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U.S. Congressional Panel Hearing on Georgia
/ 9 Feb.'08 / 15:52
Civil Georgia

Some opposition demands “make a lot of sense” and it is crucial that the authorities continue to take them seriously, Mathew Bryza, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, has said.

He was speaking at a hearing of the congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on February 6. The Georgian ambassador in Washington, Davit Sikharulidze, and the leader of Georgia’s Way party, Salome Zourabichvili, also testified at the commission hearing, entitled Georgia in 2008: Elections or Street Protests? Zourabichvili, a former Georgian foreign minister, represented the nine-party opposition coalition.

The hearing was held two days before the nine-party opposition coalition announced on February 8 it was suspending talks with the authorities, claiming that the ruling party had shown no willingness to take concrete steps to meet opposition demands outlined in a joint 17-point memorandum on January 29.

In his testimony, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State outlined issues in need of redress if free and fair parliamentary elections are to be secured this spring.

“Some of the demands make a lot of sense and have been out there for quite some time,” he said. “One would be to increase the political balance on the election commissions, the Central Election Commission and all the election commissions throughout the country, so that the opposition has a stronger voice.”

He stressed the need for the election administration to respond to serious complaints. “We hope that, if and when there are significant complaints, that the central election commission finds a way to satisfy more clearly those people who issued their complaints,” Bryza said. Election watchdog groups and the opposition have complained that most of their complaints relating to the January 5 presidential election were unfairly and arbitrarily dismissed by the election administrations on procedural grounds.

In her testimony, Zourabichvili said the opposition wanted parity in the election commissions, with the Central Election Commission (CEC) chairman “completely independent and acceptable to both sides.”

“If we cannot agree, it could be somebody from a foreign country, a friendly country that would accept to be that independent person.  But it's clear that we need to have as the head of the central electoral commission somebody that is trusted by the whole Georgian population,” she said.

Bryza also described an opposition demand for a balanced board of trustees of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) as “reasonable.” Other demands making “a lot of sense”, according to Bryza, include the abolition of the first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system for electing majoritarian lawmakers and the reduction of the election threshold from the current 7% to 5%. The latter, however, was not listed in the opposition’s 17-point memorandum.

Zourabichvili responded that these two demands were not “the opposition’s major requests.”

“The concessions have to be real concessions, not the 5% barrier that for a long time has not been one of the requests of the opposition, especially if that opposition is going to go as a bloc, and not the winner-takes-all, which is a request of the opposition, but is not a major request, because today that system turns to the disadvantage of the old majority [ruling party],” Zourabichvili said. “What we really need is serious concessions on the three major points – the electoral administration, the media and [ceasing] political intimidation [of opponents].”

Echoing President Saakashvili's recent remarks, the U.S. diplomat said that “we don't necessarily agree with [some opposition demands], when they focus backward.” He was referring to demands for a re-count of votes cast in the January 5 presidential election, which the opposition says was rigged.

“We'll be adjudicating the legitimacy of President Saakashvili's election.  The election's over.  He won. And he was inaugurated,” Bryza said. “And so it's time to move forward and strengthen Georgian democracy.”

He, however, also said: “The situation is not perfect in Georgia – far from it.  And this [presidential] election was not an example or a model to be followed elsewhere in the world.”

The U.S. diplomat also pointed out that it would be “unwise” if the opposition boycotted the upcoming parliamentary elections. Some opposition parties, including the New Rights Party, have indicated that they would run only if free and fair conditions are secured.

“We anticipate, we hope that the opposition will score a significant number of votes or would be successful, at least, in convincing the Georgian public to vote for it,” Bryza said. “And we see an opportunity for the opposition again to realign the disposition of political forces in the parliament to reflect the will of the voters. That opportunity will materialize if these electoral reforms under discussion are implemented and if the election truly is free and fair and marks an improvement or a restoration of democratic reform momentum.”

Zourabichvili said a major challenge for the opposition, following what she described as a fraudulent presidential election, was to restore public confidence in the electoral process. She said talks with the authorities aimed at showing people that their votes would count.

“At stake is Georgia's stability and Georgia's democracy,” she said. “Those three months will be crucial.  The opposition will have to use all the instruments it has, and it doesn't have much.  It has basically its own voice in the dialogue, if that is efficient.  And it has the streets.  And it will use the streets, if it's needed, in a peaceful way, in a legal way, as it has done so up till now, because that's all we are left with.”

She said the fact that talks with the authorities had not yet produced tangible results “doesn't mean that we're giving up on dialogue. We're continuing … as long as we have hope of getting results.”

On February 8 the opposition said the authorities were failing to deliver results and announced the suspension of talks. The bloc said it wanted to give its supporters immediate tangible results, in particular the dismissal of CEC Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili and GPB General-Director Tamar Kintsurashvili and the release of 43 people held on public disorder charges following the November 7 unrest.

Addressing Georgia’s western allies, Zourabichvili said “a new policy toward Georgia from our friends” was needed. “One that is more clearly not personal… because democracy in Georgia is to the credit not of its leadership, not to a group of people, but to the Georgian population,” she said.

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