The European Parliament debated on July 4 in Strasbourg situation in Georgia in the lead up to the October parliamentary elections with much of the focus made on leader of Georgian Dream opposition coalition Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Debates in the European Parliament became a topic of President Saakashvili’s private chat with newly appointed PM Vano Merabishvili, which was made public by Maestro TV. Video footage, which Maestro TV did not say how was obtained, shows Saakashvili approaching Merabishvili, who was standing in front of a TV camera in presidential palace preparing for being interviewed via live link-up by Rustavi 2 TV. Saakashvili is heard telling Merabishvili, using swear words, that those who have pushed debates in the European Parliament in Strasbourg through lobbyists have in fact been crushed after being seriously rebutted during the debates.
Over dozen of MEPs spoke during the debate; five of them were from the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), which has the largest group in the European Parliament. MEPs from EPP group were blunt in their remarks, questioning need for such debate in itself, saying that there was no urgent need for discussing Georgia’s electoral process and the issue appeared on the agenda only because of extensive lobbying efforts from firms hired by Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom some of the MEPs from EPP group alleged was pro-Russian opposition politician – the allegation also voiced by many Georgian ruling party figures. President Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement is an observer member in EPP.
Debate in the European Parliament was initiated by group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). While Saakashvili’s party is allied to EPP, two parties from Ivanishvili-led Georgian Dream coalition – Republican Party and Our Georgia-Free Democrats (OGFD), are allied with ALDE.
Before opening the debates, MEPs heard a statement of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was not present, but the statement was read out on her behalf by Andreas Mavroyiannis, the deputy minister of European affairs of Cyprus, whose country holds EU’s rotating presidency.
The statement read that during President Saakashvili’s visit to Brussels late last month, EU senior officials emphasized to him importance of ensuring “fair political competition.”
“We have noted with concern the perception that the government is trying to hinder participation of opposition leader Ivanishvili, resources are deployed against him and laws on party finance are being applied in one-sided way. We must insist that laws are correctly and transparently applied to leave no possible doubt that due process has been followed,” the statement reads.
“On the other hand there is also a perception that Mr. Ivanishvili is using his… financial asset for electoral gain and this is a legitimate concern. Again we must insist that there is a level playing field for democratic competition and that votes cannot be bought.”
Ashton’s statement says that EU was in particular focusing on the need of equal access to media outlets. “It is well-established that the two main pro-government channels [Rustavi 2 TV and Imedi TV] have enjoyed with wider penetration, than more critical channels,” the statement says, adding that the EU was encouraged by a recent legislative amendments introducing ‘must-carry/must-offer’ rules during the pre-election period.
Debates were opened with remarks by Polish MEP Krzysztof Lisek of EPP group, who last November spearheaded adoption by the European Parliament of a resolution on Georgia, which was much praised in Tbilisi and for which MEP Lisek was awarded by President Saakashvili with St. George’s Victory Order.
MEP Lisek said that the only reason why the European Parliament was debating on Georgia’s electoral process now, about seven months after adopting a resolution which was praising Georgia’s democratic reforms, was because of Ivanishvili’s lobbying efforts. He said that for some months MEPs had been receiving from lobbying firms hired by Ivanishvili in Europe messages that Saakashvili is “a monster”.
“Participation of oligarchs in the politics never has positive consequences,” he said.
Romanian ALDE MEP, Norica Nicolai, responded that the fact that opposition was under leadership of “a wealthy man is not in itself a violation of the law” and the Georgian government “must make sure that elections are held with full accordance of European democratic standards.”
Austrian MEP from the group of Greens, Ulrike Lunacek, said such a debate was needed, because in recent days there had been visits to the European Parliament by representatives from both the opposition and the government conveying opposing views about developments in Georgia.
“I think it is not for us to side with any of the party… What I am concerned about and what our debate should be about is to warn Georgians – both the opposition and the government – that war of words and non-transparent conditions is harming image of Georgia,” she said. “I personally also don’t like oligarchs in politics, but how much money you have should not be criteria of whether you should be elected or not.”
Polish MEP from the group of European Conservatives and Reformists, Tomasz Piotr Poręba mainly echoed remarks by MEP Lisek and said there was nothing to debate on the issue.
