Short overview of pre-election processes
Georgia’s next presidential election will take place on 27 October. Holding it in a peaceful and competitive manner will depend on whether candidates will be able to campaign freely and whether the electorate is able to freely express its will through the ballot. Here we present a short description of incidents that have occurred in different regions throughout Georgia, which directly or indirectly affect the pre-election climate of the country. Our organization has been reporting on some of the facts before, and the observation of the process has revealed several possible illegalities. We have requested that the Central Election Commission react upon them.
1. Episodes involving possible violations of the election law
On 11 September, a pre-election campaign meeting of the United National Movement’s (UNM) candidate – David Bakradze – took place in Zugdidi. Members and supporters of the party attended the meeting. Simultaneously, representatives of Defend Georgia held a rally against the UNM.
Unlike the primaries on 20 July, no violence from the side of groups critical of the UNM was reported on 11 September. However, representatives of Transparency International Georgia observed that the 11 September campaign meeting was attended by staff from the Zugdidi Local City Council, including by Temur Basilaia, head of staff of the Council, Bartlome Shelia, head of Material and Technical Supply Division of the Council, Levan Makatsaria, head of Social Affairs Division of the Council, and Anna Tsitlidze, chief specialist at Legal Affairs Division of the Council. The simultaneous anti-UNM rally, led by Kakha Mikaia, a member of “Defend Georgia”, was attended by Edem Kekutia, head of municipality of the village of Chkhori in the Zugdidi region, and Nukri Jichonaia, chief specialist at the Zugdidi City Municipality. These individuals are civil servants of the local municipal bodies. Therefore, the Election Code bans them from conducting or participating in pre-election campaigns during business hours (Article 45(4)(h) of the Election Code). Due to the fact that the rally was taking place during business hours (it started at 16.00 o’clock), the civil servants violated the Election Code, which entails a fine of 2,000 GEL. We call on the Central Election Commission to take the necessary steps.
On 7 September, teachers of public schools met with Giorgi Margvelashvili, the “Georgian Dream’s” presidential candidate, in Kaspi. According to information provided (in Georgian) by the Shida Kartli Information Center, mobilization of the supporters occurred in an organized manner and was supervised by heads of municipalities in Khandaki, Akhalkalaki, Akhaltsikhe, Khovle and other municipalities. The head of the municipality of Khandaki told (in Georgian) a journalist that he had ensured the transportation of 120 people. Heads of local municipalities are civil servants of local self-governing bodies. Not only they are banned from pre-election campaigning during business hours, there is a reasonable doubt that they have used state financial and administrative resources in favor of a specific political subject. This is a violation of Article 48(1)(c) of the Election Code and entails a fine of 2,000 GEL.
The possibly illegal participation of civil servants in pre-election campaigning was reported in Chokhatauri on 13 September. According to Guria News (in Georgian), a campaign meeting with Giorgi Margvelashvili was attended by Gocha Persashvili, head of the Guria Military Police Department, Guram Asatiani, his deputy, Akaki Maisuradze, head of the Chokhatauri Police Department and Zaza Dolidze, his deputy. The attendance of this personnel of the Ministry of Internal Affairs at the pre-election meeting can be perceived as participation in pre-election campaigning. This is a violation of Article 45(4)(c) of the Election Code and entails a fine of 2,000 GEL.
We requested that the Central Election Commission study these incidents and take the necessary steps.
2. Other episodes in the regions
On 25 August, the head of the Local Council of Bolnisi Malkhaz Eradze, was dismissed. As a result, there are consistent protest rallies in front of the building of the municipal body. Eradze and his supporters state that a seizure of power has taken place in the Bolnisi region. Members of the Local Council made the decision to dismiss Eradze at an extraordinary session. According to them, he was unable to properly perform his duties. Eradze told our representative that his dismissal, which was decided by 13 members of the Council at an extraordinary session, was illegal and that the minutes of the meeting were fabricated. He also stated that the members of the Council have been summoned and intimidated in the departments of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Marneuli and Bolnisi during the month prior to his impeachment. “They have managed to intimidate three Azerbaijani members of the Council. As for me, I was put under duress – they were interrogating me for 8 hours and were demanding that I hand over the seal of the Council. As I refused, they manufactured another seal in some factory.”
“Also, a search of Eradze’s office and house was carried out with violations. An authorized person was not present at the search and no court’s warrant was presented,” – stated Soso Khakhutashvili, Eradze’s lawyer.
On 12 September, the Minister of Justice Tea Tsulukiani and members of the Inter-agency Task Force visited (in Georgian) Bolnisi to study the matter. This is definitely a positive fact. Tsulukiani met with members of the Local Council in a private meeting. She stated that she does not have the right to interfere with the business of the municipal body, but hopes that the members of the Council will be able to work as a team after the meeting with her. According to locals, the conflict is not over and the situation remains tense. Therefore, the matter should be kept on the agenda of the Inter-agency Task Force until it is finally resolved. The police should take relevant steps in regard to the alleged fact of duress.
