A file photo of a flag from Georgian Dream ruling coalition’s 2014 local elections campaign event reading: “Let’s take care of Georgia together.”
Prosecutor’s Office has opened investigation into allegation voiced by leader of one of the Georgian Dream ruling coalition partner parties that Defense Minister abused the power to manipulate results of MP by-election in Sagarejo almost four months ago.
The investigation comes in the midst of confrontation between two coalition member parties – Republicans and Industrialists, whose leaders have been engaged in back-and-forth for weeks already during which one of the leaders of Industrialist Party, MP Gogi Topadze, accused Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli of the Republican Party of manipulating Sagarejo MP by-election results.
MP by-election in Sagarejo single-mandate constituency in eastern Georgia was held on October 31 in which GD’s Tamar Khidasheli of the Republican Party narrowly defeated her closest rival Irma Inashvili, one of the leaders of Alliance of Patriots of Georgia (APG).
Inashvili challenged the results with one of her main complaints, among others, was that more than 500 soldiers were deployed in Mukhrovani military base ahead of the elections and special polling station was opened for them in order to manipulate poll results in favor of GD’s candidate. Army unit, deployed in Mukhrovani, did not vote in the same constituency during the 2014 local elections because at the time the contingent was in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led mission.
Inashvili filed several complaints with the court, but lost the cases; the Central Election Commission also turned down her complaints seeking annulment of election results. Inashvili was on two-week hunger strike protest outside government headquarters in Tbilisi in November.
Georgia’s largest non-governmental election monitoring group, International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), said that irregularities reported during the October 31 MP by-elections did not affect final poll results.
The issue of Sagarejo by-election re-emerged several months later after one of the leaders of the Industrialist Party MP Gogi Topadze, a founder of beer and beverage-producing company Kazbegi, leveled allegations against the Defense Minister in a row which may reshape five-party GD coalition’s configuration ahead of the parliamentary elections in October, 2016.
MP Topadze’s anti-Western rhetoric and remarks justifying Stalin’s mass repressions have put him at odds with ruling coalition’s declared policies for number of times in the past.
In November, 2015 he announced about intention to quit the parliament in order not to make his “views on some issues an obstacle for the coalition”; he, however, also said at the time that he would “take final decision only after” the parliament adopts his bill on making Georgia “GMO free zone”. The bill was approved with its third and final reading on March 2, but it still remains unclear if he quits the Parliament or not. MP Topadze has recently indicated that his statement in November did not mean that he would definitely quit the Parliament even after adoption of this bill as he still has several other draft laws that he wants to put forth in the Parliament.
Earlier in February Topadze again stirred controversy when in his rebuttal speech to President’s annual state of the nation address in the Parliament, he used term Down’s syndrome in a derogatory context, causing widespread condemnation.
When condemning MP Topadze’s remarks, Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli of the Republican Party said on February 4, apparently referring to Topadze’s earlier announcement about intention to quit the parliament: “To say the truth I thought he [Topadze] was no longer a member of parliament.”
Less than a week later, in a newspaper interview, published on February 10, MP Topadze accused Tina Khidasheli of using her defense ministerial post for rigging MP by-election in Sagarejo in favor of her fellow party member Tamar Khidasheli.
Some GD politicians, including those from the Republican Party, initially tried to downplay Topadze’s remarks by saying that the Industrialist Party leader was apparently misinterpreted in the newspaper interview. Topadze himself was initially refusing to comment.
But on February 16 he gave an interview to Obieqtivi, a TV station run by APG’s Inashvili, and elaborated further on his allegations against Khidasheli by claiming that the Defense Minister arranged deployment of additional troops in Mukhrovani base ahead of the MP by-election in Sagarejo, suggesting that by doing so she manipulated election results in favor of the Republican Party candidate. He stressed that it was a violation which Khidasheli was responsible for and not the Republican Party or the Georgian Dream coalition as a whole.
“If we are a democracy, this action by the Defense Minister should be probed by relevant agencies,” Topadze said on February 16.
In the same interview he also said that Georgia should have a “neutral” status and should not join either NATO or other military bloc – position, which is in conflict with government’s declared policy of NATO integration.
He also said that NATO will not open its door to Georgia and Khidasheli was deluding people with statements about Georgia’s progress on the path towards NATO.
Although claiming that he was in favor of the European integration, Topadze also said that Georgia should resist, what he called, EU’s attempts to impose “laws related to LGBT persons, which are unacceptable for us.”
Similar sentiments about NATO and the EU, as well as about the Republican Party, are frequently voiced by APG, which has triggered speculation that if the Industrialist Party quits the GD ruling coalition, it may team up with APG for the October, 2016 parliamentary elections – something that Topadze has denied.
