The situation in Georgia, the former Soviet republic, may remind you a little of America at the moment.An incredibly polarised election pitting an incredibly wealthy businessman against a once remarkably popular, idealist candidate who the electorate feels has lost his way. Money, power, and a scandalous video that has turned an election upside down.
However, the problems run far deeper.
The current Georgian government calls itself a staunch ally of the United States; the ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM), explicitly identifies the United States as “the main strategic partner of Georgia” in its platform. President Bush called Saakashvili a “”Beacon of Democracy” in 2005. Since then, Georgia has received billions of dollars in Western aid, but things could well be about to change in the country.
A Scandal Breaks
On September 18 — less than two weeks before the Parliamentary elections — a video was leaked to television stations showing prison officials abusing prisoners at the Gldani 8 prison in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. The clip shows multiple prisoners being beaten by severely by the guards; one is raped with a broom.
The ruling party at first said “the video was staged by the opposition to discredit the government ahead of key elections,” according to the BBC. Civil.ge, a daily news site in Georgia founded by a Georgian NGO in 2001, reported:
“The Interior Ministry has claimed that the arrested prison officials abused inmates and made video record of it in exchange of money in a deal arranged by Tamaz Tamazashvili, an inmate who is serving his jail term in the same prison facility.”
However, the Georgian government has since accepted some level of responsibility.
Despite the fact that many claim prison abuse is endemic to Georgian penitentiary facilities, the gruesome and inhumane nature of this particular scandal prompted an immediate response from Georgia’s President, Mikhail Saakashvili. He took to the air the night the videos were released in order to make a special statement:
“What happened in Gldan Prison is an outrageous act targeting human dignity and rights. Those who organised, implemented and allowed it to happen deserve the strictest punishment and they will spend many years in prison.”
Overnight, protestors gathered by the hundreds throughout the country, calling for the resignation (and later the arrest) of key government officials linked to the scandal.
They eventually succeeded; Saakashvili suspended the country’s entire prison staff.
The day after the video’s release, the minister in charge of prisons — Khatuna Kalmakhelidze — resigned. The next day, former Minister of the interior Bacho Akhalaia released a brief statement saying, “I feel moral and political responsibility since we failed to abolish this terrible practice and therefore I appeal to the president about my resignation.”
Not Just Any Election
Even before scandal changed the landscape of the October 1 parliamentary elections, observers recognised the particular significance of these elections, independent of the scandal. Thomas de Waal, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that the elections are the first time in almost 10 years in which the the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, pose “the most credible challenge yet to the elite that has governed Georgia for more than eight years.”
The elections will also bring into power the first government that must abide by Georgia’s new constitution, which was adopted in 2010. The Georgian Constitution will take affect in 2013. The new constitution will shift the majoirty of executive powers from the presidency to the prime minister, who will be chosen by the parliament’s majority party — thereby making the October 1 parliamentary elections all the more significant.
The ruling UNM party has “formally nominated [current Prime Minister] Merabishvili to be its candidate for prime minister in 2013,” according to de Waal. Saakashvili has not ruled attempting to become prime minister — fueling speculation that he will try to “pull a Putin” and retain power as long as possible through Constitutional mechanisms. However, some believe the scandal has put an end to Saakshvili’s suspected prime ministerial aspirations.
Photo: AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov
Two Imperfect Candidates
The especially complex and heated nature of the election is palpable; Ivanishvili, who is Georgia’s richest man according to Forbes, publicly told Saakashvili he should resign last week, and charged the current government with “establishing a machinery of lies in our country.”
Opponents of the UNM and Saakashvili believe that he is turning the country into a “benign one-party state;” a characterization he did not rebuke in an interview with Prospect Magazine.
And while Saakashvili has brought in youth and fresh blood in order to spur innovation, some worry that the civil service lacks independence. De Waal notes: “since Saakashvili came to power, he has had five prime ministers, seven defence ministers, six foreign ministers, and six finance ministers.” In June 2010, he appointed Vera Kobalia — whom he met at the Vancouver Olympics — as his economy minister. Kobalia’s main prior experience was working at her father’s bakery in Vancouver.
Critics of Ivanishvili are concerned that a man whose wealth is equal to about half of Georgia’s GDP now wants to throw his weight into the political ring. They also worry “that Ivanishvili is acting with the support of forces ‘outside Georgia,’ in other words Russia.”
While those claims have not been substantiated, Ivanishvili is not without scandal himself.
Over the summer, one of Georgia’s main opposition television scandals was embroiled in a vote-buying probe connected to Georgian Dream. Tens of thousands of satellite dishes owned by cable and satellite provider Global TV had already been seized by authorities in the same scandal.
Global TV is co-owned by Ivanishvili’s brother.
Televison: Where the Election Will Be Won?
Television has been the main front in the battle for parliament. The industry remains “largely dominated by politics,” according to Transparency International Georgia, a local NGO committed to combating corruption in Georgia through the promotion of transparency and accountability.
Despite the abhorring and gruesome nature of the videos released, the scandal has brought the impartiality and role of television into the limelight.
One of the key channels that broke the story was Channel 9 TV:
Channel 9 TV reported that video footage was obtained by a former guard of the prison number 8, Vladimer Bedukadze, who is now in Brussels seeking political asylum. Bedukadze, whom the Interior Ministry said was wanted in connection for inhuman treatment of inmates, told Channel 9 via Skype that the video footage released by the Interior Ministry was staged and suggested that the authorities were trying to build false narrative.
While the scandal has been covered by most Georgian news outlets, Channel 9 has been relatively aggressive in its coverage. According to AFP, “Opposition channel TV9 late Thursday aired a new but heavily-pixellated video of what it claimed were guards assaulting an inmate in a detention centre for people with mental disorders.”
Guess who owns Channel 9? Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Bedukadze, the former prison official, was also interviewed by RT, in which he claims that “the penal system in Georgia is rife with the sadistic abuse of inmates covered under a glossy façade.”
RT has been accused by Reporters Without Borders for having a pro-Kremlin bias, fueling fears that Ivanishvili could have Russian backing — something Georgians are extremely weary about since the 2008 invasion.
And to add just another wrinkle to the story, Tamaz Tamazashvili, one of the prisoners who allegedly helped leak the video to the press, has a connection to Ivanishvili as well.
Tamazashvili was “a former police chief in the Kakheti region, was arrested few days after Ivanishvili announced about going into politics in October, 2011; he was charged with illegal possession of firearms and sentenced to three and a half years of prison term,” according to Civil.ge.
They add: “[Tamazashvili is the] father of Bidzina Ivanishvili-led Georgian Dream opposition coalition’s majoritarian MP candidate in Dedoplistskaro and father-in-law of Ivanishvili’s long-time right-hand man Irakli Garibashvili, who is also running for an MP seat on Georgian Dream’s party list.”
Ivanishvili has consistently called Tamazashvili a political prisoner.
Both Sides Play the Game
Over the weekend, Georgian police arrested three Georgia Dream activists for allegedly bribing a policeman. The Interior Ministry released a covertly-recorded video which they claim the crime takes place.
And in a remarkably similar fashion to which UNM responded to the prison video requests, Georgia Dream classified the tape as “provocative and falsified.”
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