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Nino Khatiskatsi: “The Government is More Concerned about the Opinion of the International Community about Local Elections Than about the Opinion of Georgian Voters”

Koba Bendeliani “Interpresnews”
Interpresnews interviewed the head of the non-governmental organization Transparency International – Georgia Nino Khatiskatsi regarding the various aspects of the pre-election campaign,

-Ms. Nino, how does Transparency International – Georgia evaluate the ongoing pre-election campaign for the municipality elections scheduled for May 30?

-Unlike previous presidential and parliamentary elections, the misuse of administrative resources and budget funds are less this time. During the elections of 2008, much more violations were observed one month before the elections than now. The reason might be more effort of the government to carry out the election process within the law and reduce the number of violations. Another reason might be the significance of the municipality elections; I mean it cannot be compared with the parliamentary and presidential elections with its significance. Another fact is that political parties have just launched active election process and only several parties have their offices in the regions. While evaluating the overall picture, these factors shall be taken into consideration. Current problems and situation do not allow us to evaluate the process positively and to declare that everything is ok.

-How are equal conditions created for the political parties? Opposition leaders often state that the government misuses administrative resources and budget funds. Have you observed any concrete facts of these violations which can be most alarming while evaluating the overall picture?

-When we speak about the misuse of the administrative resources during the pre-election campaign and whether various political parties have equal conditions, we should take two criteria into consideration: first – how the Georgian law is breached and second – international practice, among them OSCE documents which are obligatory for Georgia and which state that political parties and the state shall not be mixed up; the compatibility shall be preserved and political parties shall have equal chances. Compliance with international practice is as obligatory for us as compliance with the Georgian law.

The most alarming is the oppression of voters, members and activists of the opposition political parties. They are threatened and oppressed during phone or personal dialogues. It is a criminal offence. Bearing the above in mind, the parties do not have equal chances.

Unequal conditions of the political parties are connected with the income of the party. Speaking on this topic exceeds the expenditure of the budget funds in favor of the government and is connected with the problem of business environment.

During the presidential elections in 2008, Mikheil Saakashvili managed to collect 22 million GEL for his pre-election campaign; the candidate of the opposition parties – 500 000 GEL. They collected these sums mostly among party activists and members. I mean, they claim that business environment is well regulated in the country, but in practice businessmen assist political parties unequally. The business circles estimate self-censorship for themselves and do not assist opposition parties in order not to face problems in future.

In addition to that, budget funds also create problems which are prerogative of the central budget and they are obviously spent in support of the ruling party and their candidates. In 2010, the salaries and number of employees increased in many self-governmental bodies including Tbilisi City Hall. Besides that, more social projects are launched which are not implemented during non-election years as a rule.

The social situation is very hard in Georgia. There are over 900 000 estimated cases of socially disabled people in Georgia. They are looking forward to assistance. Of course, this factor in our country, where single social allowance is intensively distributed before the elections, has negative impact on the election process. It is bad for the opposition, and in parallel to it the ruling party has advantage over others.

-You said that the most alarming is the oppression on voters and opposition parties. Can you name concrete examples and how the government responds to those facts?

-I will name only those facts which were checked and do not rely only on once source. The final information is about the oppression on the candidates of the National Council by the Kvareli district governor and head of police department; consequently, on May 5 two candidates refused to participate in the elections and the National Council remained without list of candidates in Kvareli district. The candidates, who refused to take part in the elections, do not confirm the information; apparently they were threatened and do not name the people who oppressed them.

The incident in Mestia on May 3 is also very famous. Regional governor Zaza Gorozia and officials of other law enforcement bodies arrived in Svaneti region by more than 40 cars. They compelled 4 out of 7 candidates to refuse participation in the elections and made them sign corresponding documents. The other three did not refuse because other members of the opposition parties assisted them to leave the building where they were under oppression of the regional officials. It was the most large-scaled and famous incident. This incident has not been investigated yet.

On April 7, the head of the Lanchkhuti district division of the Constitutional Security Department Bukhuti Chkhaidze oppressed a member of the Alliance for Georgia. A similar incident happened in the village of Sabatlo in Dedoplistskaro district where the village governor Davit Gundadze called the teacher of Georgian language and threatened her with firing from the school if she continued cooperation with the opposition parties. The same happened early in April when number one on the election list of the political movement “Tavisupleba” Viktor Japaridze was oppressed. The head of police department threatened him on the phone; because of that, Japaridze cannot travel to Svaneti region to avoid problems.

