Headlines from Television News:
- The chief of the election headquarters of presidential candidate Mikheil Saakashvili, Davit Bakradze has called upon the opponents to refrain from mobilizing their activists around precincts on the day of election in order to ensure free and transparent vote. Bakradze said the number of local and international observers was enough to provide transparency of the polls and the presence of political engaged people around polling stations was absolutely unnecessary. Bakradze called upon the headquarters of other candidates to cooperate and draft the scheme of monitoring on 5 January in order to avoid any kind of instability. In addition, Bakradze wished happy New Year to every citizen of Georgia and said he was sure that Georgia would overcome every task successfully in 2008.
- Eka Tkheshelashvili, Minister of Justice of Georgia and chairperson of the state group for Free and Fair Elections, offers the opposition parties to elaborate a common code of conduct for the presidential elections on January 05. The statements of the opposition parties on mobilizing of their supporters outside the polling stations cause worry and tension. This is an opinion shared by the international organizations, Eka Tkheshelashvili said at the press conference on Wednesday. According to her, the state group for Free and Fair Elections agrees with the offer by the election office of Mikheil Saakashvili on elaboration of the common code of conduct for the presidential elections on January 05. She also noted that the Central Election Commission had elaborated instructions of maintenance of order in the polling stations. However, certain issues that needed further attention were specially discussed at the meeting with the non-governmental organizations.
- Presidential candidate, leader of the party Imedi, Irina Sarishvili has called upon other opposition candidates to make reasonable decision and nominate one candidate against the candidate of the ruling party on 5 January presidential elections until tomorrow evening. 'I want to reiterate that we must have a joint candidate against Saakashvili. Otherwise, both authorities and the opposition will be accountable on every undesirable development which may occur after 5 January,' Sarishvili said. The presidential candidate also expressed her position regarding Georgia's integration into the NATO. She said the process would lead the country to final separation of Tskhinvali and Abkhazian conflict zones from its composition and the country would face the threat of becoming the platform of any possible aggressive act of the U.S. against Iran.
- Members of the paramilitary unites, including militiamen, together with representatives of the Russian peacekeepers, stationed in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict zone, have raided in the Georgian villages of Nabakevi, Otobaia, Tagiloni, Gali district. Reportedly, seven houses of ethnic Georgians were burnt; besides this they detained eight youngsters, who later were taken to local militia station. According to eyewitnesses, the de facto law enforcers threatened that houses of those people, who would take part in elections, would be burnt down and they also promised that the Georgians would not return to Abkhazia.
- Members of the election office of Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the outsider opposition Labour Party, say that they express distrust to the television companies and observers. As Nestan Kirtadze said at the press conference on Wednesday, their distrust is a result of the fact that the television companies and observers conduct the opinion polls when dictated by representatives of the election office of Mikheil Saakashvili, candidate for president of the ruling party. Nestan Kirtadze also claimed that it was a wrong opinion that the forthcoming election is a test to the democracy in Georgia, as democracy had been dead long ago. According to her, the forthcoming election is a test to the commitment to the European values.
- Representatives of the United National Council of the opposition parties met the member of the international non-governmental organization Joint European Cause on Wednesday. Fifteen journalists are paying a visit to Georgia on behalf of the Ukrainian analytical centre Joint European Cause; however, the members of the delegation can not name the non-governmental organizations by which they were invited to Georgia. Besides, little is known about the activities of the Joint European Cause and even its representatives do not specify details of their work. The meeting was held behind the closed doors and its details remained unknown for the press. The only reported plan of the Joint European Cause is that it is to conduct the exit poll on the voting day on January 05. According the Kakha Kukava of the Conservative Party, it is very important to have an alternative source of information during the elections. He also said that the invited international organization would conduct an unbiased exit poll.
- Leader of the Labor Party, presidential candidate Shalva Natelashvili invites the candidate of the ruling party, Mikheil Saakashvili to TV debates. Natelashvili told journalists today he was ready to debate with the ex-president in order to get answers on the questions which remained unanswered during the part 13 years. 'Saakashvili ought to answer the questions after 13 year confrontation with me. I promise everybody that the debates will be ethical and meet international standards. Sportsmen become champions only in contests and politicians become professionals and experts only in real political debates and Saakashvili must take this into consideration,' Shalva Natelashvili said. The presidential candidate wished happy New Year to Georgians residing abroad and wished them to arrive in developed and happy Georgia soon.
- Members of the Kutaisi election office of Levan Gachechiladze, presidential candidate of the United National Council, accuse local authorities and police of terrorizing their supporters and allies. The members of the election office of the opposition candidate held a news conference today and announced that four of their allies were arrested with the fabricated charges of violating public order. They also claim that the chairman of the Kutaisi branch of the party Tavisufleba was assaulted and beaten up, the house of another of their ally was fired. The members of the election headquarters have already reported the OSCE mission in Georgia regarding the incidents.
- Mikheil Saakashvili, presidential candidate representing Georgia’s United National Movement party congratulated all Georgians on New Year from Chkhalta village of Upper Abkhazia (former Kodori Gorge). Saakashvili addressed locals of Gali region (Georgian-Abkhazian conflict zone that is mainly inhabited by ethnic Georgians). “Very soon we will visit you at your own homes,” Saakashvili claimed and also called on Gali locals not to fear anything. He has been claiming that they next year they will celebrate the holidays in their homes, and not as IDPs. Later Saakashvili met with the locals of Mestia district, and visited Mestia Museum. Saakashvili continued his pre-election and New Year voyage in Kutaisi, Center of Imereti Region, Western Georgia, where he visited Kutaisi maternity home and attended Georgian businessmen’s handing over 1000 GEL in assistance to new borns.
