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After Outcry, Party May Face Ban for Pledging in TV Ad Russian Military Bases in Georgia
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 14 Aug.'16 / 23:48

Georgian Public Broadcaster became embroiled in scandal after its First Channel aired an election campaign ad of a political party, Centrists, in which it promises “Russian pensions” and “legalization” of Russian military bases in Georgia – a pledge over which the party is expected to face a legal action at the Constitutional Court, which, if successful, will ban it from running in elections.

The campaign ad sparked public outcry, mostly through social media, directed also against the public broadcaster, which was slammed for giving free airtime to the campaign ad of a party openly calling for “legalizing” Russian military bases in Georgia.

The widespread outrage forced the broadcaster, which is funded from the state budget, to stop running the highly controversial ad.

The Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) cited Georgia’s election code, which obliges the public broadcaster to allocate free airtime for campaign ads to political parties in pre-election period, behind its initial decision to run the Centrists’ ad.

GPB, however, also said in a written statement on August 14: “Being an accountable before the public, GPB’s management and staff have jointly decided to suspend airing Centrists’ campaign ad, because the broadcaster sees the threat that its content carries messages against the state sovereignty and it may be in contravention of the Constitution.”
 
The party, Centrists, is led by Temur Khachishvili and Lado Bedukadze.

Temur Khachishvili was Georgia’s interior minister in 1992-1993. He was also one of the leading figures in notorious Mkhedrioni paramilitary group, disbanded in 1995 after an attack against then Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze. Khachishvili was convicted in 1995 for organizing this terrorist act; he was released from jail in July, 2002 after then President Shevardnadze pardoned him.

Several months after he was pardoned, Khachishvili launched a pro-Russian political party, Datvi (Bear), which failed to gain any significant role in country’s political scene. Several months after the change of government as a result of the Rose Revolution, Khachishvili was detained briefly in spring 2004 on charges related to illegal arms possession after which he left for Russia.

Khachishvili’s name resurfaced in 2011 when members of an alleged armed group were detained amid anti-government street protest rallies in Tbilisi; the Interior Ministry claimed at the time that the group was acting upon Khachishvili’s instructions. Khachishvili returned from Russia back to Georgia in late 2012, after the Georgian Dream coalition came into government.

Another leader of the Centrists party is Lado Bedukadze, a former prison officer who in 2013 was standing trial into the case of prison abuse scandal, which broke out couple of weeks before the October 2012 parliamentary elections after videos of inmates’ torture emerged. But unlike other co-defendants in the same trial, Bedukadze, who filmed some those of videos, managed to escape conviction after then Chief Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili’s much-criticized decision to release him from criminal liability.

In the 10-second campaign ad, which was first aired by GPB on the evening of August 13, Khachishvili and Bedukadze’s voiceover tell viewers: “Russian pension of GEL 400 to every pensioner. Adoption of law on dual citizenship. We will legalize Russian military bases. We will defend Georgia.”

The ad features images of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin; Russian and Georgian passports, and Russian battle tanks, carrying Russian flags.

Condemning the ad as directed against the Georgian statehood, UNM opposition party accused the authorities and ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili of backing pro-Russian forces in Georgia.

“The government and personally Bidzina Ivanishvili bear the responsibility for this. As a result of their full support people, who reject Georgia’s sovereignty, have turned into political leaders,” said Helen Khoshtaria, who is one of UNM’s leading MP candidates in the upcoming elections.
 
After the public outcry over the Centrists’ campaign ad, the ruling GDDG party announced on Sunday about intention to file a complaint with the Constitutional Court to seek annulment of registration of Centrists party, which would bar it from running in the October 8 parliamentary elections. It said that the Centrists’ ad is “against the state” and “anti-constitutional.”

“Therefore our party is preparing a constitutional lawsuit, which would seek from the Constitutional Court to suspend registration of this party in order not to allow it continue such anti-constitutional actions,” Sophio Kiladze, GDDG’s MP candidate, said.
 
Before the ruling party, it was the Republican Party, GDDG’s former partner in coalition government, which called for a constitutional lawsuit to ban the Centrists party. MP Tamar Kordzaia of the Republican Party cited a clause of the Constitution, which bans activity of a political group aiming at infringing on Georgia’s independence.

PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who is chairman of the GDDG ruling party, released a written statement on Sunday evening condemning Centrists’ campaign ad for “containing messages directed against the state.”

He welcomed public broadcasters’ decision to stop running the ad “directed against the statehood and sovereignty” and also said: “the government has spared no effort in recent years to ensure media independence, but independence does not mean irresponsibility…. We all need to be particularly vigilant during the pre-election period given the increased anti-state propaganda. The government will continue using all available legitimate and democratic means to prevent such propaganda, and it welcomes all relevant initiatives from non-governmental and political actors.”

Centrists had already been challenged in court even before the controversy about its TV campaign ad.

International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Georgian election monitoring group, filed a lawsuit against the party, claiming that Centrists’ pledge to secure Russian-funded age pension of GEL 400 per month amounts to vote-buying.

ISFED sought annulment of Centrists’ registration.

But judge of the Tbilisi City Court, Davit Tsereteli, ruled on August 13 that Centrists pledge represented not a vote-buying but party’s vision about how it’s planning to reform a pension system if it comes into power as a result of elections.

“Pension is social security mechanism of the state, which implies that forms of the pension can only be defined by the state... Its [pension system’s] provision, transformation, etc. is a competence of a political party, which comes into government after winning in elections,” the judge said in its ruling.

ISFED plans to take the ruling to the Court of Appeals.

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