Georgian NGOs condemn the lack of impartiality of the State Audit Service and accuse it of “irreparable damage to the election environment in Georgia.”

The “This Affects You Too” campaign, a coalition of democracy advocates and civil society activists from across Georgia, have appealed to the international community to pay more attention to the campaign environment in the South Caucasus nation. With the rejection of the appeal made by billionaire leader of the opposition coalition, Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, and Georgian Dream majoritarian candidate, former footballer, Kakha Kaladze, to overturn what they deem unlawful fines, This Affects You Too is turning up its international game plan. This Affects You Too has publicly questioned the impartiality of the State Audit Service (SAS) in Georgia, arguing that the SAS has demonstrated its allegiance to the ruling party as opposed to a free and democratic Georgia. In a statement released this week, the election-monitoring coalition has called the work of the SAS “too subjective” and “aimed at [harassing] opposition parties” – pointing to the particular attention the SAS is paying to the Georgian Dream coalition. The report continues that while the SAS, at first, was at least trying to cloak their activities as objective, at this stage the SAS, according to the This Affects You Too report, does not even bother to feign impartiality. The report cites the fact that despite serious allegations of vote-buying, illegal campaign contributions and the abuse of administrative resources that have surfaced against the ruling party, a disproportionately small amount of cases have been opened, let alone pursued, against the governing United National Movement in comparison with those brought against the opposition.

The statement raises the concern that while the SAS is requiring incredibly detailed information from the opposition, state agencies and the ruling party are refusing to provide information requested by the campaign organisation. In regard to information solicited by the prodemocracy coalition surrounding allegations that the governing party appointed party supporters to government posts, a “gross violation of Georgian Law,” the statement notes that “Tbilisi [City Court] and [Tbilisi City Council have] not provided any information.” The “considerable lack of openness of state agencies, their lack of willingness to provide access to information about public finances is particularly striking in light of the fact that the State Audit Service is demanding unjustifiable and unprecedented transparency from natural persons related to political parties.” Even more concerning is the issue raised by the campaign that the SAS instead of providing evidence substantiating its allegations, is placing the burden of proof on individuals who must provide evidence of their innocence; a precedent the authors rightly point to as “dangerous”. Concluding that the violation of the law by any political party in Georgia is “equally unacceptable” and that offenders should be punished accordingly,

This Affects You Too, laments that the law in Georgia is not being applied equally or impartially, resulting in the infliction of “irreparable damage to the election environment in Georgia.” The campaigners call upon international observers, organisations and foreign missions in Georgia to “make every effort [to improve] the election environment in Georgia and give timely and appropriate assessment to repressive actions of state agencies in this regard.” This sentiment was also repeated by representatives of the Georgian Dream coalition who met with foreign diplomats on Tuesday 14 August in Tbilisi. The opposition representatives considered it imperative that international observers are present in every region and district in the country during the election to avoid fraudulent results. Irakli Alasania, one of the senior leaders of the coalition told the diplomats, “We are thankful to the OSCE and other organisations that have already arrived in Georgia and started monitoring, but this is not enough. We expect that more observers will arrive. There should be monitors in each region, but also representations of [civil society] and our coalition.” Ivanishvili and Kaladze were fined last week by Tbilisi City Court on accusations made by the State Audit Service (SAS) that both businessmen withdrew substantial funds from their personal bank accounts over the past year which may have been used to finance their opposition coalition, the Georgian Dream. The SAS claims that both Ivanishvili and Kaladze transferred the money to other individuals who then donated it back to the Georgian Dream coalition.

The Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), a legal watchdog group based in Tbilisi, argues that the fines are bogus. Georgian legislation neither prohibits one to withdraw money from one’s own account nor obliges an individual to report the purpose of the withdrawal to the authorities. Ivanishvili has been fined the equivalent of more than USD 12 million and Kaladze has been fined for approximately USD 10 million. Both politicians have stated they will appeal the decisions to the European Court of Human Rights. Ivanishvili launched formal arbitration proceedings against the Georgian government on Wednesday 15 August through the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, a World Bank tribunal, over what he claims has been the Georgian government’s “blatant political attack [against his business and himself] coordinated across all arms of the Georgian state” following his decision to enter politics in October of last year. Pointing to customers of Cartu Bank being coerced into closing their accounts, resulting in a loss of about USD 27 million in October 2011, and the “unjustified” and “unlawful” fines imposed on Cartu Bank, of USD 500,000 and on Ivanishvili of USD 44.8 million, Ivanishvili claims these actions are a result of “Georgia’s efforts to prevent him from exercising his rights as an opposition candidate to President Saakashvili.” As a French citizen, Ivanishvili’s lawyers are claiming that Georgia violated the 1997 bilateral investment treaty with France.

Most recently, the GYLA has called upon the SAS to revoke a new decree on political advertisements, saying that the SAS is again overstepping its legal responsibilities. The new decree would require parties to pay media outlets a week in advance for advertisements and oblige media providers to inform the SAS of the transaction. GYLA states that media broadcasters are already regulated during the election period by the Election Code and the Georgian National Communications Commission. This new decree would place undue burden on media providers, states GYLA.

Report prepared by Karina Gould with additional files from the Georgian media.