- The head of Georgian Diaspora in France, Otar Zurabishvili supports the candidate of the ruling party, Mikheil Saakashvili in 5 January presidential elections. Mr. Zurabichvili, who is the brother of Salome Zourabichvili, candidate of PM of the United National Council, is not the citizen of Georgia and therefore cannot vote for his favourite, however, today he went to the headquarters of the candidate to declare his moral support to Saakashvili. Otar Zourabichvili said the position of Saakashvili and his program is acceptable and real.
Georgian Online News
Opposition Plans Rally on January 6
January 2, 2008, Civil Georgia
Politician from the nine-party opposition coalition said the bloc planned a rally on January 6 to announce results of their parallel vote tabulation (PVT). “At the rally we will inform supporters about results of our parallel vote tabulation,” MP Kakha Kukava of the Conservative Party leader, told Civil.Ge on January 2. “Results of parallel vote tabulation will be based on data provided by the opposition coalition’s representatives at the precinct commissions.” Two election watchdog groups - International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) and New Generation-New Initiative (nGnI) - are planning to conduct separate parallel vote tabulation (PVT), which entails counting votes simultaneously with officials from precinct election commissions. In addition to PVT, exit polls are also planned, commissioned by four television stations – the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB), Rustavi 2 TV, Mze TV and Adjara TV – and managed by the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA), Ilia Chavchavadze State University and two think-tanks - the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD) and the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS. The opposition, however, has already snubbed the planned exit polls claiming that it is conducted by organizations with close links to the authorities. Separate exit polls are also planned to be conducted by Common European Cause. The only information available about this group is that it is apparently a Ukraine-based organization. Representatives of the organization are even refusing to name their local partners, or those who have commissioned them. MP Kakha Kukava told Civil.Ge that he had no information about this organization, but added that he and some of his colleagues from the nine-party opposition coalition planned to meet with representatives of the group on January 3. “We today met with a group of Ukrainian journalist who arrived in Georgia together with this group [Common European Cause], tomorrow we will meet with representatives of this group,” Kukava said.
Patarkatsishvili to Launch New Party
January 2, 2008, Civil Georgia
Tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili’s allies said they would launch a new, right-wing political party, the National-Democratic Movement, to run in the next parliamentary elections. It is thought that the new party will be established sometime after the January 5 presidential election. Speaking at the Patarkatsishvili campaign HQ, Nona Gaprindashvili, a five-time world chess champion, said it would be “a European-style party” based on Georgian traditions and values. “Our dream is to create a state based on justice and welfare,” she said. “Boosting investment, tourism and the agriculture sector should be a priority in Georgia.” Despite announcing his withdrawal from the presidential race, Patarkatsishvili will not officially ask the Central Election Commission (CEC) to strike his name off the list of presidential candidates until January 4, just one day before polling day.
CEC Officials Go to Iraq, Kosovo
January 2, 2008, Civil Georgia
Central Election Commission (CEC) officials left for Iraq on January 2 to arrange so that Georgian soldiers serving there can vote in the January 5 presidential election. Polling stations will be opened in two cities – Al Kut and Baghdad. The Al Kut precinct commission will be composed of three members appointed by the CEC and one by each of the political parties represented in the CEC – National Movement, Labor Party, New Rights and Freedom. The Labor Party will not, however, have representation in the Baghdad precinct commission. CEC officials also left for Kosovo last night. About 100 Georgian soldiers are stationed there.
