On January 8 the runner-up presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze (with 27% of the votes cast, according to the provisional final returns) headed a group of opposition leaders that burst into Central Electoral Commission (CEC) offices and encircled CEC chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili. They threatened to evict Tarkhnishvili physically and — in Gachechiladze’s words — to “punish” him as a “criminal” if the opposition comes to power. Leaders of the nine groups supporting Gachechiladze joined him in the jostling and shouting. Gachechiladze resorted to obscenities not for the first time. The incident occurred in the presence of journalists (Civil Georgia, EurasiaNet, Rustavi-2, January 8).
Opposition leaders accuse the CEC of “rigging” the January 5 presidential election. They are threatening to call protest demonstrations unless the CEC and the courts invalidate or revise the election’s results. Western observers — present in record-high numbers throughout the country — have validated the election, the provisional final returns of which show Mikheil Saakashvili winning re-election with close to 53% of the votes cast. The remainder is divided among six other candidates. However, opposition leaders reject the Western observers’ essentially positive assessment of the election and are calling for a runoff or a rerun.
Meanwhile, many institutions and groups of international observers are validating the election, alongside the four main observer delegations — OSCE/ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights), OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), and European Parliament — which did so jointly on January 6 (see EDM, January 7). All of these institutions and groups are urging the opposition to recognize the legitimacy of the election just held.
The European Union’s Presidency — held by Slovenia since January 1 — supports the Western observers’ conclusion that “the election was in essence consistent with most of the OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections.” It also expects Georgia to “address the shortcomings that were identified” (EU Presidency press release, January 7).
The Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) have issued basically positive assessments of the election. Significantly, both institutes have for many years been working with opposition parties in Georgia and continue to do so. According to NDI’s preliminary conclusion, the election “met basic democratic principles,” while problems encountered in the process of balloting were irregularities, not rigging and not affecting the expression of people’s will (Rustavi-2, January 7). The IRI, which led an international delegation of observers, similarly concluded, “The election broadly met international standards. However, technical problems continue to affect the electoral process” (IRI press release, January 6). Both institutes are recommending to the government and opposition to work cooperatively to resolve these issues.
Presidents Toomas Ilves of Estonia, Valdis Zatlers of Latvia, Lech Kaczynski of Poland, Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, Robert Kocharian of Armenia, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, and Nicolas Sarkozy of France as well as Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko have variously telephoned or written to Saakashvili with congratulations on his reelection. Ilves also cited the Western observers’ recommendations to Georgia to correct remaining flaws and continually improve the quality of the electoral process. Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited Ukrainian and international observers saying that the openness of the voting and large presence of observers made it impossible to rig the election (BNS, UNIAN, January 6, 7, 8; Turan, Agence France Presse, January 8). Estonian observers (including 10 members of parliament) and Lithuanian delegation (totaling 131 members, the largest delegation proportionate to the nation’s size) supported the Western positive assessment of the election, despite “minor irregularities that do not influence the outcome.” Latvia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a similar opinion, citing the Latvian delegation of observers.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack and NATO spokesman James Appathurai each issued statements endorsing the Western observers’ validation of the election (press releases, January 7, 8).
At the moment, the EU in Brussels seems rather disengaged from the ongoing Georgian events. The EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, issued a brief, vague statement, recognizing at least that the Georgian election was “truly competitive.” The EU’s External Affairs and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, issued a belated statement on January 8 in which she cited the international observers’ essentially positive evaluation of the election, urged the Georgian government to address the shortcomings quickly, and called on the opposition to use only peaceful and legal means (Council of the European Union and European Commission press releases, January 7, 8). Solana and Ferrero-Waldner are about to finish their terms of office. The EU’s envoy for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, apparently could not take a position on the Georgian elections in the absence of a clear message from the top level in Brussels. Such a weak engagement in Brussels reflects the broader inadequacies of the EU’s Neighborhood Policy generally and in this region particularly.
Gachechiladze and the other presidential contenders cannot realistically hope to overturn the election’s outcome. Their moves seem designed at this stage simply to prolong the uncertainty and look for new tactical openings. Some of them may also look for a face-saving solution, after staking so heavily on toppling Saakashvili and the government. Their main demand, before and during the election campaign, was a Georgia without Saakashvili. Program and tactics were subordinated to that goal.
The Gachechiladze camp’s Mephisto bargain with billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili showed that this camp was prepared to destabilize the country for the sake of toppling the president. The other presidential contenders stopped short of making that bargain for funds, but used the same brinkmanship tactics. At the moment, they all seem to be preparing to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the re-elected president and possibly boycotting him in the run-up to the April parliamentary elections. Such a development could bring with it another political crisis, fraught with artificially induced polarization. Unburdened by the responsibilities of governing and untrained for such responsibilities, the leaders of these small parties see their chance of gaining de facto political influence in a climate of political confrontation.