- Democratic election will have ‘a direct impact on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic goals’;
- Incident in Chela, involving minaret removal, ‘deeply troubling’;
- ‘Media environment appears freer than in the recent past’;
- U.S. official: PM’s intended pre-term resignation creates ‘some new political challenges’;
Although challenges remain, there is a “substantial consensus” among many stakeholders that electoral environment is freer and more competitive than it was a year ago, said the U.S. interagency delegation, which visited Georgia this week to assess the pre-election situation in run up to the October 27 presidential vote.
“Upcoming election is an opportunity for Georgia to demonstrate its democratic development and thereby to advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Thomas O. Melia, who led the delegation.
It also included USAID Assistant Administrator Paige Alexander and officials from the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice.
“The domestic and international perceptions of the fairness of the campaign environment, including adherence to the rule of law, media access and transparency will have a direct impact on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic goals,” Melia said during a press conference in Tbilisi on September 11.
The delegation met with President Saakashvili; PM Ivanishvili; parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili; ministers of justice, internal affairs, foreign affairs and defense; as well as presidential candidates, Chairman of Supreme Court, civil society representatives and also the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church and leaders of other faith communities.
The delegation listed the level playing field, the rule of law and due process, respect of fundamental freedoms and campaigning without violence; media freedom and access of voters to a diversity of opinions, as well as constructive engagement of officials with stakeholders among the “key components” for democratic electoral process.
Speaking about the level playing field, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State said that the environment must facilitate the free and unhindered participation of all the parties and candidates.
“While challenges remain, we are struck by the substantial consensus we’ve heard, expressed from many directions, that the political environment overall is free and competitive, even more so than it was twelve months ago prior to the parliamentary elections,” the delegation said in a statement read out by Melia.
A similar U.S. interagency pre-election delegation also visited Georgia ahead of the October 2012 parliamentary elections.
On the rule of law and due process, the delegation said that enforcement of election laws and adjudication of election-related complaints “must be conducted in an even-handed, transparent and accountable manner.”
The U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State said that particular attention should be paid to “to concerns arising from minority groups”.
“The incidents in Chela and Samtatskaro are deeply troubling and negatively affect the pre-election environment by undermining minority communities’ feelings of self-determination and freedom to choose a political candidate,” Melia said.
In the village of Samtatskaro in the Kakheti region local Christian community this summer confronted local Muslims and barred them from perform prayer in a house converted into mosque. And in the village of Chela in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region the authorities forcibly removed minaret from a mosque citing customs irregularities while importing material used for minaret’s construction. Although the minaret was returned, it was stored outside the village and not re-erected. In a written statement on September 11, the state ministry for reintegration called on the local Muslim community of the Chela village to apply to the relevant authorities to obtain a permit for erecting the minaret.
The U.S. delegation has also called on “all political parties and candidates to refrain from violent protests or from provoking violence.”
“At the same time we asked those officials, who oversee the security forces, including the special operations forces, to ensure that their people respect freedom of assembly and act with professionalism and restraint,” the delegation said.
On media access, the delegation said that although “media environment appears freer than in the recent past, there are still issues of concern” including the lack of sufficient funding for all media outlets from independent advertising, “which forces the press to look elsewhere to remain financial viable.”
On constructive engagement of relevant officials, the delegation noted importance of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections (IATF), which is now chaired by Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani; previously it was chaired by Secretary of National Security Council Giga Bokeria. The delegation said that civil society groups and political parties expressed the desire for “even more communication and cooperation” with IATF.
The delegation also met with new chairperson of the Central Election Commission (CEC), Tamar Zhvania; the meeting was held shortly after she was confirmed on the post on September 11.
“We hope that the new chair will be able to count on the support of all relevant actors in Georgia to ensure that the people of Georgia enjoy an election with integrity,” the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State said before the new chairperson was elected.
Tamar Zhvania was recommended for the position by a group of eleven civil society organizations, then nominated, together with two other candidates as envisaged by the law, by President Saakashvili and approved by Georgian Dream members of the CEC.
In a written statement PM Ivanishvili welcomed approval of Zhvania on the post and said: “Tamar Zhvania was the candidate supported by civil society and all major political parties."
Asked during a press conference about PM Ivanishvili’s intention to quit his post and politics after the presidential election, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State responded that it was in line with what Ivanishvili was saying upon entering into politics in October, 2011 that he was not going to stay for a long. Melia, however, also said that PM’s intended pre-term resignation creates “some new political challenges” for Georgia.