Foreign Press on Georgia
Georgia's Ex-Leader Puts In Final Spurt On Comeback Trail
Saakashvili Had Resigned Presidency after Criticism of Crackdown on Protests
January 2, 2008, The Washington Post
TELAVI, Georgia -- Before his helicopter touches down, Mikheil Saakashvili already has his hand on the door handle. A bodyguard leans forward but can't restrain him long; within seconds, Misha, as Georgia's former president and now campaigning candidate is informally known, has jumped out, ducked into a black SUV, and is barreling at top speed through the countryside. In Telavi, the capital of Georgia's wine region, he unfolds his broad 6-foot-3-inch frame from the car and grabs a microphone. "I live for you," he booms to a crowd in the street. "You can't imagine what it means when you smile for me." Then he's off to a local university; by the end of the afternoon he has hit a church, a theater, a vineyard and a farmhouse, chased after by out-of-breath assistants, bodyguards and TV crews. Saakashvili, 40, has spent every day of the past month like this, on an intensive, often frantic, 41-day presidential campaign that culminates when voters go to the polls Saturday. "I love campaigns," he says with a grin as the helicopter lifts off again. "It's like a boxing championship; you go up and up and up, until the last one." But this campaign, meant to be his last, wasn't supposed to happen this way. His term as president was slated to last through 2008. But he cut it short in November to defuse a crisis that began when he sent out baton-swinging riot police after five days of peaceful anti-government demonstrations, accusing the protesters of being stooges of Georgia's rival, Russia. Police also raided and violently shut down a popular opposition TV station. The tactics angered many Georgians and shocked allies of this former Soviet republic; the United States had praised Georgia under Saakashvili as a successful new democracy. Western governments and human rights organizations condemned the police attacks, saying Saakashvili had taken a troubling authoritarian turn, and some analysts said the country could fall into military rule or civil war. But the next day Saakashvili had a surprise response: He moved the presidential election ahead to Jan. 5, which required him to step down and run again. Georgians, he declared, would show with their ballots whether they supported him.A former member of parliament and justice minister, Saakashvili came to power in 2004 by leading the bloodless Rose Revolution, which swept out the corrupt government of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Shortly afterward, he was elected with 97 percent of the vote, in an election that monitors ruled essentially clean despite his enormous tally. In Washington, the charismatic, American-educated leader became a golden boy. A Columbia- and George Washington University-educated lawyer, he set about trying to reform a collapsing bureaucracy at the same breakneck speed he seems to use in everything. He encouraged foreign investment, repaired roads, replaced a corrupt police force, and brought reliable gas and electricity service. He pushed for membership in the European Union and NATO, reined in a rebellious autonomous region and moved to win back two breakaway regions along the Russian border. He became known for scheduling state business after midnight, treating visitors to impromptu rides on Ferris wheels and showing up in unexpected places, such as a conflict zone where he confronted Russian soldiers (an event captured on film and replayed repeatedly on television). The United States helped train the Georgian military and selected the country for a $300 million Millennium Challenge grant. President Bush called Georgia a "beacon of democracy," and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) nominated Saakashvili for the Nobel Peace Prize. But critics accused him of creeping authoritarianism and infringements on free speech and the rule of law. He promoted big business and international investment at the expense of ordinary people, they said, and some charged that his bluster was unnecessarily escalating tensions with Russia over trade, energy and border disputes. Saakashvili dismissed the critics as Soviet retrogrades and during the protest crisis accused opposition leaders of being part of a pro-Russian intended coup. Now, however, the special forces are nowhere in sight and Saakashvili is presenting himself as a compromiser. He has pledged to bring new figures into his cabinet and to focus on poverty and unemployment. In one TV ad, as he listens to a war refugee describe his hard life, a tear rolls down his cheek -- which he insists was real. "Of course I was crying," he said. "If not for the health insurance that we gave them three months ago he would have been dead by now, that's what they told me." Jonathan Kulick, director of studies at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi, said Saakashvili's approach has changed. "He became more avuncular," he said, adding that his style now is more like "chatting with the waitress in the diner in New Hampshire or talking to the farmer in Iowa about the price of soybeans." But George Arveladze, one of several state ministers who have temporarily left their posts to work on Saakashvili's campaign, said the only difference is he now has more time for constituents. "Misha is the same old Misha as he used to be," he said. "He's doing what he loves to do the most -- being with people." If Saakashvili does not win more than 50 percent on Saturday, there will be a runoff. His wife, Dutch-born Sandra Roelofs, says that in his mind, losing is not an option. "He simply cannot imagine that people don't understand the essentials of this election, that there is so much at stake. It is really a choice between black and white, between prosperity and [falling] back into chaos and uncertainty." Whether Georgians believe in his sincerity may not be the key for Saakashvili to win. Many who criticize him say they fear the other candidates could be worse. These include a legislator/wine entrepreneur, supported by nine opposition parties, who has pledged to step down in favor of a parliamentary republic; a former Enron consultant who has cited his good looks among his qualifications; and a wealthy businessman with a white handlebar mustache who along with his campaign manager was caught last week on sting videos offering a state official $100 million to encourage post-election protests. He has since said he will withdraw from the race. Opposition leaders have vowed to protest if they deem the elections unfair. After the airing of the videotaped conversations, which the businessman, Badri Patarkatsishvili, subsequently confirmed, government officials have been saying it will be hard to believe that any post-election protesters have not been paid. Patarkatsishvili had sworn to spend every penny he had to defeat Saakashvili, but he had little popular support. He is part owner of Imedi, the opposition television station that was closed down in November. Following domestic and international pressure, the station was reopened. After the release of the videos, however, many of its journalists resigned in protest, and last week it suspended broadcasts again, silencing the only nationwide opposition station. The fairness of the elections is widely seen as a test of whether Georgia can retain its favored status in the West. Organizations such as Transparency International and the National Democratic Institute already have accused the government of voter intimidation, misuse of funds and including untraceable voters on the rolls. Saakashvili dismisses such reports, calling them biased. In his campaign, as he did in his presidency, Saakashvili skates between holding up the West as a model and rejecting it as a parent figure. He has hired an American public relations firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, but is dismissive of one of the most common American candidate activities: the televised debate. A U.S.-style debate scheduled by a Washington-based elections organization was canceled after he said he would not attend. Some analysts have warned that if elections are not perceived as fair, U.S. aid could cool. Saakashvili agrees the elections should be seen as fair, but he shrugs off the idea that U.S. support is crucial to his country's future, saying it has been "important psychologically, but economically wise, this is very insignificant." Since the November unrest, foreign investment has slowed, pending the election results. Arveladze, whose regular job is minister of economic development, said, "We are still open, and Georgia is still as attractive as ever." But perhaps not the same as ever. The rose-tinted view of Saakashvili's Georgia has faded, and many people -- including Saakashvili himself -- say that might not be bad. "I believe that this will make Georgian democracy more mature," he said. "Beacon of democracy? It's not about being a beacon of democracy; we want to be normal. And you know, being normal in this region is in itself quite something."
