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Opposition activists and a TV crew have been attacked in the west-Georgian city of Zugdidi in the run-up to the local mayoral election.
On Tuesday morning, a group of men confronted Sandra Roelofs, the mayoral candidate for the opposition Power in Unity coalition, outside the city’s Dadiani Palace museum, cursing her in Georgian and Mingrelian.
The group attacked several of Roelofs’ entourage as well as members of a TV crew from local station Odishi who were filming her.
At one point, several men chased after Zurab Tsertsvadze, a photo reporter working for the opposition group, demanding he stop taking pictures.
In footage aired by Odishi, Tsertsvadze is shown intervening after a man punched former Minister of Culture Nika Vacheishvili, a member of the United National Movement Party (UNM), in the stomach.
‘You are a shame to Zugdidi’, Roelofs shouted at the attackers.
Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs is the wife of third Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been wanted in Georgia on several counts of abuse of power since his term expired and he departed the country in late 2013.
The United Opposition — Power in Unity, a coalition of 12 opposition parties strongly dominated by the formerly ruling UNM, nominated Roelofs on 22 March.
Roelofs first tested her political prowess in the Samegrelo Region in October 2016 parliamentary elections. She challenged the ruling Georgian Dream Party’s majoritarian candidate, Edisher Toloraia, sending the polls to a second round winning 45% of votes against 49% for Toloraia.
She boycotted the actual elections claiming election fraud. The suggestion of de-facto party leader Mikheil Saakashvili to do so deepened divisions in the party, which culminated in most of the party’s MPs breaking away to form the European Georgia Party in January 2017.
‘Georgian Dream activists’
Later that day, the Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia told journalists that they would ‘not allow anyone to discredit the elections with disinformation and provocations’. He did not provide any further information.
Ana Tsitlidze, chair of the UNM group in the Zugdidi City Council (sakrebulo), identified Kvaratskhelia and others as being among the attackers, insisting they were ‘Georgian Dream activists’.
Odishi also labelled the attackers ‘Georgian Dream coordinators’.
The Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics urged the government to investigate the incident and to ensure the safety of journalists. They highlighted that ‘not only physical violence but also an interference with a journalist’s professional activities constitutes a criminal offence’.
Later on Tuesday, members of the opposition and the ruling Georgian Dream party engaged in a scuffle after Roelofs and her team visited the Zugdidi Municipality Council and demanded a discussion on ‘violations during the election campaign’.
Other attacks reported by the opposition
At the Zugdidi City Council on Tuesday, the opposition group accompanying Roelofs attempted to address what they said was several recent attacks on members.
On 13 May, the UNM claimed that door-to-door campaigners in the village of Jikhashkari were interrupted by a local family and a clandestine group run by the Georgian State Security Service.
The opposition claimed two brothers, Irakli Shelia and Zaza Shelia, who they identified as criminals, also participated in the ‘provocation’.
The UNM said Kvaratskhelia, who was detained by police on Tuesday, was among others harassing a meeting with voters on 10 May in the village of Rike.
Georgian Dream member Mamuka Tsotseria, chairing the City Council meeting, accused the opposition of a ‘provocation’ on 14 May and denied the opposition time to discuss the attacks.
On Tuesday, opposition-leaning TV channel Rustavi 2 aired ‘hidden camera footage’ allegedly showing Gia Danelia, a Zugdidi City Council member, giving instructions to someone over the phone.
‘Buy [voters], intimidate them, do everything to make Georgian Dream win the elections […] Everything is approved from above’, Danelia allegedly told someone while sitting in a car.
The man who the UNM and Rustavi 2 allege to be Danelia also encouraged someone to ‘abduct [voters] if necessary’.
Danelia denied it was his voice, claiming the clip was a fabrication.
Later that day, the Prosecutor’s Office said they had launched the investigation over the recording.
On Wednesday, UNM supporters gathered outside the Zugdidi City Council and demanded Danelia’s suspension, but claimed police did not allow some of them to enter the council hall.
UNM also accused the Central Election Commission of sending out commission seals and voter lists five days before the election, which they warned was a sign of preparations to rig the elections. The UNM demanded the resignation of Miranda Meskhi, chair of the Zugdidi District Election Commission.
On 13 May, Rustavi 2 aired footage of two residents of Samegrelo, as well as one other person with a blurred face, who claimed that representatives of Georgian Dream had offered them ₾150 ($55) to vote for Gega Shengelia, the Georgian Dream candidate.
Following the incident outside the Dadiani Palace and the allegations of vote-buying and pressure, rights group Transparency International Georgia called on law enforcement agencies to ‘urgently investigate’ the reports, which ‘clearly contained signs of a criminal offence’.
On Tuesday, Georgian Dream’s international secretary Tamar Chugoshvili, also a parliamentary Vice Speaker, accused the opposition of attempting to ‘create tensions’ in Zugdidi and appealed to international observers to ‘pay special attention’ to Zugdidi to prevent it.
In March, watchdog groups the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) and the International Society for Free Elections and Democracy (ISFED), said it was possible that school inspections by the Education Ministry could have been used as a tool of political pressure during the presidential election in November.
Roelofs, who was not given the floor to speak at the city council, said she wanted to propose opening a square named after Ia Kerzaia.
Kerzaia, the head of one of a primary school in Zugdidi, suffered a stroke in December 2018 several weeks after she, according to her family, was pressured by the government to help them campaign for presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili.
On 11 April, Bachana Shengelaia, Kerzaia’s son, called the investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office a mere ‘formality’ and vowed to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Three types of election
As well as in Zugdidi, mayoral elections will be held in four other cities: Marneuli, Zestaponi, Chiatura, and Khulo.
In addition, one councillor will be elected in each of the local councils of Zestaponi, Tskaltubo, Tkibuli, and Chiatura municipalities (in Imereti Region), Ozurgeti Municipality (in Guria Region), Adigeni Municipality (in Samtskhe–Javakheti Region), and the Akhmeta and Sagarejo municipalities (in Kakheti Region).
Several of the seats up for election were vacated after their former holders were involved in scandals.
The most prominent cases included the June 2018 arrest of the Marneuli Mayor Temur Abazov for forcing a man to wipe his own urine on his face for insulting officials from the ruling Georgian Dream Party.
Another scandal involved Zugdidi, where in September last year, Mayor Lasha Gogia and his deputy Gia Gulordava were arrested and charged for taking bribes.
Also on 19 May, a parliamentary by-election is set for Tbilisi’s Mtatsminda District.
Forty-four thousand voters in 31 polling stations in Tbilisi will be eligible to vote for the single-mandate parliamentary seat, one among 73 majoritarian mandates, after independent MP Salome Zurabishvili vacated her seat to run for president.
Physician Lado Kakhadze, Georgian Dream’s candidate, is being challenged by European Georgia’s Shalva Shavgulidze, a prominent lawyer.
Shavgulidze, who replaced Irakli Alasania as the leader of the Free Democrats party in early 2017, expects support from the UNM-led Power in Unity as a quid pro quo for European Georgia not contesting Zugdidi’s mayoral election.
Shavgulidze is also known for taking the high profile case Sandro Girgvliani murder case to the European Court of Human Rights, the verdict of which undermined claims of abuses of power under Saakashvili in 2011.
Among other candidates running for the seat are former deputy Public Defender and ex-Georgian Dream member Sophio Khorguani and Levan Ioseliani, an activist from the Civil Movement group led by 2017 Tbilisi mayoral candidate Aleko Elisashvili.