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Georgia’s political scene is heating up as the country braces for a presidential run-off election. After Georgian Dream–endorsed Salome Zurabishvili failed to win a majority in the first round, members of the ruling party warned of ‘violence’ or a ‘civil war’ if the opposition’s Grigol Vashadze comes out on top.
Zurabishvili narrowly defeated the United National Movement’s (UNM) Vashadze in the first round on Sunday, with 39% of votes to 38%.
The second round, the first in Georgia’s history, is due to be held on or before 2 December.
Following the vote, Vashadze’s promises to pardon former senior officials convicted of human rights violations and other crimes began to circulate in the media and on social media more widely.
In one TV interview with Imedi on 9 September, Vashadze vowed to pardon former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, as well as other ‘political prisoners’ convicted and jailed in Georgia, including ex–Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili and ex–Corrections Minister Bacho Akhalaia.
‘Political persecution in Georgia must end’, Vashadze stated.
On 31 October, Irakli Sesiashvili, Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Security, promised to be first among Georgia’s defenders against ‘torturers’, if the UNM were planning to return to power through a ‘revolutionary’ scenario.
The previous day, Georgian Dream MP Gedevan Popkhadze suggested that if Vashadze won and followed through on his promise to bring back or free former UNM officials — which he called a ‘fascist force’ — it could trigger a ‘civil war’ in Georgia.
Another Georgian Dream MP, Dimitri Samkharadze, posted on his Facebook page on 31 October that he was ready to ‘take out the teeth of Natsis’ [Natsi, or Natsebi in plural, is pejorative term for UNM members alluding to the Nazis].
Members of opposition parties were quick to condemn the statements.
Other members of Georgian Dream downplayed such statements.
On 31 October, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani told journalists that everyone should come to terms with the reality that the UNM and European Georgia (an offshoot of the UNM) ‘might have 800,000 stable voters’.
She said that there were more people who were not willing to ‘go back to past’, and that they should mobilise.
According to her, ‘Vashadze fights for the right to pardon Saakashvili, not for the presidency’.
Who are the ‘politically persecuted’
Former Interior Minister Ivane Merabishvili was sentenced to five years in prison in February 2014 on multiple charges, including misspending state funds and vote buying during the 2012 Parliamentary Elections.
In 2017, the European Court for Human Rights ruled that Georgian authorities violated two articles of the European Convention on Human Rights in their treatment of Merabishvili in detention, but stopped short of ruling that the charges against him were politically motivated, as Merabishvili’s lawyers and former political allies claimed.
In 2016, a Georgian court convicted the former head of the Interior Ministry’s Constitutional Security Department, Data Akhalaia, of abuse of power and the murder of ‘innocent young people’ who the authorities alleged at the time were planning to free prisoners during the 2006 Rustavi prison riot.
Akhalaia was also sentenced to three years in prison for abuse of official power connected to the murder of Sandro Girgvliani. Girgvliani was killed in January 2006 after an alleged argument with then–Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili’s wife Tako Salakaia.
In 2018, Saakashvili himself was sentenced in absentia to six years in prison for ordering the attack on businessman and opposition MP Valeri Gelashvili in 2005. Earlier in January, the court also found him guilty of illegally promising to pardon Data Akhalaia.
Akahlaia’s brother, former Defence Minister Bacho Akahlaia, was sentenced to 9 years for torturing military official Sergo Tetradze in 2011.
After leaving the country following his party’s defeat in 2012 parliamentary elections and the end of his second presidential term in 2013, Saakashvili has been a person of interest in a number of high-profile investigations in Georgia.
These included the 2007 crackdown on protests in Tbilisi and a raid on TV channel Imedi. Officials sought Saakashvili’s extradition, but in 2015, Interpol refused to include him on their list, and Ukraine also refused to hand him over.
Both Bacho Akhalaia and Mikheil Saakashvili, one from prison and the other currently in the Netherlands, replied that they were not seeking a pardon as they had been wrongly convicted.
Imedi in ‘emergency mode’ against comeback of ‘criminal regime’
On 31 October, TV station Imedi announced that given Grigol Vashadze’s promises, the channel was switching to ‘emergency mode’ in the run-up to the second round.
According to their statement, they would add more news and political talk shows to their usual schedule to prevent the comeback of the ‘criminal regime’ of the UNM, which according to Imedi, were ‘engaged in violence, business racketeering and raiding TV stations’.
Saakashvili’s government raided, seized, and shut down Imedi during the 2007 state of emergency during mass anti-government protests.
Saakashvili’s team claimed that Imedi and its founder, media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, were openly calling for government overthrow during the unrests.
‘Grigol Vashadze’s presidency is unacceptable for Imedi’, the statement read.
European Georgia and Republican party endorse Vashadze
After preliminary results of Sunday’s vote came out, despite coming second, Grigol Vashadze called the result a ‘victory’ and ‘elections of honour’.
‘No euphoria and premature celebrations! We have a second round ahead’, he warned on 29 October during a live press conference.
Vashadze thanked his supporters and also called European Georgia’s candidate Davit Bakradze’s vow to endorse him in a run-off a ‘political gesture of the highest standard’.
Bakradze, who received 11% of votes, endorsed Vashadze after exit polls came out, and even suggested to set up a ‘common headquarters’.
While the three exit polls conducted gave contradictory results on elections night, all suggested he would end up in distant third.
At the press conference, Vashadze also confirmed that the Georgian Republican Party had also endorsed him.