Rep. Hastings leading elections mission to Georgia
January 2, 2008, Palm Beach Post
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings is leading an international election observation mission that will be monitoring the presidential elections in the Republic of Georgia on Saturday. Hastings, a Democrat from Miramar who chairs the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe - commonly known as the Helsinki Commission, was appointed to head the mission involving representatives from 32 countries on behalf of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Hastings is president emeritus of the organization's Parliamentary Assembly. Joining Hastings from the United States is U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. Former Georgia president Mikheil Saakashvili called for the election this weekend after a series of bloody clashes in early November. Under Georgia's rules, Saakashvili had to step down from office until the election. The position is being filled in the interim by Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze, a longtime member of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Hastings, who previously led election observation missions in Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Ukraine, warned that "world will be watching Georgia, and it is my sincere hope that these elections are conducted in the most free, fair, and transparent manner."
Georgia poll puts economic revival under scrutiny
January 2, 2008, Reuters
For the waitress working in a busy Tbilisi cafe a few days before Georgia votes in a presidential election, the economic revival under President Mikhail Saakashvili is not all it is made out to be. Between serving plates of khachapuri, a warm cheese-filled flatbread, and bowls of the dumpling-like khinkali, 45-year-old Nani Chikovani paused to explain. "Our family earns more money because our daughter has a job, but we pay more taxes and bills," she said. "We have the same amount of money at the end of each month, not more." The West holds Saakashvili up as a model economic reformer in the South Caucasus -- a transport corridor between east and west - where Georgia is at the centre of a power struggle between its ally United States and former overlord Russia. Under Saakashvili, ex-Soviet Georgia has privatized former state companies, devised liberal economic rules and attracted large sums in foreign investment. Ordinary people have seen their incomes rise as the economy grows. But support at home for Saakashvili, who swept to power in a peaceful 2003 revolution, has dropped as Georgians complain of elitism, corruption, an unfair legal system and an economic boom that has not delivered the benefits they hoped for. Inflation has eaten into salaries and utility bills have soared as they realign with market prices. Saakashvili is expected to win the January 5 election, largely because the opposition is divided. But commentators say voters will use the election to register disappointment with his rule. Chikovani, the waitress, cleared an empty plate off a table. "We pay all our income taxes, which was unusual five years ago and in addition to that, gas is 50 percent more expensive than a year ago," she explained.
The Georgian president called the election in November as a compromise move after he shocked Western allies by sending in police with tear gas and rubber bullets to force opposition protesters off the streets. Saakashvili's opponents back his pro-Western policies but accuse him of crushing democracy and plotting against his opponents -- all charges he denies. Promising social improvements and reducing or scrapping utility costs in a country where the average wage hovers around $150 a month has emerged as a key election battle ground. The Labor party, whose candidate Shalva Natelashvili is likely to be one of Saakashvili's strongest challengers on January 5, has pledged free gas, electricity and water. Other opposition candidates have made similar promises. For his part, Saakashvili has staged television chats with teachers and other state employed workers, listening intently, and promised to increase state pensions to $50 a month, up from the current $34 and ahead of the $24 it was before November. He is asking Georgians to show patience. The European-style economy he is promising to build will, he says, take a few more years to become a reality. "When I'm asked 'What did you do in the last four years of your presidency?' my answer is: 'I built roads, a new army. We improved the energy supply'," Saakashvili said on the campaign trail. "Without any of these we can't create new jobs and raise salaries."
Patarkatsishvili's party to run in parliamentary elections
January 2, 2008, Islamic Republic News Agency
Georgian businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili will create a political party in Georgia which will run in the next parliamentary election, members of his election headquarters announced on Tuesday. The new party will be registered after the presidential election on January 5, they said without specifying the date of the founding congress. An initiative group has already launched work toward founding the party, five times world chess champion Nonna Gaprindashvili said. The party will be called Georgia' National-Democratic Movement and will be "a right-wing pro-European party, but based on traditions of the Georgian people," said Gaprindashvili, who said she would join it. According to the founders of the new party, it will run in the next parliamentary election, whose date is yet to be announced. The Georgian authorities insisted on holding this election in the autumn, while the Opposition demands it be held in the spring. At the plebiscite on January 5, Georgian voters will answer the question if they agree to the parliamentary election to be held in the spring of 2008. The results of the plebiscite will have no legal force, but are important as a means of reflecting the population's opinion, and therefore should be taken into account by the authorities. On December 27, Patarkatsishvili stated his "readiness to withdraw his candidacy from Georgia's presidential