Once upon a time, posters were youth’s talisman against an ordinary life of mediocrity – large, colourful pictures decorating our walls which advertised not so much who we were as who we wished we were; the circles in which we wished we could move and be recognized, and a defiant advertisement of our hipness, savvy and world-wisdom at a time when we had only the vaguest idea what those things were. Glen Buxton, Neal Smith, Dennis Dunaway and Mike Bruce snarled down from my walls, hung about with the tools and heraldry of heavy rock and fronted by the strutting embodiment of stagecraft, Alice Cooper – while just on the other side of the same wall, Donny Osmond simpered down upon my sister and her teenybopper friends.
A poster which may have looked out of place among the longhairs and the dubious promises of how you could become an eastern philosopher if you only smoked enough pot was one which featured a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a jittery grin. He held his arms wide, and the first and second fingers of each hand were splayed in the “V for Victory” sign which, in the 70’s, meant “Peace”. The caption varied; sometimes it said “I am not a crook”, sometimes “Trust me”, and occasionally, “Shut up, Hippie”. Richard Milhous Nixon, deceptively brilliant political bête noir and disgraced president, criminal and living symbol of political whoredom, whose inclusion in our bedroom galleries was supposed to advertise our wise-guy familiarity with political undercurrents and our cynical rejection of lies.
Never chosen to appear on those posters was the phrase for which Nixon is perhaps best remembered: “If the President does it, that means it’s not illegal”.
Fast-forward to today, when another president is busily rearranging the political landscape of his country so that he can remain not only close to the seat of power after term limits force him from office, but carry it about with him wherever he resurfaces. In just a few days – October 1st – Georgia will hold parliamentary elections which will determine the course of the country’s domestic and foreign policies for some time to come. And Georgia’s current leader, President Mikheil “Slippery” Saakashvili, is busily loading the dice to consolidate his personal hold over political power in Georgia. And it’s not illegal. It is, however – for a variety of reasons – disturbing.
This is as complex a story as we’ve ever covered, so bear with me. During his years as President, Mr. Saakashvili devoted considerable effort to constitutional amendments to increase and amplify his personal power as the holder of that office. However, in a constitutional rewrite in 2010, he began to transfer all those powers to the office of the Prime Minister, seemingly undoing all that he had done. Those changes will come into effect in 2013 – just as the new President takes office.
What is Tricky Mickey Saakashvili up to?
At present, until 2013 when the new constitution comes into effect (the Presidential election is also in October, next year), the Prime Minister is appointed by the President. There was a great deal of speculation that Mr. Saakashvili intended to….well, appoint himself. Once the new constitution becomes effective, the Prime Minister will be appointed by Parliamentary vote. Widespread suspicion was that Mr. Saakashvili’s ambitious and steady transfer of powers to the office of the Prime Minister meant he intended to occupy that office. And despite direct questioning and plenty of opportunity to say “absolutely not”, Mr. Saakashvili refused to rule it out. Even when some people somehow got the idea he had ruled it out, his office was quick to correct them.
Well, now he appears to have ruled it out. In late June this year, he appointed trusted ally Ivane “Vano” Merabishvili to the office of Prime Minister. This, many say, ends the speculation; Mr. Saakashvili has settled on a choice which will still allow him to influence decision-making in Georgia, albeit as an ex-President with no official authority.
Not so fast, say I. Let’s remember who we’re talking about here. This is a guy who – following a 2004 meeting with Vladimir Putin in which Putin mentioned a Georgian minister in positive terms, expressing hope the minister would remain in his post because he enjoyed the respect of Moscow – immediately reassigned that minister and later fired him. This is a guy who announced a unilateral cease-fire in the run-up to the conflict in South Ossetia in 2008, and launched an attack only hours later.
This is a guy who (a) doesn’t like to be told what is the right thing to do – by anyone – and (b) can’t be trusted for a second.
Also, I call your attention to an item mentioned in one of the articles I linked above. The text itself seems quite benign; but look at the caption just under the photo: “The government of President Mikheil Saakashvili does not rule out that his prime minister will take over as president after he leaves.”
Gee. That’d leave the post of Prime Minister vacant, wouldn’t it? And a trusted ally who has been with him since the late 1990’s, at his side during the Rose Revolution, in the President’s seat.
Before we go any further, let’s back up a second, to 2010. Let’s take a look at what changes are introduced in Mr. Saakashvili’s constitutional amendments. You can all read, so I’ll just list the important ones, and you can parse the rest yourselves. Ready?
