On May 30 Mikhail Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) won a decisive victory in Georgia's first elections since the August war with Russia. Governments around the world have congratulated President Saakashvili on his party's success. An OSCE report described the local elections as having shown "evident progress towards meeting OSCE and Council of Europe commitments." Nevertheless, it acknowledged "significant shortcomings," including "an uneven playing field, and isolated cases of election-day fraud." Such a conclusion, unfortunately, underplays the circumstances in which the elections took place.
Having participated in the monitoring of the elections with the Tbilisi-based Human Rights Center, I had the opportunity to witness at firsthand the conditions in which the elections were held. What I saw was far from laudable. As the mobile group toured polling stations in Georgia's Kakheti region, including several Azeri-populated villages around Telavi and Gurjaani, it soon became clear that both procedural violations and deliberate fraud were the rule, not the exception.
Few stations outside city centers used the UV ink to mark voters (in order to prevent merry-go-round fraud). Arriving in one of them we even saw committee members inside polling booths telling the voters to circle the number 5 - the number of the UNM candidate. One of the government observers later explained that many of the voters did not know Georgian, were illiterate, or could not even read numbers. He expressed the view that, instead of observers filing complaints, electoral committees should receive proper training on how to deal with difficult cases. Ironically, while he was making these clarifications, we saw a man nonchalantly carrying a movable ballot box out of the station. When challenged about this, the man guilelessly explained that "it was taking up space in the station, so I was going to put it in a car."
Not all the violations, however, were of such "benign" nature. Observers were intimidated, complaints were refused, and the checking of voters stopped as soon as observers left the scene, or looked elsewhere. Liis Tipp, an Academy for Peace and Development observer, told me that "at one of the stations, where we filed several complaints about not using the ink, they continued to ignore us. When we went to check the people ourselves we found six of them had ink stained thumbs. At a different station we turned away from the ballot box; when we looked back we saw a man with ten or twenty votes, stuffing them in the box. Also, a lot of people registered as being abroad were signed in by the end of the day."
Nor were these the only problems. Minors and people with photocopied ID cards were allowed to vote. At one station a distressed opposition observer asked us to stay, fearing massive fraud. We soon saw cars full of people pull up, only to leave in disgust after discovering that we were minutely checking for UV ink stains. Later that day, however, people who had previously been sent off returned with their thumbs clean - a solution erasing the ink stains had been found. One of them voted at least three times at that station. Nothing could be done.
Nor were deliberate attempts to falsify the results left to local initiative. A reporter from the pro-government broadcaster Rustavi-2 came and asked a local chairman to read a message claiming that the voting process had been carried out without any incidents. The number of shady observers was also a problem. When one was asked which organization she came from, she looked at her card and replied, "ehh... the Sportsmen’s Party." Another Human Rights Center observer later told me that she had asked the same question to three other observers. "We don't know," they replied. The observer pressed on, asking who gave them the cards. Finally the "observers" acknowledged that they had picked them up at the local government office.
Such crude tactics were mainly limited to rural areas, such as those I toured. But other parts of the country were also affected. Monitors from the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, who observed the voting procedures in Kutaisi and Tbilisi, also reported a number of serious violations. According to their report these included "observers not [being] allowed in the polling stations, the pressurising and intimidation of observers, voting with ID cards belonging to other people, inflated numbers of voters in the supplementary list and more cast ballot papers than the number of signatures in the voters list." There were also instances of government observers jotting down the names of those who came to vote.
Nonetheless, they conceded that these were not widespread, and that the elections could be considered as valid. International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) observers assessed the situation as good or very good at a whooping 96 percent of stations countrywide, with those in Kakheti, Samtskhe-Javakheti and Shida Kartli trailing at 90. Yet the fact remains that the international observers we met stayed in easily accessible areas, and in one case failed to notice the fact that voters were not checked for ink stains. This raises doubts about the validity of their assessment.
Moreover, the elections cannot viewed in isolation of governmental actions in recent years. During this period, the Saakashvili regime has played up nationalist rhetoric and insecurity in order to boost support. An incidence of this was the recent hoax report, aired by Imedi TV, announcing the president's death, a military mutiny, and a Russian invasion. Even more worrying was the so-called Khurcha incident, during which Abkhaz separatists allegedly injured three Georgians traveling in buses to polling stations near the border of the breakaway republic. A Norwegian Helsinki Committee report raised doubts about the official version. These were confirmed by subsequent independent investigations, which found that the shots had come from the Georgian side of the border. They blamed Georgian Security Services, claiming that the event, which took place during the parliamentary elections of 2008, was used to cover up fraud in other parts of the country.
There is no doubting the public support that President Saakashvili commands. Nor is it undeserved. He has reformed and modernized the country. An honest and relatively efficient police force patrols the streets in a fleet of modern cars. Red-tape has been slashed and business was booming until the dual shock of the global crisis and war with Russia. Low- and mid-level administration is now largely free of corruption. Yet the authoritarian inclinations of the president have taken their toll, particularly on the civil society which had been so important in the wake of the Rose Revolution. I asked a representative of the Liberty Institute, highly active during the Shevardnadze-era but now torpid and connected to the government, about his take on the OSCE report. He had no reason to disagree with it – the Liberty Institute did not monitor the elections. Asked if the institute, which had previously proposed various electoral reforms aimed at improving democratic credentials, was interested in the elections at all, he replied: "not much."
Letting Saakashvili's UNM off with no more than a slap on the wrist is short-sighted. If government representatives condone or facilitate electoral violations when they have the support of the population, one can only wonder what will happen when they do not. Georgia has yet to experience a democratic transition of power. With the incumbent government already betraying authoritarian tendencies, conceding the validity of such an election is setting the groundwork for a future revolution aimed at ousting Saakashvili. Such a turn of events would be likely to doom the idea of colored revolutions, already tarnished by Yushchenko's ineptitude and Bakiyev's downfall following recent events in Kyrgyzstan. Thus, holding the Saakashvili regime accountable is important, not just for Georgia, but for the post-Soviet space in general.
The poor result of the Georgian opposition is largely due to its lack of unity. Opposition parties admitted this, and recognized the UNM victory. However, on June 2, Irakli Alasania, leader of the main opposition grouping Alliance for Georgia, admitted that the violations had been greater than first reported, and vowed to begin a legal battle bringing nearly 200 cases to courts. He was seconded by Nino Burjanadze, leader of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia (which refused to take part in the elections), who stated that the elections were a step towards authoritarianism. A repeat of the social protests of 2007 is unlikely, however, as the economic crisis and repeated failures have dampened the protester's spirits.
Georgia's opposition may be in the doldrums. Yet it is dangerous to assume that electoral fraud is unacceptable only when it is directly responsible for the failure of the opposition. Such practices only serve to entrench bad habits, and guarantee worse problems to come. The Georgian government certainly deserves to be congratulated for all its accomplishments, but glossing over its current problems is counterproductive. According to the old maxim, true friends should be honest with you, even when you do not want them to be. It seems that, at the moment, Georgia is lacking in such friends.
Jakub Parusinski is the editor of The Day, the Ukrainian English-language sister publication of Den'. He also works as an associate expert at the International Center for Policy Studies in Kyiv.