election." He will submit his statement on quitting the race to the Central Election Commission on January 4, head of Patarkatsishvili's election headquarters Georgy Zhvania told reporters, who brought Patarkatsishvili's statement to Tbilisi five days ago. Patartkatsishvili has been abroad since November 3, staying in a number of countries, such as Israel, the USA and Great Britain. He claimed he was unable to return to Georgia because of "lack of immunity guarantees." The Georgian authorities said he "could come to Georgia and take part in the election campaign." Despite his dropping out of the election race, Patarkatsishvili said he would keep his promises to the Georgian people. Patarkatsishvili, 52, told Imedi radio on December 18 - when he was still a presidential hopeful -- that he would be allocating 337 million U.S. dollars for supporting Georgia's 300,000 unemployed. He also said he was ready to expend his personal money for buying up the entire harvest of grapes and citrus fruits next year. "The farmers have no blame on them for the fact that the main market for exports /Russia/ has been blocked," Patarkatsishvili said. "More than that, I'll do must best to open Russian markets for Georgia again and I promise you this won't happen through infringement on our state interests." Other promises he made public include things like covering from his own finances the cost of 100 kilowatt/hours of electricity, as well as the fees for natural gas and water supplies for all families in Georgia during the first 18 months of his presidency. The candidates likely to be on the ballots in the January 5 election are Mikhail Saakashvili, who left the post of president to take part in this election, the united candidate from the National Council of Opposition Parties Levan Gachechiladze /43/, MP David Gamkrelidze / 43/ who represents the largest moderate opposition New Right party, Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili /49/, economist Giya Maisashvili and Irina Sarishvili /the last two candidates were nominated by initiative groups/. Earlier, the State Office of Georgia's Prosecutor General released an audio recording of a meeting that Patarkatsishvili had in London December 23 with the chief of a specialized operative department of the Interior Ministry, Erekle Kodua. The Prosecutor's Office said that during the conversation Patarkatsishvili had issued an order that Kodua take part in an escalation of the situation January 6, 2008, the next day after the early presidential election, as well as in the arrest of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili. Patarkatsishvili ostensibly promised Kodua 100 million U.S. dollars for 'an active role in organizing a state coup'. Patarkatsishvili was quoted as saying he was ready "to pay nice money to Kodua to as to avoid the use of force by the authorities against participants in actions of protest and to avert possible bloodshed." Georgian authorities said Patarkatsishvili's confession was a sign of his efforts to organize a state coup. A total of six journalists quit pro-Opposition channel Imedi earlier in the day because of the scandal around Patarkatsishvili. A statement they issued in connection with their move said they could not stay with Imedi anymore as Patarkatsishvili was the main protagonist of events unfolding in the past few days.
A wilted rose
January 2, 2008, The Baltimore Sun
The Bolsheviks were people on a mission when they seized control of Russia in 1917. They believed in the creative power of destruction, and their credo was a straightforward one: The ends justify the means. It's a disastrous credo to live by, and you'd think that 90 years after the Russian revolution more people would have caught on to that. But we seem to be living in a revived era of ends pursued without thought to consequences or morals. In the financial sphere, subprime lending. In Pakistan, Islamic militancy. At Abu Ghraib, humiliation and abuse. There are examples large and small, some relatively harmless and others positively deadly. They stem from an all-too-characteristic human trait, one that goes beyond self-confidence to what might be called self-belief. Today's example comes from the little country of Georgia, which as a former Soviet republic has had plenty of experience with Bolsheviks. Four years ago, Georgia had its Rose Revolution, in which a dashing young lawyer with a Western degree led a peaceful transformation that swept away the old corrupt regime and ushered in what was supposed to be a new dawn of democracy. That lawyer, Mikhail Saakashvili, is smart and foresighted and under constant harassment by Georgia's big neighbor to the north, Russia, but maybe his one big mistake was in coming to believe that he personified the revolution.He wanted to open Georgia up to the West, and Georgians were happy with that, and he wanted to root out corruption and stoke the economy, things no honest Georgian could object to. But he rammed through reforms and made wrenching changes to the old economic structure, and after a while a lot of people began to realize that plenty of Georgians were getting hurt and very few were prospering. The government acted as though it knew what was best, and didn't have the time to listen to other points of view. Protests broke out last November, which were put down by the police with a heavy hand. That didn't look like the Rose Revolution at all. A chastened President Saakashvili called for new elections, and they are to be held Saturday. He appears to hold a lead in the polls, which isn't a surprise since the government has thrown its full weight behind him, and other candidates are struggling to be heard. Georgia is important to the West, because the Caspian oil pipeline runs through it. Georgia is also a test, because Russia is clearly set on bringing it back into Moscow's orbit. If Mr. Saakashvili is re-elected, we hope he learned something from the November protests, and can tamp down the vision thing. We hope he and others will consider the intangible but no less real strengths that come with truly representative government - one that listens to those who are led.
