28 May 2010

Local Elections 2010: The "Latest Test" for Georgian Democracy

I've been away from this blog for some time, but I'm back in time for Sunday's local elections.

In the last few months, one thing is for sure -- I've been struck by how relatively "normal" the election campaign has been, virtually from the start of February when the president's office issued a verbal guarantee that elections would indeed be held on the day Saakashvili had promised. Surely, much of this has to do with the fact that opinion polls have given incumbent Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava a commanding lead, but if the sense of "security" that this has given the government translates to an overall improved election environment and, most importantly, solid multiparty representation -- not only for the city council race in Tbilisi but across the country -- then this election will be considered an achievement, no matter who wins the mayor's seat. 


Yes, the mid-March Imedi "War of the Worlds" scandal was outrageous, but it at least discredited the controversial Imedi and reinforced the notion that transparency of media ownership and control is at least as important as responsible media coverage. If Imedi (or, say, Real TV) wants to style itself as some kind of "shock-jock" version of Fox News, fine, as long as the stations adhere to the law on broadcasting and code of conduct *and* their viewers have a precise understanding of the role of the state or its affiliates in their ownership structures (and other stations are allowed to develop and secure financial support freely). Transparency of media ownership ought to continue to be vigorously pursued after local elections.

And at least on conduct, the media monitoring done by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers for the EU and UN has demonstrated less imbalance in coverage than one might have expected, certainly in tone (with the national broadcasters largely refraining from "going negative" against opposition, unlike the mysterious, Tbilisi-based, pro-state Real TV, set up specifically to counter positive opposition coverage). Yes, incumbent Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava has still had an advantage in coverage, but not an overwhelming one (though the last reporting period from May 13-19 exhibited substantially greater coverage than before). Unsuprisingly, "radical" opposition candidate Zviad Dzidziguri has received far more negative coverage than Irakly Alasania or CDM candidate Georgi Chanturia. And Rustavi-2 appears to have taken the Imedi experience to heart; the media monitoring has shown the station to be the most balanced in coverage of all the national broadcasters.

Administrative resources

Yes, the use of "administrative resources" (from official influence or intimidation to the illegal use of state resources to influence votes) appears to still be pervasive, with President Saakashvili himself being publicly dismissive of concerns about the misuse of state resources even to foreign audiences (and confusing the legitimate rights -- and expectations -- of incumbency with the misuse of state resources and personnel). Nonetheless, the amount of attention to the subject, including state-NGO debate, has been spectacular. Transparency International Georgia has done a great job addressing and investigating the issue in Tbilisi and across the country for a USAID-sponsored project. But a few things have been striking about their work: first, most of the findings they have released have concerned rural or small-town areas rather than major cities; second, the scope of their reported violations, while serious, have still largely been on the side of the less egregious; third, the government was responsive to their reporting, with both the Tbilisi Mayor's office and the Inter-Agency Task Force issuing detailed rebuttals on at least the first TI report concerning Tbilisi, as well as at least issuing pledges to investigate violations. More work needs to be done to come to a conclusion regarding that extraordinary exchange between the state and an NGO, and clearly a lot more work needs to be done on getting the laws to function as they are supposed to, but the fact of the exchange was itself an advance.

CEC and Constitutional Reform

The CEC's evident commitment to transparency and, especially, "all hands on board" party work for tackling the perennial problem of the voter lists has also been impressive. A number of problems with voter lists were uncovered, and the CEC appeared eager to address them. I look forward to hearing a final assessment of this process by those who were involved in it, but the final voter list, at least, has not set off any alarms. The fact that the CEC chairman and the parliamentary chairman have both repeatedly reiterated the importance of a democratic, transparent vote has also been noted.

Finally, in the midst of all this, the state commission on constitutional reform issued a draft for a new constitution that rebalances the distribution of power between the executive and legislative branches (which, by the way, is part of a broader trend of constitutional reform taking place across post-Soviet Eurasia).

Election day and after

My perspective on local elections is, admittedly, coming from afar; my guarded optimism primarily concerns elections in urban areas more than the countryside; and in general my view is contingent on these last few days, election day, and the manner in which the CEC and courts handle appeals. I'll remain silent on my expectations for the mayor's race, but I certainly expect to see substantial opposition representation at least in several city councils across the country, even in sufficient numbers to play a role in selecting some indirectly elected mayors. Improvements in process are valuable, but improvements in outcome are, in the end, going to be critical for setting Georgia on a path to multiparty democracy.

