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'No Compromise on Elections Date'
/ 31 Oct.'07 / 20:21
Nino Khutsidze, Civil Georgia

An influential lawmaker from the ruling National Movement Party, Giga Bokeria, said in an interview with Civil.Ge on October 30, three days before the opposition’s planned large-scale protest rally in Tbilisi, that there would be no compromise over elections date.

“Protest rallies will be held and these rallies will pass like many others previously. Our society will get accustomed that this is usual and even large-scale protest rallies are part of democracy. These rallies will pass and the elections will be held in less than a year,” he said.

According to the constitution, presidential and parliamentary elections will be held simultaneously sometime between October and December, 2008. It is up to President Saakashvili to set the exact date for the elections.

Below is a full transcript of the interview:

Q.: Let’s start with the incident in Zugdidi, what can you say about it?
 
A.: What happened in Zugdidi after the protest rally was very unpleasant. We called on the police to protect order not only during the protest rallies – as it happened in all 25 places, where the opposition has rallied [recently] – but after the rallies as well, because great attention is needed to avoid similar incidents. We also call on the citizens to be more tolerant even if they are irritated at the opposition. 

The opposition has been carrying out a vigorous campaign for already a month and - if not counting this incident in Zugdidi – our opponents have faced no problems in other places.

The fact, however, is that several persons have been beaten up, including two lawmakers and the policemen were seen in the footage standing at the incident site. Those policemen, who did not intervene in case of attack on MP Bezhan Gunava, were security guards of the nearby shop and patrol police, who came later, helped Gunava out of the site.

As for the incident involving [beating MP Bidzina] Gujabidze, it was a scuffle. Police were present. They intervened and stopped the scuffle. However, policemen should have acted more aggressively – in a positive meaning of this word – they should have intervened as soon as the situation was becoming tense.

Q.: But there are allegations that policemen in civilian clothes were directly involved in the incident.
 
A.: It is a much graver crime if a policeman was directly involved in assault against a politician, but for now I have no such information. All those persons, who participated in this incident, have been identified and those two persons, who participated in the scuffle with Gunava, have been charged with administrative detention.

Q.: Assailants in Zugdidi were sentenced to a 20-day administrative detention. Earlier court ruled a similar verdict for four youth opposition activists after they were detained by the police, when they, allegedly, were trying to block the road in downtown Tbilisi during the protest rally. Do you think that rulings of this type help to increase trust towards the judiciary?

A.: The court cannot rule stricter punishment than demanded by the prosecutors. Therefore, all complains in this regard should be directed not to the court but to the prosecutors. 

I think the administrative punishment ruled by the court against those persons [Zugdidi attackers] was absolutely appropriate, as it was a very immediate reaction [to the incident]. A separate investigation will of course be needed if new details of the case emerge, or if victims will file an appeal demanding further proceedings.

As far as four young activists’ case is concerned, as far as I know, they were detained for resistance to police during the protest rally. Just therefore they were jailed for 20 days and not for simply an attempt to block the road.

We were astonished when some [politicians] invoked parallels from the past, in particular, when they compared Zugdidi incident with those taking place in Adjara [during the rule of Aslan Abashidze there, when opposition activists were attacked and beaten up in May, 2004]. Parallels of this type are absolutely inappropriate. Similar rallies were held nationwide and no incidents had taken place elsewhere, except for Zugdidi – the two separate incidents took place there when the rally was already over and maybe police delayed to intervene or it reacted improperly, but still drawing parallels with Adjara is incorrect.

I do not downplay this fact [in Zugdidi] and I am not saying that it did not matter. It is of principled importance for us that our opponents hold rallies wherever they want, naturally in frames of law and police should ensure security and they do so. However, in this particular incident they failed to do it and we should pay attention to it.

The only thing I am protesting against is the interpretation of this incident as the government-orchestrated persecution of opponents. It is not true; on the contrary, the ruling party is resolute in protection of the right of public gathering and it has been confirmed in recent month.

Q.: How would you describe the recent developments in Georgia? Opposition has gained momentum and we have seen series of large scale protest rallies both in Tbilisi and provinces in recent month.

A.: We think this is an ordinary thing. We think it is quite normal that the protest rallies are held. There always will be a group of political parties and a group of citizens with them or without them, who will always express protest regarding various issues.   

As far as the content of [the opposition’s recent campaign] is concerned, we, of course, assess it mainly as not serious. But, naturally, political discussion will continue with even the most radical opponents against the background of rallies or without them. Sometimes, consensus is reached and sometimes not.

Q.: The opposition has four major demands…

A.: Compromise is possible about certain issues, but it is not possible about some of them. I do not call it a concession; it does not mean that we are not capable of concessions. Simply, it is bad when you are sitting with the opponents at the negotiating table and after they learn that the ruling party is ready for a serious compromise they start telling us that this issue is no longer a priority for them. This is not a normal rule of political relations.
 
