A US Government delegation led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia was refreshingly candid in its comments whilst on a pre-election visit to Georgia, sending clear and unambiguous messages. Karina Gould discusses the visit and wonders if the west’s approach of dangling the carrot of future Euro-Atlantic integration will be enough to secure a good election for the Georgian people.
There is one thing that appears to be clear to all foreign interlocutors of the Georgian elections: the pre-election environment is decidedly tense. Before the date was even set, both sides were ramping up rhetoric and actions, notably the legal actions taken by the authorities against the opposition leadership and supporters. One Georgian reporter gloomily noted recently that, “since regaining independence some 20 years ago there has been no peaceful change of government in Georgia, only a coup d’etat and a revolution: winning or losing everything seems to be a rule for Georgian politics.”
Yet, the West remains – against all odds – optimistic about this election’s democratic potential. Europe and the US retain hope for “free and fair elections”. They think they hold a trump card for Georgians of all political stripes: the coveted memberships to NAT O and the European Union. These elections, representatives of the West remind all Georgian political stakeholders, will be the test for Georgia’s future prospects of joining the West’s camp. Western leaders appear hopeful that holding out the carrot of membership to NAT O and the European Union will encourage Georgian politicians to play by the rules of the game.
At least this appears to have been the tactic rolled out by the recent visit of the American inter-agency delegation to Tbilisi last week from 10-12 of September. “The upcoming elections are critical to helping Georgia advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, Thomas O. Melia, who led the pre-election mission. “Domestic and international perceptions of fairness of the campaign environment, including adherence to the rule of law, media access, transparency and fair play in adjudication of disputes will be important indicators of Georgia’s democratic development,” he said.
Melia made it clear that the United States is committed to working with the government chosen by the Georgian people, and that the United States does not favour any party, coalition, or political movement. It does, however, favour a democratic election, maintaining that the people’s choice is also America’s choice in October. The Deputy Assistant Secretary of State assured all electoral stakeholders that the message the delegation brought with them to Georgia was repeated in each of their meetings both with government and opposition leaders as well as with representatives of civil society and the media. That is, as Melia put it, that “the long-term work of building a vibrant democracy is not over on Election Day.”
The US representative stressed that to build and sustain a democratic society the following essential principles are necessary both during and beyond the elections process: an equal playing field for all political actors, rule of law and due process, respect for fundamental freedoms, access to diverse media sources and constructive engagement. Melia conceded that though there have been “a variety of shortcomings in recent months, it is clear that there is a competitive campaign under way.” The American official urged the authorities to ensure that “campaign and election laws are applied equally and transparently, and that all participants are held to the same high standards of conduct as spelled out in Georgian law.” He called on political parties to “participate constructively, follow the law scrupulously, and to pursue their political goals at the ballot box.”
Respect for peaceful protests, added Melia, was a “hallmark of democratic society.” “We have heard from all the political parties we have met that they have been able to travel the country, hold rallies, and get their messages out to the voters. In those conversations, we also urged that all parties should renounce violence and avoid provocations,” he said. With regards to access to media, the U.S. Official welcomed the “must offer, must carry” legislation and stated that the U.S. “strongly support[s] its extension through the post-election complaints process and beyond.”
A statement, representatives of the Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association (GYLA) had hoped the U.S. representative would make during his press conference, noting the weight these words would have coming from an international perspective. “Efforts to promote wider access to a diversity of opinions and media outlets would reflect fundamental values democracies share,” stated Melia. During their visit the delegation met first with members of the opposition on Monday, including Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition, and with Giorgi Targamadze, leader of the Christian- Democratic Movement.
Having discussed the difficulties of a modern campaign and the expectations they have for the elections, Targamadze said he is sure that the visits from the U.S. government officials will have a “positive influence” towards ensuring a fair campaign, explaining that the American delegation was highly versed in Georgia’s political system and the challenges it faces. Ivanishvili also commended the Americans for their interest and knowledge in Georgian political affairs. The opposition leader felt that this visit demonstrates the interest that U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have in Georgia and their hopes for a democratic election process. Ivanishvili promised the delegation that his coalition would do everything they can to ensure peaceful and democratic elections in Georgia. The U.S. inter-agency delegation also met with Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, Minister of the Interior Bacho Akhalia, the Director of the State Audit Service Lasha Torfia, the Chairperson of the Central Election Commission Zurab Kharatishvili as well as with civil society and media representatives.
All the advice from the U.S. delegation seems remarkably simple: just don’t break the rules and let everyone vote for who they want to vote for. Yet we know that this simple act can be an exceedingly difficult thing to achieve in reality. Georgian leaders know what democracy is and what it takes to become a true democracy, the question remains as to whether they are willing to take the risk and allow for the people’s choice to run its course. Is the carrot of the West a big enough incentive?
Report prepared by Karina Gould for CEW with additional reporting from the Georgian media