This was originally published in January 12, 2008 Armenian Reporter.
by Emil Sanamyan
WASHINGTON – Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili received 52 percent of the January 5 vote, according to official preliminary results from Georgia’s Central Election Commission, just enough to avoid a second round contest with opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze, who came second with 25 percent.
Mr. Gachechiladze, as well as seven other candidates, including exiled billionaire businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, who came in third with 7 percent of the vote, claimed the election was fixed to avoid a second round and promised new street protests unless the results are overturned by courts.
Western observers offered divergent interpretations of the conduct of the vote and its possible consequences. The presidential election came two months after Mr. Saakashvili used force to disperse thousands of demonstrators who called on him to resign, introducing a week-long state of emergency.
Mr. Saakashvili, 40, was swept to power after November 2003 street protests against his predecessor and Georgia’s Soviet-era leader Eduard Shevardnadze, in what was dubbed a democratic “Rose Revolution.” Mr. Saakashvili went on to win more than 96 percent of the vote in early 2004 election, running virtually unopposed. He has since been credited with bringing order and economic improvements to Georgia, but also accused of increased authoritarianism and not doing enough to address poverty.
Democratic triumph vs. deliberate falsification
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D.-Fla.), who led the short-term Western observers, called the election a “triumphant step” for democracy in a press conference on January 6. And on January 7 the State Department endorsed the observers’ preliminary findings that “the election in Georgia was in essence consistent with most [international] commitments and standards.”
The State Department statement also noted that “international monitors identified significant problems that must be corrected” and urged the Georgian government to investigate reports of fraud.
NATO, which Georgia seeks to join, issued a statement on January 8 describing the vote as “an important step in Georgia’s democratic development” and added that “NATO will continue to deepen its Intensified Dialogue with Georgia, and support further efforts to meet Euro-Atlantic standards.”
Meantime, veteran German diplomat Dieter Boden who led the long-term observer mission (and previously served as the United Nations Special Representative for Georgia) appeared to be much more critical in his assessment. According to Deutsche Welle, the German public radio, on January 10 Frankfurter Runschau newspaper cited Mr. Boden as saying that “there was crass, negligent and deliberate falsification during the vote counting.” According to Prime News report on the same day, a spokesperson for the OSCE did not question the accuracy of the quote but said that the interview was not published completely.
The official results diverged widely throughout Georgia. While official results showed
Mr. Saakashvili trailing Mr. Gachechiladze in most of the capital Tbilisi, the incumbent won more than 90 percent of votes in Armenian-populated Samtkhe-Javakheti and Azerbaijani-populated Kvemo Kartli provinces.
Tina Khidasheli with Mr. Gachechiladze campaign said on January 8 that returns in those two provinces showed an usually high turnout of more than 90 percent “and in some cases turnout was even 100%,” according to Civil.ge. She claimed that nationwide some 110,000 votes, six percent of all that were reportedly cast, were falsified in favor of the incumbent.
In interviews with the Armenian Reporter this week, long-time Georgia watchers also disagreed on possible consequences of the vote. “I have a sense of deja-vu recalling the Armenian presidential election of 1996,” said Liz Fuller, the Caucasus Manager at Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Prague.
“As Vano Siradeghian told RFE/RL two years later, that vote was indeed rigged to preclude a runoff between Levon Ter-Petrossian and Vazgen Manukian, as many of us suspected at the time,” she recalled. Mr. Ter-Petrossian was forced to resign 16 months after that vote.
“I don’t see Georgia as more stable in the wake of the vote,” said Ms. Fuller, “On the contrary: instability and tension will be the order of the day in the run-up to the parliamentary elections.”
Cory Welt of Georgetown University’s Eurasia Strategy Project in Washington suggested that concerns over Georgia’s stability forced the U.S. and others to quickly approve the election before reports of possible fraud could be investigated.
“Both the government and the opposition suffer from a deficit of trust,” Dr. Welt went on to say. “Many Georgians do not view Saakashvili’s government as an especially democratic one, but neither do they trust that the opposition is playing an entirely fair game.”
He argued that upcoming parliamentary elections, which may take place as soon as this spring would “at last provide the opposition with a legitimate political station.” “This election was principally a referendum on [President] Saakashvili’s rule,” Dr. Welt said. “He passed, if just barely.”