Q.: Tell us about the ruling party’s position about opposition’s each of the demand and start with the one involving holding of parliamentary elections in April, instead of late 2008, as it was envisaged before the constitutional amendments in December, 2005.

A.: Elections in April means early elections. This is strange. The constitution envisages holding of early elections, only if there is a parliamentary crisis – when the parliament makes a non-confidence vote against the cabinet, or when the parliament rejects state budget – but there is no sign of that. 

This is a demagogy when the opposition says that it wants elections “in constitutional terms.” They forget that the current constitution sets elections for late 2008. If they want to change the constitution, they can campaign in this direction. In this case they should present very serious arguments to back this demand.

The decision [to hold elections in late 2008] cannot be changed just because of a political whim of several political parties. 

Holding of elections in April is absolutely ruled out. The issue was already discussed a year ago. We made a decision and the elections are scheduled for late 2008.

I do not think someone believes that a several-month difference can cause any damage to democracy. This decision does not cause any damage to any political force, it does not restrict political competition; on the contrary, it enables better holding of elections.

Holding of elections in April will cause no damage to the authorities, but we think from logistical and political points of view, it will be better to hold the both [presidential and parliamentary] elections simultaneously [in late 2008].

Q.: We will talk about the details of reasons behind the decision to change the original date of elections. Now let’s move to another demand of opposition related with creation of new election administrations with representatives from political parties.

A.: Discussions can be held regarding election administrations. But when we ask them [opposition], what kind of complains do you have regarding the elections held within past three years, their [opposition’s] only answer is that we have “one-party” administration. They do not specify exactly where the problem is.

During the elections held in Georgia within past three years the votes were counted correctly, the ballot tallies were not rigged and ballot papers were not stuffed into ballot-boxes. The results were annulled, where violations took place. This is not only my assessment. This is the assessment of many local and international organizations.

So, in Georgia there is no longer a threat that elaction results would not reflect the voters’ will. 

They [opposition] offer us to return back to a system of ballot frauds and to the situation when distribution of votes was an issue of political trade-off between the parties. They demand the system, wherein the representatives of all election administrations will defend the interests of political parties and they reject our attempts to create a professional public service of election administration, which will be authorized to simply count the votes correctly – as it has been doing within past three years. I think that a non-partisan administration is better from all points of view and the recent practice has confirmed it.

Therefore, the current election administration will not be replaced with a new one, if the opposition fails to present a very strong argument in favor of this change.

Q.: The third demand is to abolish the current rule of electing majoritarian MPs, involving a first-past-the-post, “winner takes all” system.

A.: Dispute about which election system is better is an ordinary process. Nobody has ever said that the existing system is undemocratic, although it is definitely non-typical in terms of nationwide, general elections.

But what the opposition offers us is unacceptable for us, because this is a difficult system in terms of both counting and management.

We think that election of a majoritarian MP in a particular constituency should be linked to a party, which nominates a candidate in order to encourage political groups. This is a key principle. This is our vision.

There may be various options beyond it and we are ready to consider them. For example: to divide the 150-member Parliament into two parts and to elect 75 lawmakers through majoritarian and 75 through proportional systems. But our opponents are against it. [The current law envisages election of 50 MPs through majoritarian system and 100 through party-list, proportional system].

The discussions about what type of rules of game would foster political parties are still underway and these decisions will continue.

Q.: The fourth demand pushed for by the opposition is release of political prisoners, mainly referring to Irakli Batiashvili.

A.: I cannot understand how we can make a compromise on this issue, because we do not have any political prisoner in Georgia.

We do not consider Irakli Batiashvili to be a political prisoner. He was engaged in a very concrete wrongdoing – coordination of actions of leader of armed rebels [warlord Emzar Kvitsiani in the upper Kodori Gorge] through giving recommendations and planning a public campaign.

The opposition has also indirectly supported this rebellion, but no measures have been undertaken against them, because it was a part of political statements and assessments.

In case of Batiashvili, there were concrete evidence - he was coordinating or directly participating in planning all these actions. So, that is why Mr. Batiashvili was arrested and he cannot be considered as a political prisoner.

Q.: Now let’s go back to the issue of election date. Recently Maia Nadiradze, the parliamentary majority leader, said that there would be no compromise on the election date because the country had to achieve its “major goals” next year. What is the link between elections and these “major goals”?

A.: We have numerously said that there have been foreign factors behind the decision to change the parliamentary elections date. We do not want these elections to coincide with the presidential elections in Russia [in March, 2008], as well as with the time, when many issues vital for our country are to be solved.