Oh, my. The Prime Minister will have the right to appoint and dismiss other members of the government, including the defense and interior ministers. The Prime Minister automatically triggers the dissolution of the government with his own resignation. The government’s powers are suspended as soon as the mandate of newly-elected Parliament is approved, and not upon electing a new President. The Prime Minister’s candidacy is named by a political party, which shall be the winning party in Parliamentary elections. Government members are named by the PM-designate. The government has the right to request Parliament to ratify or reject international treaties; the President must have the government’s consent to exercise this right. The President will need government’s approval to appoint or dismiss ambassadors. The government appoints and dismisses regional governors, not the President – in the original draft, the Prime Minister was allowed to do this unilaterally. Most Presidential decrees will require the Prime Minister’s signature. The President will require government’s approval – of which, we have established, the Prime Minister will be the head – to hold international talks or sign international treaties. The President will no longer direct and exercise the domestic or foreign policy of the state: that’ll be – you guessed it – the Prime Minister. The President will require government approval to appoint or dismiss senior military commanders. The President will not be allowed to convene an emergency session of Parliament, or call for a referendum. Parliament will be able to overrule a Presidential veto with a simple majority.
I don’t know about you, but I’m having a tough time believing someone as devious and egotistical as Mikheil Saakashvili is essentially transferred the entire hammer of state power from the President’s office to that of the Prime Minister just on a whim. He must have had a plan. And that plan will most likely work in the best interests of the person he most admires; himself.
Since we were already headed in that direction, let’s retrace our steps just a little more, back to 2008 – the presidential election, in which Saakashvili won a second term. That was as dirty an election as any the west holds up to ridicule, although you’d have a hard time forming that impression if you read only the western press. Here, for example, is President George W. Bush’s congratulatory statement. Bush often found it useful to lie while he was President, and this is no exception. According to congratulations relayed by the State Department, the 2008 election “was the most competitive in Georgia’s history…[and] was determined by international organizations to be in essence consistent with most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and shared standards for democratic elections, despite significant challenges”. That might be boiled down to “Congratulations: you mostly didn’t cheat”. Is that really what the OSCE found? It is not. The OSCE found the Central Elections Commission (CEC) did not train its operatives properly, and that a handbook describing their duties and responsibilities was not produced until their training was almost complete. Ten days before the election, the CEC itself produced stickers reading “Where will you be on 5 January?” The “5” was inside a red circle, similar to the logo on Mr. Saakashvili’s campaign materials (Mr. Saakashvili was number 5 on the ballot); these stickers were widely circulated and were “in evidence in polling stations on election day”. The CEC did a country-wide voter registration drive in 2007, yet the OSCE received many complaints that deceased people remained on the list, and the CEC was forced to admit a full third of voter records had not been checked at all. Software that was supposed to track multiple entries did not work, and NGO’s and political parties were able to provide OSCE monitors with examples of multiple and incomplete registrations and omission of eligible voters. Opposition parties complained these errors affected over 40,000 voter records. The campaign of Mr. Saakashvili was “notably more extensive than those of other candidates” – it should have been, considering he outspent his next-closest rival by more than triple; $14.6 million to $4.36 million. Vouchers for utilities and medical supplies were distributed by authorities ahead of the election to pensioners and the poor; a clear case of use of state funds to buy votes, especially as the vouchers were prominently marked as being from Mr. Saakashvili and incorporated his trademark “5”. Some voucher recipients were asked by distributors if they planned to vote for Mr. Saakashvili and were asked to sign documents confirming their support. Taking election-rigging to new heights, a presidential program – again using state funds – purchased tractors for farmers, which were handed over with Saakashvili campaign posters affixed to them; these tractors were also used as displays at rallies, and Mr. Saakashvili made it clear where they came from. Police and local officials pressured opposition candidates to stop campaigning or face consequences to themselves and their families, including arbitrary arrest or termination of employment. Business enterprises were pressured to support Mr. Saakashvili’s campaign. Cases of violence, including kidnapping, against opposition activists were verified. Imedi TV, perceived as pro-opposition, was raided by the police, fined and had its broadcast license suspended for an alleged plot to overthrow the government. In the 4 weeks preceding the election, Mr. Saakashvili received 27% of news and prime-time coverage by monitored stations; this coverage was assessed as 98% positive or neutral. The next-closest candidate received 18% of the coverage, and most of it was in connection with his alleged plot to overthrow the government. Understandably, about 33% of it was negative. And on and on it goes – needless to say, any such examples in Russian elections would inspire western media outlets to a perfect ecstasy of democratic fair-play froth and fury. In this case, plainly, they just pretended it was all good.
And that’s just the stuff the OSCE saw. According to the Georgia Times, the village of Yormuganlo voted 105% for the ruling party in 2008. Opposition activists risked being beaten up. In this village of approximately 14,000 voters, almost all are Azerbaijani, and approximately 2000 have the same name, Ali Mamedov. The 12 polling stations in the village recorded only name and a general address, such as “Yormuganlo”. How many times could a guy named Ali Mamedov vote, considering he did not need to supply a street address? Additionally, video footage recorded as many as 6 people in a polling booth at one time, and local administration officials standing outside saying “besh, besh” (five) to every voter on the way in to the booth.
