United Georgia, was acknowledged the elected mayor of the Tianeti district after a recount that showed he defeated GD’s candidate by a single vote.

The Development Movement launched in the summer of 2017 by former parliament speaker and Republican Party chairman Davit Usupashvili placed second in one southern district.

That overall pattern suggests two incipient trends. First, at least some voters disenchanted with or alienated by GD are turning to candidates not associated with any of the other political parties or political figures that have dominated Georgian politics since the November 2003 Rose Revolution that first brought the ENM to power.

And second, European Georgia, which split acrimoniously from the ENM in January of this year, has succeeded in attracting a sizable proportion of the ENM electorate, placing second in nine districts. (The ENM polled 22.4 percent in 2014.) Buoyed by its showing, European Georgia leader Davit Bakradze went so far as to define his party’s primary objective as defeating GD in the 2020 parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, as noted by the NDI, “Georgia appears to have reinforced governance marked by one party’s dominance at all levels of elected office.” Or as constitutional expert Vakhtang Dzabiradze explained to InterPressNews.ge, GD has parlayed the constitutional majority it received in the October 2016 parliamentary elections into one-party rule, in which the dividing line between the party and state structures is being progressively eroded, with all the dangers that entails. As the NDI concluded, “With the further consolidation of power in one party, prospects for vibrant and pluralistic democracy are at risk.”

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
In April 2016, Ramazan Dzhalaldinov (right) incurred the anger of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov by addressing an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing the authorities in his village of corruption.

The Chechen Republic's Supreme Court last week cleared the way for a libel suit brought by the Chechen Interior Ministry against the Moscow-based human rights organization Civic Assistance, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Ramazan Dzhalaldinov, a resident of the southern village of Kenkhi.

The Chechen Republic's Supreme Court last week cleared the way for a libel suit brought by the Chechen Interior Ministry against the Moscow-based human rights organization Civic Assistance, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Ramazan Dzhalaldinov, a resident of the southern village of Kenkhi.

In April 2016, Dzhalaldinov incurred the anger of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov by addressing an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing Kenkhi authorities of corruption.

The Chechen Interior Ministry's suit, which according to Novaya Gazeta lawyer Pyotr Zankin contains gross legal errors, was prompted by public statements by Novaya Gazeta and Civic Assistance founder and head Svetlana Gannushkina about alleged reprisals subsequently inflicted on Dzhalaldinov and his family, possibly by Chechen law enforcement agencies, between May and early November 2016. Specifically, the ministry accused the three defendants of damaging its professional reputation through statements they made in November 2016.

The Chechen authorities appear to have orchestrated a purportedly spontaneous demonstration in front of the Supreme Court building last week by some 100 people who made sarcastic and derogatory comments about human rights activists and journalists who, they alleged, routinely distort the situation in Chechnya, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on November 10. Some of the participants subsequently told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service they were paid 1,000 rubles ($16.90) for attending the protest.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)

Kadyrov had responded to Dzhalaldinov's appeal to Putin by branding him a liar, whereupon Dzhalaldinov lodged a formal complaint with Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika requesting that he take legal action against Kadyrov for having publicly insulted him.

On May 6, 2016, Kadyrov traveled to Kenkhi, where he assured the predominantly Avar population that local officials accused of pocketing the compensation due to residents for damage inflicted on their property during the wars of 1994-96 and 1999-2000 would be punished. Kadyrov also promised to repair local highways and connect the village to the mains gas supply. For good measure, he also fired the district head and local police chief.

Just days later, however, Dzhalaldinov's home was burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances, with his family accusing Chechen law enforcement personnel of torching the place and threatening to kill his wife and three daughters.

TV 'Apology'

Possibly in light of the widespread negative publicity, unconfirmed reports suggested an agreement had been reached that Dzhalaldinov would publicly apologize to Kadyrov in return for a promise that Dzhalaldinov and his family would not be subjected to any further reprisals. On May 30, the Chechen state TV company broadcast footage in which Dzhalaldinov apologized to Kadyrov. Caucasian Knot, however, quoted Novaya Gazeta journalist Yelena Milashina as saying Dzhalaldinov told her the apology footage was selectively edited.

Despite the indications that no further action would be taken against Dzhalaldinov, in August 2016 a district court found him guilty of circulating false information and sentenced him to 160 hours of community service.

Then, in early November, Dzhalaldinov disappeared but contacted Gannushkina a few days later to explain to her that he had fled Chechnya after being summoned to Grozny on November 2 by Chechen First Deputy Interior Minister Apti Alaudinov. In a post on her Facebook page, Gannushkina quoted Dzhalaldinov as saying Alaudinov threatened to kill him if he continued to publicize the apparently still difficult situation in Kenkhi.

Several weeks later, on December 9, Novaya Gazeta convened a press conference in Moscow at which both Milashina and Gannushkina provided detailed accounts of the pressure and harassment to which Dzhalaldinov had allegedly been subjected.

The Interior Ministry's suit reportedly did not quote verbatim from either Gannushkina's Facebook post or the allegedly defamatory statements she and Milashina made at that press conference, or provide concrete evidence that those statements were untrue or damaging. That is said to be among reasons cited by both Novaya Gazeta and Gannushkina in disputing its legality.

They also argue that, because both organizations are registered in Moscow, the libel suit should have been filed there, not in Chechnya. They suggest Dzhalaldinov was listed as a co-defendant to provide a legal foundation for taking them to court in a remote corner of Chechnya rather than in Moscow, where journalists for national and international media outlets would seek to report on the hearing.

Russian journalists Yelena Milashina (left) and Svetlana Gannushkina (composite file photo)
Russian journalists Yelena Milashina (left) and Svetlana Gannushkina (composite file photo)

Oleg Orlov of the Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial told Caucasian Knot that Dzhalaldinov does not legally qualify as a defendant because although he was the primary source of the information made public by Milashina and Gannushkina at the December 2016 press conference, he did not disseminate it personally.

In addition, Gannushkina has argued, first, that Civic Assistance should not be held legally responsible for a post she made in a private capacity, rather than as its leader; and, second, that nowhere in her Facebook post did she refer to the Chechen Interior Ministry as such (although she did mention First Deputy Interior Minister Alaudinov).

She also argued that, in light of widespread speculation at the time of Dzhalaldinov's disappearance following his confrontation with Alaudinov that the Chechen Interior Ministry had either apprehended or killed him, the revelations at the press conference that Dzhalaldinov was alive and well and no longer in Chechnya served to uphold the ministry's professional reputation by exonerating it of the suspicion of foul play, rather than damage it.

Possible Alternative Motive

Even though the Interior Ministry's collective libel suit and the seemingly orchestrated demonstration outside the Supreme Court building against perceived distortions of reality by Moscow-based journalists and human rights organizations suggest a new campaign of intimidation by Chechen authorities, the timing suggests a possible alternative motive.

The press conference at which Milashina and Gannushkina discussed Dzhalaldinov's case took place on December 6, 2016. Later that month, according to Caucasian Knot, the ministry launched an investigation and concluded in early April 2017 that there were no grounds for a criminal case.

Also in April, however, Milashina went public with allegations that gays in Chechnya were being subjected to harassment, detention, and torture. She later published what she said was a death list drawn up by the Chechen Interior Ministry of young men suspected of involvement in the December 2016 attacks on police in Grozny at least 14 of whom were apprehended and summarily executed.

The question thus arises: Did those revelations so enrage the Interior Ministry and/or Kadyrov personally that it was decided to bring a libel suit against Novaya Gazeta, and were Civic Assistance and Dzhalaldinov named as co-defendants simply to confuse the issue?

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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