LRT FACTS. Why is Lithuanian MEP accused of interfering in Georgia?
As Georgia prepares for general elections in October, a letter from Lithuanian MEP about the government’s treatment of opposition leaders has ruffled some feathers in Tbilisi.
Andrius Kubilius has been accused by Georgia’s ruling politicians of exerting unacceptable pressure on the country’s domestic issues. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian MEP told LRT.lt the current situation in Tbilisi reminds of pre-Maidan Ukraine, when the now-deposed Viktor Yanukovych imprisoned opposition leaders.
“European partners need a clear confirmation that progress is being made to ensure the necessary conditions for free and fair parliamentary elections in 2020”. Kubilius, who chairs the European Parliament’s Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, said in a May 8 letter sent to the Georgian president and prime minister
The Lithuanian MEP was concerned that three Georgian opposition leaders were in prison at the time.
Accusations of pressure
The Euronest Parliamentary Assembly is the EP’s annual forum with representatives of Eastern Partnership countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
In the letter, the Lithuanian MEP referred to the so-called March 8 Agreement between Georgia’s governing and opposition parties to reform the electoral system to make it more proportional.
Georgian Parliament Speaker Archil Talakvadze responded to the letter by saying it was unacceptable pressure.
“Mr. Kubilius directly called us for the political intervention and to give instructions to the court, such appeals are naturally unacceptable,” he said.
Why are there tensions in Georgia?
Last summer, Georgia’s capital was gripped by massive protests that lasted until autumn. Rallies turned violent on several occasions, with people getting hurt and protesters trying to storm the parliament.
In one of their demands, the protesters called to reform the country’s electoral system which currently favours the largest party, the Georgian Dream, but the parliament voted down the initiative to change the constitution.
However, urged by foreign countries, Georgia’s ruling and opposition parties signed an agreement in March this year to make the electoral system more proportional before the October elections.
In April, however, opposition politician and former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili was sentenced to five years in prison for violence during the Tbilisi protests.
Jail sentences were also given to former mayor of Tbilisi Gigi Ugulava and Giorgi Rurua, a media-owning opposition politician.
In May, however, Ugulava and Okruashvili received pardons from the country’s president and were released.
Kubilius: Georgia has commitments
MEP Kubilius, who is a former prime minister of Lithuania, says that charges of rioting and illegal possession of weapons are used by Georgia’s government to stifle opposition.
“Failing to implement the [March 8] agreement and keeping opposition politicians in jail harm Georgia itself – and claims that they are criminals are unconvincing,” Kubilius told LRT.lt.
“We [Lithuania] come from the same post-Soviet bloc as Georgia or Ukraine and we are aware of how governments sometimes use the justice system to prosecute the opposition.”
EU representatives as well as members of the US Congress had been urging Georgia to reform its electoral rules and welcomed the March 8 Agreement, according to Kubilius.
“But then the pandemic started and the authorities in Tbilisi perhaps thought that no one would be looking – and balked at the agreement not to use the legal system against the opposition,” he said.
He rejected Parliament Speaker Talakvadze’s claim that his letter was interference with Georgia’s domestic affairs.
“Everyone is allowed to express opinions – but how much will the Georgian government take heed? In the end, they do realise that losing the support of international community can be a big mistake. Therefore, through our joint effort, we can convince them to sign an agreement and then to implement it,” Kubilius said.
Georgia, as well as Ukraine and Moldova, have signed Association Agreements with the EU. “Georgia has committed to strive for European standards and the EU must evaluate how successful it is – which is what we are doing,” according to the MEP.
The current situation in Georgia, he added, reminds of that in Ukraine when Viktor Yanukovych was president and opposition politicians Yulia Tymoshenko and Yury Lutsenko were in jail.
Until recently, EU institutions had been reluctant to comment on Georgia’s electoral system, deeming it to be the country’s domestic issue, Renata Skardžiūtė-Kereselidze, deputy director of the Tbilisi-based Georgian Institute of Politics, told LRT.lt.
“Never has EU support for Georgia been linked to specific conditions,” she said. “That might be partly what provoked the parliament speaker’s reaction and public response [to Kubilius’ letter].”
According to her, international pressure was what forced Georgia’s ruling party to negotiate with the opposition following politicians’ arrests.
“For opposition parties, the release of prisoners is part of the agreement and they insist that it was discussed during the negotiations,” according to Skardžiūtė-Kereselidze. “Even though the political prisoners issue was not written into the March 8 Agreement, it is closely related to the electoral reform.”
More favourable election rules will not help the opposition parties, if their leaders are not allowed to run, she explained.
While the president’s pardon did soften the situation, one politician is still in jail, Skardžiūtė-Kereselidze noted.
Election campaigns have also been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Politicians were to start touring the country and meeting voters in spring, but with restrictions put on events and travel, campaigning had to move online, according to the analyst.
“These tools are relatively little-used in Georgia and not all people have equal access to the internet and social media – face-to-face interaction, visiting voters have been crucial to small parties,” Skardžiūtė-Kereselidze said. “Only a handful of parties have enough members and resources to mobilise enough support to win the elections.”
If coronavirus restrictions and the electoral reform drag on, fewer parties are likely to make it to Georgia’s parliament, according to Skardžiūtė-Kereselidze, and the government’s successful handling of the epidemic can strengthen the ruling party.
“Small parties and newcomer politicians can only hope they’ll have enough time to present their platforms to voters and that the electoral reform is implemented, despite the hiccups,” she said.
Biased information. The Georgian parliament speaker’s claims that Kubilius is pressuring the country’s politicians and courts are not accurate in that his letter was addressed to political leaders and referred to a deal already agreed Georgian politicians. The Lithuanian MEP also points out that the Association Agreement with the EU entails commitments that Brussels is monitoring.