Featured Image from Wikipedia Commons via Google Images.
Scenes of tear gas canisters being flung at a grey, Brutalist-style building began showing up on news channels and Twitter timelines in the last week of February. The building was the United National Movement’s headquarters, the largest opposition party in Georgia. The government, under the Georgian Dream Party’s majority, was out to arrest Nika Melia, the main opposition leader in Georgia. UNM party members barricaded themselves into the party headquarters inan attempt to prevent Melia’s arrest. But with the use of excessive force, riot police managed to make their way in.
Who is Nika Mila?
Nika Melia was charged with ‘incitement of violence’ during the June 2019 anti-government protests in the nation’s capital - Tbilisi. The protests erupted when a visiting Russian Member of Parliament occupied the seat of the Georgian Parliament’s speaker. However, there is video evidence contesting the official narrative, showing that Melia simply asked protestors to enter the Parliament peacefully.
His arrest was in response to his violation of his bail agreement. Melia, of course, claimed that the charges and the successive vote in the Parliament to rid him of his parliamentary immunity, was “politically motivated“. Melia did emerge victorious in the recent elections, as he was the only opposition candidate in the majoritarian constituency to win against a Georgian Dream candidate. However, he did not participate in the second round of voting, due to allegations of election fraud. Ever since, a coalition of six opposition parties like European Georgia, UNM, Lelo etc. have boycotted the Parliament and have demanded for a snap election.
However, Melia’s arrest was only the tipping point for what has been a long brewing crisis. It began with the allegations of the rigged October Parliamentary elections held by the incumbent Georgian Dream, under whose mandate the parliament now, has a single-party majority. Yet, the question remains, how unfair were Georgia’s elections and why has the rest of Europe been silent on the fraudulent electoral practices? Upon seeing reports from numerous local observation missions, the Georgian Dream’s elections seem marred with violations.
But were the elections rigged?
A comprehensive report issued by the International Republican Institute claims that the selection and recruitment of independent members of the administrative units of the electoral commission were ‘ pre-decided ’ or included individuals who had previously been members of political parties.
Another report by Transparency International Georgia, a local observer mission and civil society group supports this claim. It stated that opposition candidates had even released lists of these pre-selected candidates beforehand and that numerous phone recordings proved the Georgian Dream’s influence in the selection of members of the electoral commission. Moreover, allegations regarding Parliament Ministers participating in campaigns during working hours and intimidation of employees of public education institutes also arose.
During this period, local election observation groups, like the aforementioned, submitted around 250 complaints. However, only one has so far been presented in a criminal court. The rest have been written off or simply not looked into, citing faults in the administrative process of filing the complaints or simply, a lack of evidence.
Multiple observers have also reported issues with inking, surplus ballots in comparison to the number of voters on electoral lists, and intimidation of observers. In comparison to previous elections, violence was also at an all-time high, with observers claiming to have been threatened and denied summary protocols by election commission members as well as skirmishes between party activists as in the case of the city of Marneuli.
Towards the end of election day, around 1560 complaints had been issued ranging from issues regarding voting procedure violations, violations of voter secrecy and election protocol amongst other factors.
Around 80 instances of intimidation and 60 instances of vote-buying were reported overall.
Why has Europe been silent?
Despite the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) report acknowledging a majority of these claims, little action was taken by the European Union (EU) leading up to Melia’s arrest. Most officials made statements which called for ‘greater mediation’ and ‘efforts for de-escalation’.
The reason for the government's flagrant violation of election procedure and the EU’s lukewarm response, perhaps, lies in the fact that the usual OSCE election observation mission was limited in numbers and distribution, due to Covid-19 restrictions. Across the EU, officials seemed to copy and paste the OSCE’s declaration, calling these elections 'competitive’ but not free and fair. It is worth noting that competitive elections simply imply that opposition candidates were able to register and voters were able to cast their ballots. Even after the political instability has ensued, EU member states have not outwardly condemned the use of violence against the opposition or the alleged fraud election results, the victory has remained unquestioned. The EU envoy, Christian Danielsson, was responsible for mediation between the opposition leaders and government officials. However, the negotiations has failed to reach a consensus and solve the political crisis despite a week-long discussion.
How has this impacted public trust?
Upon seeing opinion polls before the elections, many experts concluded that while the Georgian Dream may have more support than the opposition parties, it may not be enough to form a majoritarian mandate. A pluralistic, coalition government was likely and something most citizens would probably prefer as indicated by a poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The poll suggested that around 54% citizens do not believe that their views were represented by either party. While the pandemic may have strengthened public opinion of the incumbent government, which had dropped to 20% after the 2019 protests, Georgian Dream’s pro-Russia stance does not align with majority public views. Hence, these elections could have undermined the incumbent government’s efforts of further consolidating power.
The impact of the falsification is still not fully determined, International Society for Free Elections and Democracy reports claim that the falsifications could impact the final results by around 4%. This percentage can, however, vary. But the question is not of results necessarily but, of public trust.
Various surveys suggest that around 45% of citizens did not have faith in the integrity of election procedures. A recent poll by NDI suggests that around 41% of citizens do not expect the Parliament to address issues that were in the interest of the people.
Georgia’s aspirations to comply with European institutions and to uphold democracy had always been seen as a shining ray of hope in a deeply polarized region, with the West and Russia at constant loggerheads. These elections allow the Georgian Dream, a party which has often been deemed as ‘Pro-Russia ‘ (despite the contrary narrative it tries to promote) to assume a single-party majority. This is a big step back from what was considered to be the success of the Eastern Partnerships. Being surrounded by nations like Azerbaijan and Russia, where rigged elections seem to be the political norm and have easily been institutionalized when the West was not paying attention, crying wolf could save a nation from creeping authoritarianism.
The Russian Foreign Intelligence’s statement on the issue subtly criticizes the United States' and the EU’s mediation, suggesting that their “interference” is undermining the Georgian Dream party and supporting the opposition.
Terrell Jermaine Starr, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council writes in this piece: ‘Nothing would please the Kremlin more than to see an unstable Georgia whose political situation can be easily manipulated.’
At a time when Vladimir Putin faces low public ratings and Alexey Navalny's emergence as an opposition leader, such political instability in a post-Soviet country on a Euro-Atlantic path only helps the Kremlin solidify its anti-West rhetoric, as with Ukraine.
Considering the current situation, Georgia’s democracy is under major threat. Most citizens hope for European integration but elections such as these, violate the spirit of democracy and lead to complete loss of faith in the government, which only increases as political instability ensues. One of the issues in the post-Soviet space remains to be political apathy within the public, which is a product of years of falling levels of trust in the government, immense instability, and little to no action when democratic values are violated. If Europe continues to treat these issues with such a tepid response, these trends will only strengthen and the pursuit for democracy in the region will only weaken.