Tensions mount by the shores of the Black Sea
The struggle between East and West is set to envelop the entire region during the coming year
January 2, 2008, The Globe and Mail
If, in the coming year, you find yourself relaxing on the beach in the Bulgarian resort of Bourgas on Europe's little-noticed east coast, you may soon realize that you are in the centre of one of the world's most lavish and portentous conflicts, one that involves a dozen countries and the nuclear powers of the Cold War and is likely to produce explosions in 2008. Look up the coast, just to the north, and you will see U.S. bombers and surveillance planes taking off in increasing numbers from Bulgarian and Romanian seaside bases as the U.S. and NATO militaries shift their major installations from Germany to locations along the formerly communist Black Sea coast. In 2008, a year after the European Union added Bulgaria and Romania, two former Warsaw Pact nations, to its membership, NATO will make its most aggressive bids to win over the rest of the region. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's annual conference will be held near the sea in Romania, and the most explosive item on the agenda will be the proposed membership of Georgia – a Black Sea country that, if it joins, will expand the territory of this Cold War military alliance to the deep interior of the former Soviet Union. Moscow is already reacting with anger to the expanding presence of NATO on these shores, which had previously been entirely within Russia's sphere of influence (only Turkey has traditionally been a NATO member). Half a dozen “frozen conflicts” in Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova appear ready to erupt into full-scale secession wars in the coming year; in every case, the militant movements appear to have Russian backing. For the 100 million people who live around the shores of the Black Sea, 2008 may well feel like a return to the Cold War. This time, though, it's not clear which side any nation, any region or any people are on: Like South America or Southeast Asia during that previous Washington-Moscow standoff, the Black Sea region has become an endlessly contested ground, subject to shifting influences as money and weapons are dumped into unsuspecting populations. In recent years, that conflict has played itself out most visibly in Ukraine, whose elections have been dramatic showdowns between Russian-supported forces and Western-backed democracy movements. This year ended with pro-Western Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who took office on Dec. 18, accusing Moscow of actively funding the opposition's parties. The struggle between East and West is about to envelop the entire Black Sea region during the coming year, often with military implications. The sparring is likely to begin as early as Saturday, when Georgia's five million citizens go to the polls in a presidential election and a referendum on the country's proposed NATO membership. The vote was called after weeks of violent mass demonstrations in November against pro-American president Mikheil Saakashvili. The demonstrations, which Mr. Saakashvili and a number of outside organizations say were backed by Russia, were met with brutal police repression. Georgia, like Ukraine, appears to be divided in half between voters who support the European Union and NATO and those who prefer a return to Moscow's influence. But there are even deeper divisions in Georgia, and in a number of its Black Sea neighbours. Breakaway regions, which hope to form their own nations – usually because their people are more loyal to Russia – have seen low-level conflicts fraught with occasional bombings and acts of violence for years. In 2008, any one of them could become full-scale war. Georgia's troubled regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have become increasingly violent in recent months, their independence movements staging bolder attacks against government facilities. Neighbouring Azerbaijan has had growing frictions in its region of Nagorno-Karabakh. And on the other side of the Black Sea, the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria, which is loyal to Russia, has seen increasing tensions. These landlocked slivers of Black Sea real estate could well become conflict zones this year, for reasons rooted in another landlocked country that lies closer to the Adriatic Sea. In late January or early February, the Serbian province of Kosovo is likely to declare independence, an act that is backed by the European Union and the United States. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that if Serbia, a Slavic-speaking country, loses its disputed Albanian-majority province to Western influences, it will have a hard time guaranteeing the integrity of Georgia and Moldova. Many observers see this as a thinly veiled threat: If Kosovo goes, then so goes Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. Some observers already say that arms are flowing into these breakaway regions. “The chance of some kind of armed flare-up in at least one of those conflict zones in the coming year is disturbingly high,” says Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. “The consequences could be catastrophic.” Why are Brussels, Washington and Moscow devoting so much time, money and armaments to a stretch of shoreline that has previously languished in uneasy obscurity? Some of it has to do with geography: Georgia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan sit near the border of Iran, and there is a strong desire to have a Western-loyal buffer of nations and defence installations surrounding this constant site of conflict. Another reason might become visible if you sit long enough on the beach in Bourgas. Further out to sea, you might spot Russian ships laying an enormous undersea pipeline, known as South Stream, that will carry billions of cubic metres of natural gas from Russia, across the 900-kilometre width of the Black Sea to Bulgaria, and on to energy-hungry Western Europe. And just behind you, running up the Bulgarian shore, will be the tail end of South Stream's Western-funded competitor, known as Nabucco, which carries equally enormous amounts of gas from Iran and Central Asia through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey before it supplies Europe. These pipelines, carrying Europe's Russian fuel supply and its hard-fought Iranian alternative, provide the economic backdrop for this set of emerging conflicts. Europe is enormously reliant on Russian gas and oil to heat its homes – some countries, such as Germany and Italy, are so completely dependent that they would face an immediate crisis if the pipelines from Russia were curtailed. (This occurred briefly in 2006, during a dispute between Russia and Belarus over pipeline rights, and caused a sizable shock.) As a result, the supplies of petroleum and gas from the Adriatic Sea through Azerbaijan and from Iran are considered vital. (This is an important reason why the EU has been reluctant to participate fully in sanctions against Iran over alleged nuclear weapons activity.) So much of this dispute – though not all of it, as some would suggest – is rooted in the West's need for energy security. If non-Russian sources of fuel are to be securely provided, then the loyalty of the countries to the east, south and west of the Black Sea is vital. From Moscow's perspective, if its continued dominance is to be maintained (and good prices upheld for its supplies), then pipelines will need to pass through the west, north and east of the Black Sea. Some countries, notably Bulgaria and Romania, stand to benefit either way: Both Adriatic-Iranian oil pipelines and Russia's new pipes will enter Europe through their impoverished territory. As you relax on the beige sands of Bourgas – an increasingly popular vacation getaway for both Central Europeans and for Russians – these rising tensions might be visible along the shoreline and across the water. But they're likely to seem especially bizarre when you return to your hotel, which is almost certain to have EU flags flying on its awning – and to be owned by Russian tycoons.