Referring to Georgian authorities’ allegations that Ivanishvili was using his brother’s company in distributing satellite dishes to voters, German MEP Elmar Brok of EPP group said that scrutiny of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition was legitimate. He also said that lobbying firms should not be dictating Europe how to define its Neighborhood Policy.
Bulgarian MEP Kristian Vigenin from group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats said that such a debate should not be perceived as mistrust towards any country.
“No one can deny that Georgia has been making a good progress… I ask my colleagues not to exaggerate, but also not to downplay recent developments in Georgia. My impression is that a political war is underway [in Georgia] and the both sides use at full the weapons they possess,” MEP Vigenin said, adding that while government was using administrative and legal resources, the opposition was using Ivanishvili’s financial resources.
“If you listen to explanations of the both sides about situation in Georgia you would think that it’s completely two different countries and this is already a signal [of a] problem,” MEP Vigenin said.
Polish MEP Adam Bielan from the European Conservatives and Reformists group focused in his remarks on Russia’s factor and in this context mentioned Russia’s planned military exercises Kavkaz-2012, which he said was coinciding with elections in Georgia. He also said it was important to make sure that Russia would not interfere in Georgia’s internal affairs, including through “financing opposition groups.”
Lithuanian MEP Vytautas Landsbergis from EPP group said “ongoing intervention of enormous amount of Russian money” was posing threat of destabilization to Georgia, which, he said, aimed at drifting Georgia from its path of European integration back to the Russian influence. He also said that allegations about limitations of freedom in Georgia were originating from “the Kremlin-linked lobbyist propaganda”.
UK Labour MEP Richard Howitt from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group said it was a right decision that the European Parliament was discussing reports of arrests, impounding of assets and restricted access to media ahead of elections in Georgia. He also said that excluding “opposition-leaning television channels” from some of the cable operators was indefensible and added that these questions were put in the spirit of friendship with Georgia. He also said that EPP was about to hold an event in Georgia’s Black Sea resort of Batumi, “which could be interpreted as seeking to help Mr. Saakashvili’s party.”
“Our role should be to promote functioning democracy and we do not do so best when it appears that we are scrutinizing one party in an election in third country to a different standard than any other,” MEP Howitt said.
French MEP Arnaud Danjean from the EPP group said he was surprised that the issue was debated. He said that with the help of his lobbyists “oligarch” Ivanishvili was successful in putting this issue on the European Parliament’s agenda, adding that instead of discussing Russian occupation of parts of Georgia, MEPs were now debating about election process in Georgia.
“Of course we should not give Mr. Saakashvili a blank check, but giving a blank check to that oligarch to pursue his political agenda seems even more dangerous for me,” MEP Danjean said.
Estonian MEP Kristiina Ojuland from ALDE group said that all political forces in Georgia should refrain “from taking political process into the streets.”
British MEP Charles Tannock from group of the European Conservatives and Reformists expressed hope that “there will be a level playing field” for the October elections.
EPP MEP from Estonia Tunne Kelam suggested that Russia was behind Ivanishvili and said “it would be naive” to think that there would be no outside interference in Georgia’s elections in order to try to derail the country from its European path.
Before the debate was closed, Andreas Mavroyiannis, the deputy minister of European affairs of Cyprus, made a closing statement on behalf of the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, saying that “fair competition and genuine participation in the upcoming elections will be fundamental to achieve legitimacy of election results.”
“The EU stresses that politically-motivated persecution, direct or indirect, by law enforcement agencies or use of selective justice against political contenders are not compatible with democratic values.”
The statement also said that the EU was closely monitoring situation in lead up to elections in Georgia and the EU was also looking into possibility to provide additional support to ensure maximum transparency of the process, including through further monitoring of polling, exit polling and support to independent civil society organizations.
Tina Khidasheli of Republican Party from the Georgian Dream coalition told Maestro TV via phone from Strasbourg late on July 4, that the debate was very important and “the only speech, which, I think, was quite inadequate, was the one by MEP Landsbergis.” “All the other speeches [by MEPs] were more or less balanced,” she said.