On 22 August, the Information Center of Kakheti reported (in Georgian) that members of the Local Council of Akhmeta were put under duress. The Council members were summoned to the bureau of Zurab Zviadauri, majoritarian MP, and were coerced to add the matter of dismissal of Zakaria Kinkladze, head of the Council, to the 23 August Council session’s agenda. The Information Center of Kakheti also published an interview with a member of the Council (s/he requested anonymity) where s/he confirmed that Zurab Zviadauri, majoritarian MP, Beka Baidauri, incumbent head of the municipality, and Gogita Garibashvili, deputy head of the Kakheti Police Department, were coercing him/her to sign a petition for the dismissal of the head of the Council. Otherwise, s/he was threatened that “we will find drugs on you and arrest you”.
On the same day, members submitted a petition to the Council for the dismissal of its chairman. It was signed by 12 Council members. A bureau session had to decide whether to add the matter of dismissal to the 23 August Council session’s agenda. Only 7 members of the Council were present at the bureau session, and only two supported initiating the impeachment of the chairman. The following day, on 23 August, members re-submitted the petition to the Council for the dismissal of its chairman. This time, the groundless petition was signed by those members who had rejected it at the bureau session a day before. According to the Information Center of Kakheti, the majoritarian MP of Akhmeta, Zurab Zviaduri, coerced the Council members into re-submitting the petition for impeachment. The interviewee of the Information Center of Kakheti who attended this meeting stated (in Georgian) that the majoritarian MP and the incumbent head of the municipality threatened them with the police and the prosecutor’s office, declaring that “the matter of dismissing the Council chairman is consented by the Prime Minister. Therefore, there is no point in resistance.”
On 2 September, at an extraordinary session (in Georgian) of the Council, 16 out of 19 attending members supported the dismissal of Kinkladze. At the same session, Davit Imerlishvili, former member of the United National Movement, was elected as the new chairman of the Council.
This episode was discussed (in Georgian) at the Inter-Agency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections (IATF). As a result, the IATF issued the following recommendation for local self-governing bodies: to refrain from significant changes in staffing, including from dismissing chairpersons (head of municipality or Council), also through impeachment. This is to avoid the perception of politically motivated dismissals and attempting to have influence over election results. The said recommendation may have possibly strong preventive effect, however, we think that it is necessary that the law enforcement agencies adequately react upon the alleged fact of duress.
On 6 September, the Anticorruption Agency of the Ministry of Internal Affairs arrested Boris Mikava, deputy head of the Local Council of Martvili, for alleged bribery. He is charged with taking 5,000 GEL as a bribe for the sale of 2,500 sq/m of state-owned land by means of abuse of authority and protectionism. We have talked with Zaal Gorozia, head of the Local Council, and Guram Tsotsoria, head of the Administration of the Council. The head of the Council explicitly stated that members of the Council are put under direct duress. According to him, members of his staff and the Commissions of Infrastructure or Social Affairs have been summoned to the Financial Police or Prosecutor’s Office multiple times over the last months, where they are investigating activities from 2006 up until today. “They are searching for something. They say what is happening in Martvili is probably not happening in any other municipality.” As with the criminal charge itself, Gorozia evaluates it as groundless, citing the land was not state-owned but private property. He stated that acquaintances approached Boris Mikava wishing to purchase the land, and that Mikava assisted them and introduced the private owner of the land to them. He emphasized that no deal has been made to the detriment of the state. The law enforcement agencies must make a public statement clarifying said episode.
On 29 August, the “United National Movement” reported (in Georgian) that three coordinators of the party were summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office in Poti. This was perceived by them as attempted intimidation.
We verified this fact. Namely, we contacted Lela Jolokhava, one of the interrogated party activists. According to her, they were summoned as witnesses for the case related to alleged irregularities in the activities under the state program on employment. Jolokhava recalled that no duress was put by the Prosecutor’s Office and that they treated her in a polite manner. She only regretted that she was given only three hours to arrive at the District Prosecutor’s Office situated in Zugdidi. Lela Jolokhava is presently employed at the Service of Healthcare and IDP Affairs in the Poti Mayor’s Office.
Said issue was discussed by the Inter-Agency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections. There, a representative of the Prosecutor’s Office explained that the summoning of said individuals was required by the fact that the deadline for the investigation was marked for the beginning of September. Thus, it was necessary to interrogate witnesses.
Due to the exigency of the problem, the Task Force reminded (in Georgian) the Prosecutor’s Office of the recommendation given during the 2013 primary elections. According to this recommendation, it is advisable to refrain from interrogations for investigative purposes up till the election day, except for when there is a high societal interest in a case or if a procedural deadline may be missed.
Due to the fact that individuals describe facts of duress by law enforcement agencies in the listed episodes, we call on the Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia to study these incidents and, if required, to start an investigation.