Georgia prepares for Presidential vote
January 2, 2008, EuroNews
The former Soviet republic of Georgia is preparing to choose a President under the watchful eyes of nearly 500 Western electoral observers. The incumbent, Mikhail Saakashvili, called the vote early, partly as a compromise, after shocking his Western allies in November by forcing opposition supporters off the streets with riot police, tear-gas and rubber-bullets. His so-called "Rose Revolution" in 2003 has brought some economic benefits, and a flood of foreign investment. But he has also been accused of silencing critics, and the independent media. One of his main rivals is a 43-year-old businessman, Levan Gachechiladze. Some analysts say Saakashvili will benefit from the opposition's failure to unite behind a single candidate. Others believe the sitting president is finished, having produced an economic boom which has not delivered the benefits ordinary people hoped for. Whatever the result, the opposition have promised massive street demonstrations, if the vote is deemed fraudulent.
Georgian Youth Activists Take Back Seat for 2008 Presidential Vote
January 2, 2008, By Molly Corso, EurasiaNet
In 2003, the Georgian youth movement Kmara (Enough) emerged as one of the headline-grabbers of the Rose Revolution. More than four years later, the buzz surrounding Georgian youth activists appears to have faded. Although young activists for both former President Mikheil Saakashvili and the opposition have worked for weeks on the campaign trail, political scientists believe that their impact on Georgia’s January 5 vote will be minimal. As Saakashvili and opposition frontrunner candidate Levan Gachechiladze hit the campaign trail over Georgia’s December 31-January 2 New Year holiday, youth activists sympathetic to their cause followed closely behind.Their aim was clear: to scoop up the undecided voters who, according to some polls, account for nearly a quarter of the potential electorate. The numbers could prove critical. A presidential candidate must win more than 50 percent of the overall vote to be declared the winner in the first round; if not, a second round of voting follows within two weeks of the initial election. For pro-Saakashvili youth activists, meet-and-greets are their specialty. The Youth Office of Saakashvili Supporters claims to have 3,000 registered volunteers in Tbilisi, with offices also in the regional centers of Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city, and Telavi, center of the Kakheti wine region. On the opposition side, a slightly stronger attempt has been made at grabbing public attention with protests or other public displays. On December 20, youth activists connected with the pro-Gachechiladze Equality Institute briefly snarled traffic in downtown Tbilisi with a march from Tbilisi State University to parliament, where they hung anti-Saakashvili posters and white neck scarves, a symbol of the Gachechiladze campaign. Twelve activists were arrested on December 30 for spraying graffiti. Seven were released from custody and five were fined 400 lari (about $252) each for the damage, local media reported. Davit Dalakishvili, an organizer in this youth movement, describes his group as a melting pot of anti-Saakashvili sentiment, rather than as an organized structure tied to a single candidate. He puts the movement’s number at “at least 200,” though says that there is no organized effort to count the number of activists. As with Saakashvili, supporters are urban-based; apart from Tbilisi, they are primarily located in Kutaisi and the western Georgian city of Zugdidi. “We united youth who did not want to join any party,” Dalakishvili said, noting that the movement started before the “November events” – a reference to the November 7 crackdown on anti-government protests and demonstrations that preceded Saakashvili’s call for an early presidential election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Political scientist Malkhaz Matsaberidze, however, maintains that the nature of the election limits any real impact the youth groups might have. While Georgian youth have traditionally been very politically active, activism alone, he said, could not address the “biggest problem” in Georgian politics -- the lack of a strong opposition candidate. “People are disappointed with the actions of authorities. … But they don’t see any force in the opposition, [especially] since the footage that was aired,” Matsaberidze said in reference to audio clips reportedly of opposition candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili discussing plans with an Interior Ministry official for an alleged post-election uprising. Patarkatsishvili has since indicated that he will withdraw his candidacy on January 4, a day before the elections. [For background see the Georgia: Vote 2008 archives]. Nonetheless, states Dr. Tina Gogueliani, while youth groups alone are not enough for Saakashvili or Gachechiladze to win, they can “contribute to victory” for a party. The youth movements, she said, play an important role outside of merely garnering new votes; they provide political parties with an outlet to air their more “radical” ideas. “I think that all political parties or forces are highly interested to involve the youth,” said Gogueliani, a political scientist with Tbilisi’s International Center on Conflict and Resolution. “Young people are much more radically motivated. Their radical positions are much more accepted [and] something that opposition forces themselves cannot express, can be expressed by young people who support them.” Tbilisi State University’s Matsaberidze believes that pro-opposition youth activists are trying to mimic Kmara (Enough), the outspoken group of Saakashvili-friendly youth activists that played a key role in voicing public frustrations with ex-President Eduard Shevardnadze before the 2003 Rose Revolution. “They are doing what the movement of Kmara did in its time,” Matsaberidze said. “They are using those methods that Kmara used. They are using it as an example – what they saw, what they noticed from Kmara.” While opposition activist Dalakishvili’s movement uses Kmara-like techniques, including catchy slogans and street demonstrations, he shrugs off any comparison with Kmara. The anti-Saakashvili movement is deliberately unstructured, he argues – an approach which Dalakishvili claims is at odds with what he describes as Kmara’s “several thousand” highly trained volunteers. “We did not want any structure,” he said. “Kmara was established for a concrete aim [while] our organization will continue to exist. Our main aim is to … strengthen civil activity.” Giorgi Kandelaki, a Kmara activist during the Rose Revolution and former Saakashvili administration analyst, also downplays any comparison with Georgia’s new youth movements. The most “fundamental” difference is Georgia’s current political climate and the atmosphere that existed under ex-President Shevardnadze, Kandelaki says. “[T]hey are trying to imitate some of the methods that Kmara used,” he said in a telephone interview from Vilnius. “But still there are significant differences between them.” While Kmara’s demonstrations were used to protest elections rigged by the Shevardnadze government and to regain Georgia’s democratic orientation, today’s youth movements cannot put such claims against the Saakashvili government, he said. Size, he continued, is another factor. According to Kandelaki, during “peace time,” Kmara had 3,000 volunteers; that number expanded during the run-up to the Rose Revolution. [Kandelaki formerly worked as an intern for EurasiaNet.org in New York City]. Saakashvili youth activist spokesperson Salome Denidze also denies any attempt to create a second Kmara. Today’s movement, she says, is less about demonstrations and more about dialogue. “We go and make meetings and try to meet people – [create a] dialogue,” Denidze said. “[I]n this way, I think we have done quite a lot.”
