EU foreign ministers in Georgia to oversee election build-up as political tension rises


FIVE EUROPEAN Union foreign ministers are in Georgia to oversee the build-up to its October 1st parliamentary election, amid international concern over rising political tension in the country.

The EU, US and leading democracy watchdogs have called on the country to ensure free and fair conduct of the election, in which the ruling party of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili faces a strident challenge from supporters of the country’s richest man.

Billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili accuses Mr Saakashvili’s allies of using dirty tricks to undermine his newly formed Georgian Dream party, complaining that he has been stripped of his Georgian passport and fined millions of euro since entering politics.

He also claims that his party’s activists have been harassed, beaten and arrested by Saakashvili loyalists. Opponents deny the claims, and accuse Mr Ivanishvili of breaking electoral law, using his wealth to “buy” power and even of acting in the interests of neighbouring Russia.

“We are not here to support any political force, but to see Georgia’s progress on its path towards Nato and the European Union,” said Lithuanian foreign minister Audronius Azubalis, who is in Tbilisi with his Latvian, Czech, Romanian and Bulgarian counterparts.

“It is important that all political forces have fair and equal opportunities and if the results are recognised as fair by observers, all parties must accept them,” added Latvia’s Edgars Rinkevics.

Mr Ivanishvili has said he will accept election results that are approved by international observers. But he has also threatened to bring one million protesters out on to the streets if the ballot is rigged.

“The upcoming elections are critical to helping Georgia advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” US deputy assistant secretary of state Thomas Melia said on a recent visit to Tbilisi.

“We call on all participants to work to ensure that the Georgian people judge the elections as fair and free,” he added.

A delegation from the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe urged all parties to “refrain from such negative campaigning” and “not to question the legitimacy of the election and its outcome before the elections have even taken place”.

Observers from the 56-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – which is currently chaired by Ireland – noted the negative tone of much campaigning and the polarised environment it had created.

Transparency International Georgia said it had considerable evidence that opposition activists had been threatened, beaten and arrested, and that all parties had tried to secure votes with bribes.

“We call on the international community to step up pressure on the government to halt its efforts to neutralise and crush the opposition,” Georgian Dream said in a statement.

Mr Saakashvili has promised to hold the fairest elections in Georgia’s democratic history, four years after the country was defeated in a brief war with Russia.

Despite Tbilisi’s complaints, some 8,000 Russian troops are now conducting exercises near the Georgian border. Nato will launch its own “disaster response” exercises near Tbilisi later this week.