09 February 2010

The Imedi Ownership Scandal: Is State Control over National TV Becoming Clearer?

One of the most sustained criticisms of Georgian democracy is that the government has nontransparently wrested control and/or ownership over the two most professional television channels in Georgia, the private nationally broadcast Rustavi-2 and Imedi, which together enjoy over 60 percent of the market share of Georgian broadcast television and, according to a 2009 poll by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers, enjoy at least some trust among 59 percent of the population (while more than 50 percent of respondents trusted the two stations enough to opt for a response of at least 7 on a 10-point scale).

In recent months, however, Rustavi-2 and Imedi have come to look like identical franchises, utilizing the same journalistsincorrect news stories, and innuendo. It has also come to light that the government provides unspecified "state aid" to the broadcast media: the government says that Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze's October 2009 reference to such aid in front of a London audience concerned only legal guarantees and tax breaks. Unrelatedly, the NGO Transparency International Georgia has observed that the 2008 revenues reported by all private, non-satellite television stations amounted to between double and triple their estimated advertising revenues, a gap it attributes to subsidies from "unknown sources" (which, presumably, could be owners, the state, or others who "order" media stories and coverage).

A perhaps not so coincidental set of circumstances last week has highlighted this issue of nontransparent ownership of Georgia's influential private broadcast stations, as well as the need to clarify the state's role in Imedi and Rustavi-2 in advance of the upcoming local election campaign (since most of the country gets its news from these national private stations).

The circumstances pertain to the ownership of Imedi, established by the late Badri Patarkatsishvili, a Georgian oligarch who openly turned against the government in 2007, using his finances and media holdings to promote mass demonstrations in favor of Saakashvili's resignation. Now, Joseph Kay, an (alleged) half-cousin that arrived in Georgia brandishing a power of attorney giving him the right to manage the deceased Patarkatsishvili's holdings, seems to have faced negative verdicts in three European courts against his claims to be a rightful executor of Patarkatsishvili's estate. More strikingly, a United Arab Emirates' investment company, to which Kay reportedly sold a 90% stake in Imedi in February last year and which is one of Georgia's biggest foreign investors, has unexpectedly denied ownership of Imedi, saying it doesn't know who its owner is.

Let me back up a few steps. In November 2007, Badri Patarkatsishvili swore to spend every "last [cent]... to liberate Georgia from this fascist regime," enraged as he was at the violent dispersal of protestors. Authorities subsequently shut down Imedi, froze Patarkatsishvili's assets, and accused him of seeking to overthrow the government (he later died of a heart attack, after an unsuccessful January 2008 bid for the presidency). Against the objections of Patarkatsishvili's widow, daughter, and sister, Joseph Kay (aka Kakalashvili) acquired control over Imedi, an acquisition that was upheld by the Tbilisi city court.

If the arrival on the scene of the locally unknown Joseph Kay wasn't enough to raise suspicions of murky dealings, less than a year later Kay said he sold 90 percent of his shares to RAK Georgia Holding, an affiliate of Rakeen Georgia, the local branch of the "property development arm" of RAKIA, the investment authority of Ras Al-Khaimah, one of the United Arab Emirates and a major investor in Georgia (which has a long-term management concession in Georgia's Poti port and reportedly leased a Tbilisi amusement park previously developed by Patarkatsishvili -- at least until his forty-nine year contract was cancelled after November 2007).

It was then announced that the new general director overseeing the finances of the Imedi media group would be Giorgi Arveladze, a longtime associate of Saakashvili, with past positions as secretary general of the United National Movement, the president's chief of staff, and minister of economic development.

So what has happened in recent days? First, the lawyers of Patarkatsishvili's family have issued a statement saying that courts in London, Gibraltar, and Lichtenstein have determined that Kay's claims to control various of Patarkatsishvili's properties are suspect. The statement says that the rulings include orders to freeze Kay's assets. (I have not seen independent accounts of the rulings, and Kay's lawyers have previously disputed the family's interpretation of court rulings.)

Second, in an interview with the English-language Abu Dhabi newspaper The National, RAKIA CEO and Rakeen executive chairman Khater Massaad denied that any firm related to either company owned Imedi -- the first disavowal of its kind since Joseph Kay and one Mark Monem, claiming to represent RAK Georgia Holding, held a press conference in February 2009 to report the sale, which the Georgian president's press office reportedly confirmed later that month.