Strategic Georgia occupies eye of storm
January 2, 2008, Agence France Presse
An unassuming field outside Nugzar Shkadua's village home hides the key to a geo-strategic struggle framing Georgia's snap presidential election Saturday. Invisible beneath the snow-flecked ground are two giant US-backed pipelines funnelling hydrocarbons from the Caspian Sea to Turkey for export to Western markets in a bypass of Russia. Only discreet posts -- yellow for gas and orange for oil -- signal the project's existence, but these new pipelines have upset the traditional balance of power in a region dominated by Russia for more than two centuries. "Once they built that, the whole world noticed us. It changed views about Georgia and, most of all, it brought us security," Shkadua, a moustachioed former builder, said as he poured guests homemade wine in Khaishi, south of the capital Tbilisi. Under the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, who is seeking a new five-year term in Saturday's early poll, Georgia has moved from failed state to ambitious Western ally. And the energy corridor is only part of the story. Vapour trails of US military aircraft en route to Afghanistan trace the sky over the Caucasus mountains and Georgia's once ramshackle armed forces have been re-trained and equipped by the Pentagon. While NATO countries get cold feet about US President George W. Bush's military campaigns, this country of less than five million people is sending a contingent to Afghanistan and a disproportionately big force to Iraq. A strong push for NATO membership is likely to be reaffirmed in a non-binding referendum held alongside the presidential vote this Saturday. "Georgia is important because of its strategic location, above all as a transit route of Caspian energy resources to the West," Alexander Rondeli, at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, said. "It is difficult to over-estimate its importance for NATO and Europe." But breaking the geo-political mould in a region including resurgent Russia, Islamist Iran, the Caspian basin's energy riches, and NATO members such as Turkey, is risky. Russia openly supports separatist rebels controlling two vital Georgian regions -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- and in 2006 dealt Georgia's economy a body blow by severing most trade and transport links. Now Moscow is threatening to recognise the independence of Georgia's separatists should Western capitals recognise Kosovo, the breakaway province of Russian-backed Serbia. Such a move might strip Georgia of its two territories forever, or provoke the government into attacking the separatists. So far Saakashvili has enjoyed support from the West in his cold war with Moscow, but backers were alarmed this November when the supposed democratic champion of the ex-Soviet Union brutally repressed demonstrators in Tbilisi. The government says the demonstrations were part of a Russian-backed coup plot and insists that Western capitals will understand. "Recent events have damaged Georgia's international image to some extent," Giorgi Baramidze, minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, told AFP. "However, the latest information concerning the threats Georgia faced in November (means) such damage will be minimised." The fact that even Saakashvili's challengers on Saturday want NATO membership and close ties with Europe means Georgia's pro-Western course seems set to continue. However, those ambitions must first overcome the legacy of a post-Soviet history that includes civil war, ethnic conflict, the violent death of one president, and the toppling of another. The unrest in Tbilisi this November and the decision to hold snap elections after a nine-day state of emergency resurrected dark memories in the ancient capital. "I think things are far from irreversible," analyst Giorgi Margvelashvili said. "I think Saakashvili faces a very serious challenge now -- and not just Saakashvili, but all Georgian society."
Georgian region eyes Kosovo domino effect
Abkhazia is also seeking statehood
January 2, 2008, AFP
Georgia hopes to end months of political turbulence with a presidential election this Saturday, but in the rebel Black Sea province of Abkhazia even more serious troubles are brewing. The people of Abkhazia, a lush province that broke away in a separatist war in the early 1990s, will stay home as the rest of the country votes in the snap poll. More important for them are events 1,600 kilometres to the west where the Serbian province of Kosovo is moving towards independence — an event that the Abkhaz hope will start a domino cascade of statehood for other unrecognised republics. "The United States has made it clear that it is ready to recognise Kosovo. For us, this is a precedent. We expect Russia to recognise Abkhazia," the Russian-backed region's de facto foreign minister, Sergei Shamba said. Abkhazia, which comprises about 12 per cent of Georgia's territory, has had de facto independence since an ethnic Abkhaz militia defeated Georgian forces following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The war killed thousands and drove some 250,000 ethnic Georgians from the region. Russian peacekeepers Abkhazia survives thanks largely to Moscow, which has deployed hundreds of peacekeepers in the region and provided Russian passports to more than 80 per cent of its residents. But Tbilisi is not giving up its territorial claims and campaigning for Saturday's presidential poll has featured plenty of promises to win back the lost province.