This position over NATO and the Republican Party is also in line with the one adhered by Nino Burjanadze, leader of Democratic Movement party, who has visited Moscow for talks with Russian officials for three times over the past seven months.
Republican Party leaders, among them Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli, describe attacks against them as a campaign by anti-Western, pro-Russian forces, which, they say, is directed not just against Republicans, but against the GD coalition and the government.
At a parliamentary session on February 17, MP Davit Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party said: “It is an orchestrated campaign against the Defense Minister – a key official in [Georgia’s drive] for Euro-Atlantic integration – by Gogi Topadze and his supporters in the Parliament and especially outside of the Parliament, which is directed against the Georgian Dream coalition, against the government and against Georgia.”
MP Topadze responded that MP Davit Berdzenishvili and his brother Levan, also a GD MP from the Republican Party, are “hated by the Georgian people.”
Senior members from the Republican Party were suggesting that MP Topadze should stick to his earlier statement about intention to quit the Parliament.
PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili weighed in on February 19 by saying in a written statement that allegations voiced by MP Topadze against the Defense Minister were “completely unacceptable.”
“It groundlessly blemishes not just a single party, but the entire government and I want to call on our team members to discuss the issues if they have any in a different framework,” PM Kvirikashvili said. “Unity – and not only of our coalition – is very important; we are ready to open door to everyone who is ready to serve our country with those vision and principles that we pursue.”
Senior lawmakers from the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG), the largest party within the GD coalition, distanced themselves from Topadze’s anti-Western rhetoric, but they have also been careful in their remarks trying not to take sides in the dispute between Republican and Industrialist party leaders by saying that both sides should have shown more restraint, preventing playing out their dispute in public.
GDDG, party which is expected to elect PM Kvirikashvili as its chairman at a congress this spring, itself is an eclectic entity with some of its lawmakers apparently sympathizing more with Topadze.
Last week leaders of the both parties said that they were suspending public debates on the issue and would wait for a meeting of GD’s political council, ruling coalition’s decision-making body, united leaders of all five parties within the coalition. Date of the meeting has not yet been set.
On February 25, Tbilisi-based anti-corruption watchdog group, Transparency International Georgia, said that the allegation voiced by MP Topadze should not be left without reaction and the Prosecutor’s Office should investigate allegations involving ballot rigging.
Shortly after that Prosecutor’s Office said that it opened investigation under the article 332, involving abuse of power.
Some political analysts and media sources speculate that Topadze’s attacks against the Republican Party are backed by ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili and aim at curtailing Republicans’ increased political ambitions, especially ahead of compiling GD coalition’s party list of candidates for the 2016 parliamentary elections.
Asked if she thinks that this campaign against the Republican Party could have been possible without Ivanishvili’s blessing, Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli told Tbilisi-based TV Pirveli on February 26: “I can say with hundred percent assurance that this campaign has no [support of Ivanishvili]; on the contrary, it is against [him]; I am hundred percent sure about it.”
She also said that she is “not surprised about aggression against me from those people, who admire Stalin.”
Defense Minister Khidasheli also said that the decision of Prosecutor’s Office to open the investigation over this issue was a “mistake” as there is already number of court rulings in connection to Sagarejo MP by-election.
“Personally for me this step by the prosecutor’s office is very good, because it will prove once again that all those [allegations] are lies and slander,” she said.
“But in the condition when there are several court rulings, as well as decisions at all three levels of the election administration… and all the questions are answered from the legal point of view, by opening of investigation into the same matter the prosecutor’s office called the state system’s legitimacy into question,” Khidasheli said.
She reiterated similar position in an interview with Rustavi 2 TV on March 1 in which Khidasheli also repeated that Topadze’s attacks were part of a campaign of pro-Russian forces directed against country’s pro-Western course.
Davit Usupashvili, Parliament Speaker from the Republican Party, who is husband of Defense Minister Khidasheli, told journalists when commenting on the ongoing confrontation on February 29 that “these are undesirable, but as it turned out unavoidable developments.”
“It is not about a problem between the Republican and Industrialists parties,” he said. “This is an issue where the country, government, coalition are concerned and in this regard we will remain committed to coalition’s founding declaration [which also includes pro-western foreign policy course].”
“Mr. Topadze’s issue was clarified several months ago when he stated that he was going to quit the Parliament,” Usupashvili said, adding that he hopes this decision will be materialized and “the coalition will continue in a normal mode.”
GD’s senior figures acknowledge that infighting hurts the ruling coalition, especially ahead of the October, 2016 parliamentary elections.
“Georgian Dream’s main challenger is Georgian Dream itself; certain mistakes have been made; there is conflict of visions within the coalition, which should not be the case,” MP Giorgi Volski, who chairs GDDG faction in the parliament, said, adding that these factors, combined with economic difficulties, contributed to drop in support for the ruling coalition.