How did Massaad explain the confusion? “There is somebody in Georgia who has created his own company with the name RAK Georgia Holding....This company exists indeed. But we have nothing to do with it. The problem is that I have not registered the name RAK as a brand.”

Indeed. So someone stole the RAK brand and, with the connivance of Joseph Kay, pretended that they purchased Imedi as a representative of Ras al Khaimah, one of Georgia's largest investors? And the emirate's investment companies didn't bother to correct this blatant misrepresentation? And the Georgian government went along with it? And then a ruling party stalwart took control of the media holding under the new ownership and allowed the misrepresentation to continue?

Actually, Transparency International Georgia unveiled a hint at the end of last year that this is, indeed, what happened -- even though neither they nor anyone else noticed at the time. In a report on television ownership, control, and regulation, TI Georgia indicated that the 90% owner of Imedi's parent company, according to Imedi's lawyer, was RAAK Georgia Holding, with two "As," a misspelling that, given the recent revelation, appears to have been an attempt to intentionally misrepresent the ownership of the company while avoiding any potential legal trouble.

But now that Joseph Kay may be running into legal trouble elsewhere, there is a chance that the new owners may not be as successful as they had hoped. At a minimum, the affair confirms suspicions about Joseph Kay which Georgia's courts must now find impossible to ignore with regard to his initial acquisition of Imedi.

For that matter, someone should ask Giorgi Arveladze, the Georgian National Communications Commission, the presidential press office, and any other official personnel or structures that have referred to Ras al Khaimah as the owner of Imedi what they have or haven't known about Ras al Khaimah's (non-)involvement in the purchase of Imedi; why Joseph Kay and "RAAK Georgia Holding" have never been taken to task for their misrepresentation; whether such misrepresentation has any legal consequences in Georgia; and, finally, who really owns Imedi.

Next up: Rustavi-2.

24 January 2010

How Not to Win Friends and Influence People: The "election observers" and "Hitler quotation" affairs

The Georgian government experienced two strange, seemingly minor, public relations fiascos last week: the "observer affair" and the "Hitler quotation affair." However minor, these incidents colorfully demonstrated a certain tone-deafness to (or disregard for) Western views on democratic political culture, in ways that the Georgian government justifies by its focus on "bigger" strategic issues (namely Russia).

The "observer affair" involved the dispatching by the government (evidently, by the interior ministry) of several hundred young men to Donetsk, a stronghold of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych (who polled first in the initial round of the election). This was after the Ukrainian central election commission rejected a Georgian government request to register as election observers some 2,000 "employees of various state structures" (as they were officially referred to, together, in theory, with representatives of unnamed NGOs). Allegedly corroborated by recordings of mobile phone conversations between Georgian government officials (including the interior minister) and even between Saakashvili and Ukrainian prime minister and presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko (who came in second), the Georgian "observer mission" appears to have been agreed upon with the latter. It also received support from outgoing president Viktor Yushchenko (who came in fifth, with six percent of the vote). The authorities have not disputed the veracity of the recordings (delivered anonymously to Ukrainian media outlets).

To put Georgia's actions in context, there are a few points to keep in mind. Clearly Georgia has reason to be concerned about a Yanukovych victory: Yanukovych is virtually the only mainstream politician in the post-Soviet space who has supported recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And maybe there was reason to be cautious about the possibility of concentrated electoral fraud -- Donetsk was a prominent site of fraud in Ukraine's 2004 presidential election. Third, Georgia has dispatched or attempted to dispatch its own electoral observers in the CIS before -- to Ukraine in 2004 and to Belarus in 2006, for example. Finally, there remains the obvious implications of someone (Russian intelligence being the most obvious candidate) monitoring the phone traffic of the highest Georgian and Ukrainian officials.

All that said, the "observer affair" remains problematic on a number of levels for what it reflects about Georgian governance. First is the self-absorption with which Georgia attempted on its own to dispatch to Ukraine far more "observers" (and state-organized ones at that) than did Europeans and Americans. The International Election Observation Mission, spearheaded by the OSCE and joined by Council of Europe and NATO parliamentary assemblies, recruited only around 800 monitors, compared to Georgia's couple of thousand.