Here I also mean the Kosovo case and Russia’s possible steps that may follow after the decision on Kosovo status is made. In case of Kosovo’s [international] recognition, there is a danger that Russia may annex the Georgian territory [referring to Abkhazia and South Ossetia]. We should be very cautious, as the peak of all these decisions comes to spring. Therefore, we do not want Georgia to be involved in the pre-election fever by that time. So, we decided that it would be better tactically, if we postponed the elections. 

Not a single fundamental principle of democracy has been undermined as a result [of this decision]: neither the periodicity of elections has been violated, nor the term of the sitting Parliament has been prolonged significantly.

The Parliament voted for this decision and adopted it by constitutional majority. Now, a year after this decision, only because the group of opposition parties launched an election campaign and raised this issue, we are not going to make a compromise about this issue.

We carried out a public opinion survey, which showed that change of date did not matter much [for voters]. Important is that the principle of periodicity of elections is not violated.

Q.: What do you think are the major mistakes of the authorities which led to increase of public discontent?
 
A.: Last year we gained an overwhelming victory in the [local self-governance] elections and all the surveys confirm that we still have an advantage over our opponents.

According to the recent surveys, carried out in September, we received a 40% support, followed by [ex-defense minister] Irakli Okruashvili’s party [Movement for United Georgia] with 14% and others received only about 4 and 5% [each]. We are grateful to our voters for supporting us in the light of ongoing reforms.

During our election campaign within next year we will constantly explain to our voters why they are right when they are supporting our cause.

It is natural that the authorities make mistakes – only those who do nothing make no mistakes.

Among the mistakes made by the authorities, I can recall delay in launch of judicial reforms. Our opponents, however, criticized us for cleaning judiciary [meaning removal of, what the authorities called, corrupt judges] and not because of delaying reforms.

Delay to launch reforms in the healthcare system was also a mistake. I can list others as well, but listing of own mistakes is not a pleasant thing.

I think that our opponents’ tactic is counterproductive, as they do not offer vision or values or any type of message to the voters. These people simply try to capitalize on the part of voters who are extremely critically disposed towards the authorities.

When we were reducing the bureaucratic machinery, some expressed discontent, but we had and still have a firm will that we should have done what was necessary for the country. And finally, as a result of these reforms we gained more support of our voters. If we had not implemented these reforms we would have failed to keep our major promise to transform the country.

For example, if we had not implemented the education reform, the system, which was absolutely unacceptable for most citizens, would have been maintained. At the same time, it is impossible to make such decisions, which are acceptable for everyone. 

The issue of private property was also a serious challenge for us. And we made a decision to draw a line between the petty violations, which were common practice and to give an amnesty to them and those cases, which affected public interest and were very rough violations.  I want to underline, however, that there might be certain mistakes and the line drawn by us may demand correction.

Q.: Do you think there is enough level of dialogue between the authorities and society?
   
A.: Those elites speak about absence of dialogue, which enjoyed certain privileges in the past by the authorities. They would have praised us as well, if they were offered the same privileges by us. It is of principled importance for us that no such elite groups exist – it is categorically unacceptable for us.

On the other hand, a dialogue with the population is an everyday work of each politician, in various forms, of course. This involves both direct and other types of dialogue with various circles.

From this point of view, the President and other representatives of the ruling party have contacts with voters regarding various issues.

We are very sensitive regarding those complains and demands, which are coming not from any elite group, but from a serious group of our voters. Therefore, I am categorically against the allegations that there is a problem with dialogue.

Q.: What do you expect after November 2, when the opposition plans to launch major protest rallies in Tbilisi?

A.: I wish to have a normal dialogue with our opponents. We have established a tradition of this dialogue in the Parliament, where we try to discuss issues and come to an agreement.      

I hope that when the current anxiety is gone, at least a part of the opposition will agree on a civilized dialogue. And the voters will rule their verdict to those, who do not agree on [civilized dialogue].

I do not see any problem if these protest rallies become permanent, of course if they take place in frames of law.

I think it is a catastrophe for the political reputation when the opposition and protest rallies are financed by [business tycoon] Badri Patarkatsishvili, but this is also part of democracy and this is [the opposition’s] choice.

If someone plans to carry out some violent actions, it has already been said, that today’s Georgia is not the one it was several years ago.

Here I also want to say that while the opposition stresses on its moderate credentials while meeting with representatives of international community, we hear through local media sources, how they call for arrests and persecutions – their statements, which are for internal consumption, are far from being moderate. By the way, they speak about constitutional monarchy here and do not say anything about it abroad. This is their double-standard policy.

I repeat that if nobody plans to stir up any troubles and I hope so, protest rallies will be held and these rallies will pass like many others previously. Our society will get accustomed that this is usual and even large-scale protest rallies are part of democracy. These rallies will pass and the elections will be held in less than a year.

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