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.