A similar incident happened in Akhmeta district; the head of the Akhmeta district office of the Movement for the Just Georgia was being threatened by the deputy chairman of the Akhmeta district municipality board Khangoshvili and commissary of the Duisi village Merab Kavtarashvili during 30 minutes. After that, the member of the opposition party needed medical assistance of the emergency service. As you see, incidents of oppression on opposition activists are quite a lot.

The reaction of the government to these incidents is very important. The Central Election Commission is very limited in power to respond to these facts – CEC cannot investigate the facts. However, the inter-institutional group has the mechanism of rapid reaction; the group was set up during the pre-election campaign and ministers and deputy ministers, high-ranking officials of the law enforcement bodies and officials of the institutions participating in the lections are members of the group. For example, the members of the group are: deputy minister of internal affairs Eka Zghuladze, deputy foreign minister Giga Bokeria, officials of the prosecutor’s office and other leading institutions. The working group has already responded to part of the violations. Bukhuti Chkhaidze was fired because of the incident in Lanckhuti district which occurred on April 7. If the criminal liability of the person is confirmed, dismissal from the work will not be the only punishment for him.

As for the visit of Zaza Gorozia in Mestia, he was recommended to take a holiday and not to participate in the election procedures. On the one hand, it is attempt of the government to rapidly respond to the violations before the investigation finishes. However, it will be very important if the respond is not short-term and does not finish only before elections. On the other hand, these facts shall be publicly reported and not only Georgian society should know about them. Reaction to the activities of the officials shall become public in order to create precedent for others.

-How do you respond to the concrete incidents of violation? For example, the National Forum claims that number of voters in Saburtalo district (Tbilisi) increased at 25 %; Republic Party claims the 12 000 voters who were initially removed from the election list, were again added to the list; with the participation of Ugulava (candidate for the Tbilisi mayor from the ruling party) and MP Giorgi Meladze seminar of the chairpersons of the residential buildings in Tbilisi was organized in the hotel at Bazaleti Lake. The 6 000 chairpersons received instructions from the ruling party on how to act in favor of the National Movement during the election process. .. and one more thing, although the political parties worked on the completion of the election lists, how are the shortcomings eradicated in the lists?

-As for our respond to concrete facts, we use several types of mechanisms; first of all, as I have already mentioned, it is reporting about those violations which is resource and available not only for Georgian society but for all international organizations which monitor the elections in Georgia today. The second is active cooperation with the CEC and inter-institutional group. The latter is the most important institution which was created before the elections and it can react on the violations most effectively.

As for the election lists, it was positive decision that political parties also had chance to check the lists. They have estimated hundred thousands of addresses and amendments were introduced to the lists. However, similar monitoring shall not start two or three months before the elections and during pre-election period. It would have been better if common network were created what they are working on now. As for the completion of the addresses, made by the political parties, I agree with the statement of Republic Party about 12 000 voters. If the initially removed 12 000 voters are registered again, they can participate in the elections in the same district where they were initially registered but do not live there. Despite all that, some positive results were achieved; however, the problem of the election lists shall be urgent after the elections too; we should not start working on them only before elections.

-How does your organization cooperate with the inter-institutional working group which can most effectively respond to the violations?

-In regard with cooperation I would single out the current elections from the previous ones. Currently, the non-governmental organizations and the government cooperate with each other more actively. In reply to our first report, we received two responds. First was from the Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava and second from the inter-institutional group. It is interesting that both replies were in English. We were concerned by the fact. That means, the government is rather concerned about the opinion of the international community about the elections than about the opinion of Georgian voters.

Otherwise, we have no problem in cooperation with the inter-institutional group. We contact each other by e-mail. They offered us to inform them about the violations and then they will demand corresponding institutions to respond to those facts. The cooperation succeeds in reality and we will continue it in future too. However, I want to underline that the most important is to continue this cooperation after elections too. Punishment of the offenders is also very important. Offenders have never been punished in Georgia during the pre-election campaign because of violation of the law. We hope, similar precedents will be created during these elections.
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