Second is the notion of it being precisely Georgia -- with its "partly free" (.pdf) status, as ranked by the Freedom House democracy promotion NGO -- sending state-organized observers to monitor elections in "free" (according to Freedom House) Ukraine. Many Georgians and outside observers agree that the Georgian government should be focused in these weeks and months on instilling confidence in their own democratic institutions, rather than displaying such overwhelming attention to the institutions of its democratically more advanced neighbor.

Third is the spectacle of Georgia taking on the role, distortedly attributed to the West by critics of the "color revolutions," of an actor using the facade of democracy promotion to intervene in the internal affairs of others. If the Georgian observers had been rejected, and there had been no further action on the part of the government, this would not have become a news story. But the insistence on dispatching several hundred putative "observers" to Donetsk, and trying to spin them as "tourists" in the hopes of receiving last-minute accreditation, was the real fiasco. In the absence of official permission, this move allowed critics to insist that Georgia was seeking to inappropriately affect the outcome of the election race in Donetsk, even if  the Georgian "guests" did not in fact have any intention to intervene.

Finally, of course, is the lack of concern this move evinced for potentially negative perceptions of Georgia in Ukraine, at least (and possibly not even exclusively) among the majority constituency opposed to Tymoshenko and Yushchenko.

Making far less news than the "observer affair" was the bizarre and unsettling story of the "Hitler quotation affair." Russian (and Georgian radical opposition) obsession with portraying Saakashvili as a fascist is not novel; Georgia's first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia was frequently tarred with the same label (and similar epithets, somewhat anachronistically, have been hurled at Georgia's Menshevik-led government of 1918-1921). Because of this, and because there is no easier way for Russia to attack neighboring governments that it dislikes (in Ukraine and Estonia, for instance) than to highlight any local tendency to laud "national patriots" that historically sided with the Nazis in the hopes of defending their lands against Soviet occupation, one would expect official Georgian structures to be extraordinarily careful to protect against such accusations (leaving aside the self-evident damage to Georgia's pursuit of European and Euro-Atlantic integration that would be done by hints that such claims had any truth to them).

Thus, one can only meet with astonishment bordering on disbelief a revelation concerning the airing of a program promoting army reserve service during the summer of 2008 by a television station openly operating in cooperation with Georgia's Ministry of Defense (who advertises the station and commissions "military programs" that make up "most of our broadcasts," according to the station, Sakartvelo TV). The otherwise innocuous video included a segment that concluded with this spoken and printed quotation: "It must be thoroughly understood that the lost land will never be won back by solemn prayers, nor by hopes in any League of Nations, but only by the force of arms," straightforwardly attributed in the video to "Adolf Hitler, 1932."

Obviously recognized as a problem now that it has belatedly been disseminated, the MoD has not helped matters by its official denunciation of the quote. In an official statement, the MoD disavows the quotation but not the fact that it appeared in a program that it must have commissioned. Instead, it refers to the quote, somewhat mystifyingly, as representing the "personal initiative and vision" of the author of the video. Nor does the Ministry explain who the author of the video was, what his relationship to the MoD or the Georgian government was, or why the MoD allowed a video that approvingly uses a quote by Hitler to be aired, or somehow missed its inclusion into the lineup.

Instead, the MoD has been defensive about the affair, pointing out the obvious -- that the issue has surfaced now in order to discredit the ministry --rather than clearly and definitively stating that the use of the quote in (at best) a semi-official setting was a horrific oversight and whoever was responsible should be distanced as far away as possible from official state structures. Greater transparency (and contrition) regarding this whole affair would seem to be vital components of a decisive rebuttal to the inevitable accusations of fascist sympathies that have arisen with it.

15 January 2010

Selecting a CEC Chair: Why Am I Not Surprised?

The holidays and a move to a new workplace have kept me offline these last few weeks, but I'm confident you all have have been keeping up with the lively (if anonymous) English-language commentary and reporting at the opposition Georgian International Media Centre.

And what a few weeks its been. This last month has seen a few positive developments: the public TV board getting 7 new members, including three supported by the independent Media Club and one affiliated with the parliamentary opposition, the new ombudsman issuing a self-consciously apolitical but earnest assessment of the state of human rights, and parliament legally alleviating a concern by the opposition that the ruling party was planning to register supporters outside of Tbilisi as city residents in an effort to inflate its share of the vote in upcoming local elections.