‘I have no doubt that other parties will follow suit, which would make [the run-off] an “all against one’ event’, Vashadze told journalists.
The exact date of the second round is dependent on a number of violation reports submitted to the Election Administration.
The Election Administration has a maximum of 20 days to process all the reports and respond to each, announcing the final results no later than 17 November.
Party support with mixed feelings and mixed signals
Unlike Vashadze, Zurabishvili kept mostly silent and tried to keep out of the public eye for almost two days after election night.
At a press conference on 30 October, Zurabishvili confirmed she was ready for the run-off, suggesting that the choice was not between the two candidates or parties but ‘between two Georgias’, she vowed not to ‘give up Georgia to Vashadze and Russia’.
Standing between senior Georgian Dream officials and members of her family, Zurabishvili accused opposition-leaning TV channel Rustavi 2 of attempting to convince the public she planned to withdraw from the second round.
‘Perhaps we expected more, but first place in the first round is a victory, and we managed it despite a dirty campaign with slander and other Russian methods’, Zurabishvili said, referring to her opponent’s campaign.
After Zurabishvili uncompromisingly refused to give comments to journalists before organising the press conference, one senior Georgian Dream figure, Anri Okhanashvili, said he ‘wished Zurabishvili chose a more correct way of communicating with journalists’.
Some Georgian Dream members, like prominent MP Zakaria Kutsnashvili, refused to publicly rally behind her.
Facing the preliminary results, Tbilisi mayor Kakha Kaladze, General Secretary of Georgian Dream, named party’s choice to endorse an independent candidate among the possible reasons for a second round.
The ruling party took some time before publicly endorsing Zurabishvili’s candidacy on 9 September. In several public statements, Georgian Dream party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili suggested she was his choice, but that other party members were yet to be convinced.
Electoral violations and further incidents
During his post-election press conference, Grigol Vashadze claimed that the Georgian authorities were responsible for election ‘fraud’, securing ‘20%–25%’ of Zurabishvili’s vote through ‘vote buying, forging election documents, intimidation of the socially vulnerable and those employed in public institutions’.
Transparency International — Georgia pointed to a 'large number of [party activists…] outside of nearly every district’ on election day, with vehicles where voters got in and out suggesting possible voter buying.
In one precinct in west Georgia’s Zugdidi, they reported an electoral commission member stuffing several envelopes into the ballot box — which they said was a basis for invalidating the election results of the precinct. The Interior Ministry did not confirm the incident.
Before the polls closed, Georgian rights group the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) reported several possible criminal offences, including coercion of voters, voter bribery, and one case in which someone attempted to force an observer out of the polling station.
However, GYLA also said that the violations did not significantly influence the vote.
The International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), a Georgian watchdog, monitored polling stations in the country throughout the day.
According to ISFED observers, the ‘disturbing trend of mobilisation of party activists still continues and is happening across the districts’.
‘These activists are noting which voters go to the stations. This method is mostly used by activists from Georgian Dream, however, representatives of the United National Movement were using similar tactics’, a report from ISFED said.
Georgian legislation does not prohibit this, however, a number of local NGOs have condemned the practice, stating it could influence the elections.
They said voting proceeded in a ‘calm environment’; however, certain procedural violations regarding ballot papers were recorded.
Throughout the day, Georgian media reported widespread cases of party activists present at polling stations throughout Georgia. People with papers were observed near polling stations throughout the day, marking people who had gone to the polls.
Polling stations in areas with high numbers of ethnic minorities saw the most controversy. In Marneuli’s 59th polling station, in the village of Irimi, two people were arrested.
Police said UNM and Georgian Dream members were arrested for violence at the polling station and disobeying police.
Post-election violence was reported in Akhalkalaki, in southern Georgia’s Samtskhe–Javakheti region. Unity in Power claimed several of their activists had been attacked by Georgian Dream supporters at Vashadze’s election headquarters there. Police announced they had opened an investigation.
In their preliminary assessment on 29 October, an international election observation mission led by the OSCE also noted the use of ‘administrative resources by the authorities as well as many citizen observers and media acting on behalf of political parties and party supporters potentially influencing voters outside polling stations’.
Nevertheless, the mission concluded that the election ‘was competitive and professionally administered. Candidates were able to campaign freely and voters had a genuine choice’.
‘Election day generally proceeded in a professional, orderly and transparent manner’, the mission’s statement read.
Candidates label each other pro-Russian
On 31 October, Nukri Kantaria, an MP from Georgian Dream, called Grigol Vashadze a ‘[former] official with a Russian mentality, and a matryoshka [Russian nesting doll]’, who had Saakashvili, Merabishvili and ‘other smaller matryoshkas, different criminals […] inside him’.
Before serving as a Georgian Foreign Minister in 2008–2012, Vashadze worked for the Foreign Ministry of the Soviet Union until 1988.
In attack ads, he was criticised for failing to give up Russian citizenship until 2009, and also for stating publicly that while Georgian Foreign Minister, ‘Russia would always be a part’ of him and that he would not have renounced his Russian citizenship if not for demands in the Russian Duma.
Meanwhile, some members of opposition parties as well as ads targeting Zurabishvili called on Georgians not to elect a ‘traitor’ as president, as she had blamed President Saakashvili, who was ‘provoked’ by Russia, for ‘launching’ a ‘reckless’ war and for ‘massive bombing of our own people’ in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, in 2008.