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Georgia is not for sale

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On 1 October Georgians go to the polls to choose between their president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and Bidzina Ivanishvili, an oligarch. Feelings are running high among the voters, with compromise not an option for most. There is such a range of opinions about the political situation in Georgia that it could be regarded as a very difficult choice. But the European People’s Party is solidly behind Saakashvili, says its president Wilfried Martens (photo: RIA Novosti Agency).

Wilfried Martens
28 September 2012

Russian oligarchs, armed with their immense wealth of rather shady provenance, are constantly pushing back the limits of decency. One oligarch has found nothing more original to do than to buy a country. This is the ambition of the world’s 153rd wealthiest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili. To appropriate Georgia for himself. And he has the means, notably because of his financial power, which is superior to the annual budget of the Caucasian republic.

European debate

Shortly before the summer recess, the European Parliament decided to organise what is called an emergency debate about the situation in Georgia. I questioned its relevance as I could not see what emergency, beyond the express request of the Liberal group within Parliament, could render it necessary. I voiced my concern also because I understood the political motives underlying such a request. I had denounced the extraordinary sums spent by Bidzina Ivanishvili to hire the services of the world’s largest communication firms and to secure the support of foundations and think tanks with the aim of artificially fashioning an image, in Europe and the United States, of president Saakashvili as a neo-dictator and of the oligarch as the saviour of the Georgian nation.

‘People close to Bidzina Ivanishvili and to his party have offered large sums of money to those police officers prepared to make false declarations or to film acts of violence within their police stations…’

The discussion in the European Parliament was clear. All the participants, but for a few exceptions and nuances, condemned the actions of Bidzina Ivanishvili and of his lobbyists and underlined the danger he represented for the young Georgian democracy, while praising the reforms undertaken by president Saakashvili. Nobody intends to allow Ivanishvili to buy the parliamentary elections of October 1. Yet one question remains. If nobody expects communication professionals and lobbyists to be overly virtuous, how can one explain the support sometimes demonstrated by the European Liberal Democrat (ELDR) in their advertisements, or by other respectable European organisations?

The scandal

A few days before the elections, a dismal scandal has once more turned the spotlight on Georgia. Revelations of inhuman and degrading treatment in its prisons have provoked an outpouring of emotion that goes beyond Georgia’s borders and have dealt a forceful blow to the country’s leaders, who had made justice and transparency the foundation of their reforms. I share this emotion and condemn these criminal acts. Unfortunately no civilised society, no democracy can be completely safe from such mistakes. I take note, however, of the political maturity shown by President Saakashvili and his government when they quickly took the appropriate political decisions: two ministers, and not the least important, were made to resign, the necessary investigations were launched and the groundwork laid for a far-reaching reform of the penitentiary system.

But this episode also raised a number of troubling issues on which light deserves to be shed. The videos, some of which were filmed more than a year and a half ago, were meant to be broadcast on B. Ivanishvili’s television channels a few days prior to the parliamentary elections; only their interception and the publication of one of them by the police precipitated the beginning of the intended scandal. How can one choose not to see in this way of doing things a clear will to create a climate of defiance and of tension on the day of the elections?

People close to Bidzina Ivanishvili and to his party have offered large sums of money to those police officers prepared to make false declarations or to film acts of violence within their police stations, even going so far as to contest the results of the investigation recently published by the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs, and to encourage them to organise such violence if it did not exist ‘naturally.’ A coincidence, or proof of a strategy aimed at multiplying disturbances and spreading chaos?

Georgian Dream

Whatever the European supporters of the ‘Georgian Dream’ coalition may think, democracy is indeed in danger in Georgia. But this danger comes from an oligarch who, at the head of a hodgepodge coalition that brings together anyone who opposes President Saakashvili including nationalist extremists, xenophobes and homophobes, has only one ambition: to buy Georgia for himself.

‘The worst-case scenario for Georgia would be a post-election upheaval re-igniting the imperialist appetite of their large Russian neighbour and President Putin.’

I would advise the Brussels-based friends of the leader of the ‘Georgian Dream’ to take heed of his real intentions so that his dream does not become their nightmare. I can only dare to hope that they will be able to make him accept the rules of the democratic game as well as the results of the elections. The European observers on the ground will, in this respect, have a capital role to play and the European People’s Party will only recognize the opinions of the official missions of the European Parliament, OSCE, and the Council of Europe.

The worst-case scenario for Georgia would be a post-election upheaval re-igniting the imperialist appetite of their large Russian neighbour and President Putin. I have always wondered what motivates this appetite. Is it the Georgian people’s exceptional kindness? Or the surprising beauty of the country’s landscape? Or perhaps it is, which seems more obvious, the energy corridor that is Georgia, beyond the control of Russian interests!

A remarkable people

I personally believe there is an even more fundamental explanation. Contrary to what President Putin imagines, Georgia is not a PR operation mounted by the West against Russia. It is quite simply the ‘success story’ of a remarkable people, who have fought to gain their freedom, independence, sovereignty and dignity. President Putin knows, and cannot accept - perhaps because he cannot understand it - that this success will spread, in the region at first, and then in the very heart of the authoritarian Russian system.

‘Georgia is not a PR operation mounted by the West against Russia. It is quite simply the ‘success story’ of a remarkable people, who have fought to gain their freedom, independence, sovereignty and dignity.’

This success is ours too, because it is founded on the very values that underpinned the European rebirth after the Second World War. Europe can be proud of this success. We must defend it and preserve it. The Georgian people must know that they are no longer alone. For us in the European People’s Party, their freedom carries a very high price.

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