By Paul Rimple
The tug-of-war over Forbes billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian citizenship may now be approaching a dénouement, but a national probe into the financing of his Georgian Dream opposition coalition still raises concerns among watchdog groups about how far Georgia’s commitment to competitive parliamentary elections this fall actually goes.
While officials deny that the investigation, which took place in March, was meant to intimidate voters, residents in the destitute western region of Guria claim that the Chamber of Control, the audit agency that enforces campaign finance regulations, threatened them for having ties with the Georgian Dream.
Seventy-two of the 370 interrogations occurred in Guria, where the Ivanishvili family has business interests, and Ivanishvili’s brother, Adiko, lives.
Lili Ebralidze, a member of the pro-Ivanishvili Republican Party from the small Gurian town of Lanchkuti, told EurasiaNet.org she was questioned for five hours about money she allegedly received for a petition campaign to reinstate Ivanishvili’s citizenship. Not long after announcing his plans to enter politics last year, Ivanishvili lost his Georgian citizenship, allegedly for holding triple citizenship (French, Georgian and Russian).
“[The interviewer] didn’t like my answers and asked why I was so disagreeable,” recounted Ebralidze. “I asked him if they were going to beat me and he said, ‘We do not beat people in democratic countries. Now, we have different methods.’”
Irine Urushadze, a lawyer investigating such charges for the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia, said that her group has received reports of Georgian Dream interviewees “being told they would go to prison and their children would lose their parents because people die in prison.” Others claimed they were strip-searched and their lawyers kept out of the interview room.
[Editor’s Note: Transparency International Georgia receives funding from the Open Society Foundation Georgia, part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the Open Society Institute, a separate part of that network. ]
Many of the activists questioned claim that interviewers refused to identify themselves.
The Chamber of Control, which answers to parliament, maintains it was simply checking discrepancies between two financial reports submitted by the Georgian Dream and that it operated entirely within the framework of the law. The same procedure would apply to any political group, it insists.
In an email interview with EurasiaNet.org, the director of the Chamber’s Financial Monitoring Service, Natia Mogeladze, stressed that the people “invited for questioning” related to the Georgian Dream were not accused of any wrongdoing, nor were they summoned as official witnesses. “We interviewed people who might have had a relationship with political financing,” she said.
Mogeladze said that she had no knowledge of interviewers refusing to identify themselves, but argued that a Chamber of Control summons is sufficient proof of identity. She insisted that reports of threats are part of a “black PR policy aimed at discrediting our agency.”
Citing a 95,000-lari ($57,900) fine on the ruling United National Movement (UNM), she also dismissed the charge that the Chamber was doing the bidding of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
But, as always in Georgian politics, the focus can change unexpectedly. The debate over Ivanishvili’s citizenship promises to be supplanted by a debate over a proposed constitutional amendment, now backed by the UNM, that would allow a Georgian-born European Union citizen who has lived in Georgia for ten years to run for office.
The proposal would let Ivanishvili, a French citizen who recently had his application for Georgian citizenship rejected, take part in the October elections. Georgian Dream members have scoffed at the proposal as a PR gesture.
How this measure will affect the Chamber of Control’s Georgian Dream investigation remains unknown, but residents in Guria say that their region already is deeply polarized between the Saakashvili and Ivanishvili camps.
Rampant unemployment is part of the reason. Guria is widely assumed to be one of Georgia’s poorest areas, although the most recent unemployment rate stands at a mere 1 percent. Jobs are divided largely between government-paid positions and a large amusement park, Tsitsinatela, owned by the Ivanishvili family.
Opposition activists claim that local government employees are afraid to express criticism of the central government since they or their family members could lose their jobs; media note a similar reticence. Ivanishvili employees are advised simply not to talk politics at all with reporters.
Davit Usupashvili, co-chairperson of the Republican Party, part of the Georgian Dream, alleges that such wariness explains why the UNM gained the support of 47 percent of 3,161 respondents in a recent poll commissioned by the National Democratic Institute. The Ivanishvili coalition received a mere 10 percent.
“If you live in the regions and somebody knocks at your door and asks you if you support the National Movement, what are you going to tell them?” Usupashvili asked, rhetorically.
A spokesperson for Guria’s Lanchkuti government administration disputed that reasoning. “It’s a lot better now than three years ago. Roads were destroyed; people were afraid of going home at night,” Nino Mshvidobadze said. She declined to address reports of government employees losing their jobs.
One Ozurgeti woman, who asked not to be named, had a different take on progress, though. “When people are poor and starving, new roads don’t mean a thing,” she said. “I think 80 percent of the people feel this way, but don’t express it because they are afraid.”
For its part, the United National Movement maintains there should be no cause for fear. Said Parliamentary Chairperson Davit Bakradze on April 6: “[I]t is in our interests to develop democracy in Georgia and to make the elections competitive.”
Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.