At the same time, we have also seen far more publicized developments: in addition to the end-of-year passage of the electoral law amendments, these have included the tragic disaster that resulted from the unexplainably hasty destruction of the WWII monument in Kutaisi; the strange claim by Imedi TV that 60% of poll respondents want Saakashvili to serve an unconstitutional third term (when, as Imedi also acknowledged, they evidently happened to only choose Saakashvili as the UNM's next presidential candidate); the government's fixation on re-introducing "military-patriotic education" and firearm skills to the public school system; the mixed verdicts delivered against defendants in the Mukhrovani coup trial; and, finally, the four-way game between the president, parliament, the nonparliamentary opposition, and the parliamentary opposition on selecting the chairman of the CEC -- turning what was supposed to be the core component of consensus building in advance of the local elections into a cause for further division and lack of trust.

For now, let's focus on the process for selecting the CEC chairman. To recall, the novelty of this process was that the president was going to select three candidates from a list of nominees proposed by various civil society representatives, and the opposition members of the CEC would select one by majority vote. In the end, most of the engaged civil society organizations threw their support behind one of two longtime election monitors (Eka Siradze and Kakhaber Sopromadze -- both, if I'm not mistaken, of ISFED, which suggests what exactly? A split in the election monitoring ranks, or a strategy to try and stack the deck in their candidates' favor?) Single NGOs selected other candidates, including the three that Saakashvili selected: the outgoing CEC chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili (nominated by the Liberty Institute, which should surely be considered more of a GONGO than an NGO at this point); constitutional court judge Otar Sichinava (sponsor: New Generation-New Initiative); and accountant, public TV board member, and former CEC-contracted monitor of campaign financing Zurab Kharatishvili (sponsor: Alpe Foundation).

The Georgian Media Centre has a good analysis of the predicament that the opposition has now found itself in, thanks to Saakashvili's choice of candidates. Opposition supporters focus on two issues. The first is the inclusion of outgoing CEC chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili as one of the president's three candidates. Whether out of pure cynicism, to reward Tarkhnishivili or other supporters within the government, and/or to force a choice between the other two candiates, Saakashvili did not do the process any justice by proposing a candidate he knew would be flatly rejected by virtually all civil society representatives and political parties. Keeping Tarkhnishvili on a list of candidates to a post from which he is clearly expected to step down has been a quite unfortunate signal of the lack of government commitment to a process of consensus-building in advance of local elections.

The other issue, of course, is Saakashvili's refusal to allow either of the two main NGO candidates to have the chance to be selected as CEC head. Now it's not self-evident that civil society actors -- no matter how respected and experienced in election monitoring they are -- should be expected to become the CEC chair, and perhaps the civil society groups that backed them should collectively have offered Saakashvili not individual candidates but a handful of acceptable nominees, allowing the president to make a choice among several. But regardless the outcome looks bad -- the government consults with civil society representatives and then ignores their preferences. The result? Opposition parties on the CEC are refusing to support any candidate, and it is now up to parliament to select the CEC head. It will be as if the hastily thrown together process of consensual selection never happened (the strangely codified legal timeline, Saakashvili's even stranger disruption of that timeline, and the differences this all suggests between the president and parliament are another story). The government's promise to consensually select a CEC head appears to have been for show, and it has managed to outmaneuver the opposition and civil society to select the CEC chairperson it probably always intended to. This does not mean that the conduct of the election must by necessity be poor, but it does demonstrate a spectacular lack of good faith on the part of the government and continues to breed distrust of the system among opposition supporters.

Unless this is all a farce to re-appoint Tarkhnishvili, salvaging the electoral process will depend heavily on the conduct of whoever is selected CEC chairman, be it Sichinava (reportedly Saakashvili's mother's neighbor, whatever that information is worth) or Kharatishvili. Not much appears to be known about either of them. Whichever of them is selected CEC head will have his work cut out if he hopes to gain the confidence of opposition parties and civil society.

UPDATE: So at least it wasn't a farce to re-elect Tarkhnishvili, who withdrew his candidacy (saying that he couldn't work with the opposition members of the CEC). Parliament chose Zurab Kharatishvili. Without knowing much about him, one could point out that having an accountant serve as CEC chairman happens to be a great idea -- there were certainly plenty of numerical errors made in at least the 2008 presidential election count. But its still not clear whether he has political, collegial, or personal ties that would diminish his ability to perform the abilities of the chairman in the spirit and letter of the law.