Naturally, all those practices are expressly and virtuously forbidden now (Article 47 of the Elections Code, Vote Buying, Article 48, Prohibition of the Use of Administrative Resources in the Pre-election and Election Campaigns, and Article 49, Prohibition on the use of budget funds and official capacity), now that Mr. Saakashvili will not need the help of “administrative resources” to win another presidential election, and perhaps they were forbidden then, too. But the west decided to give him a pass and look the other way. It’s worth noting that there was no Prime Minister in the original constitution of Georgia; Mr. Saakashvili created the position in a constitutional rewrite in 2004. At least you can never accuse him of failing to plan ahead, and an old military couplet advises us that if you fail to plan, you should plan to fail.
Flushed with newly-discovered zeal for the law, Mr. Saakashvili has rained a perfect torrent of campaign violation fines and punishments upon the rival considered most likely to pose a real challenge – Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. First, upon announcing his intention to form a party to challenge for the Presidency, Ivanishvili was stripped of his Georgian citizenship, making him ineligible. International pressure made Saakashvili walk back on that one – probably because Georgia’s next U.S. Ambassador called the Oct 1st elections “a litmus test for Georgia’s NATO accession”. Yes, NATO is still keen to admit Georgia, even though the rules say you can’t be considered for NATO membership while unresolved territorial disputes cast doubt on the integrity of your borders. I guess the west is simply going to go with Georgia’s constitution, which still includes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as Georgian provinces, ( Article 1: Georgia is an independent, unified and indivisible state, as confirmed by the 31 March 1991 referendum, which took place throughout the country, including the Abkhaz ASSR – in the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, and the Independence Act of April 9, 1991) although both have declared their independence and held elections, which the west and Georgia refuse to recognize although NATO adores nothing more than brave breakaway republics which love democracy and hold elections. Except when that practice conflicts with western goals, apparently. Then Ivanishvili was charged with violation of campaign-finance laws for distributing free satellite dishes to rural Georgians, because it would facilitate access by his television station, while one of his biggest investors was detained and accused of money laundering, although as of June he had not actually been charged with anything. Ivanishvili’s companies providing cheap transport to party members is , yes, also a violation of campaign finance laws uncovered by the eagle-eyed State Audit Service, which was apparently stricken with glaucoma while Saakashvili was distributing tractors with his face on them – purchased with state funds – to Georgian farmers, using municipal buses to transport rally supporters and paying only for the gas, and coercing pensioners and the poor with vouchers for medical supplies.
Nineteen would-be political parties are disqualified from participation in the October elections; a few on their own request according to the Central Elections Commission, but most for violations of the elections code such as “Documents do not comply with the law” and “List of supporters not submitted”. Since quite a few of them are repeats from the last election, you’d think they would sort of, you know, realize you have to submit a list of supporters.
In another slick move announced with the pretense of open-handedness, the Central Elections Commission announced it was opening “additional polling stations abroad” to help registered Georgian voters abroad cast their ballots. These Georgian expatriates, also according to the CEC’s calculations, number 42,613.
There are more than half a million Georgians in Russia alone, and perhaps even more than a million if emigration trends have remained stable since 2005, all eligible voters in Georgian elections. But there will be no polling stations in Russia – even though the Swiss Embassy represents Georgia in Russia – for “technical reasons”. Expatriate Georgians are out of reach of Saakashvili’s inducements, and many could be expected to vote for the opposition. Many of them are also illegal migrants in their host country, where they have made their way for economic reasons owing to unemployment in Georgia the government officially puts at 16%, but which opposition activists insist is more than double that figure. To top it all off, the election day was moved to a Monday; although it will be a holiday in Georgia, it will not be anywhere else, and expats will be faced with a long journey to capital cities where a polling station is available, on a workday in a country where many of them are illegal migrants who cannot risk taking a day off work or attracting notice to themselves. Vote suppression, plain and simple.
In order for Saakashvili’s plan to work, the United National Movement – his party – must score a decisive win. But after that comes the puzzle. I already have my own idea how it will play out, but I’m not going to tell you. Dig into the law, and you tell me. If UNM wins a decisive majority, they could decide to run Vano Merabishvili as their Presidential candidate. That would leave the Prime Minister’s office open. But Saakashvili would still be President until Merabishvili – theoretically – won the Presidential election. He can’t be President and Prime Minister at the same time. How is Saakashvili, from where he is now, going to get to the office with all the power for as long as he is able to hold it, because it is unregulated by term limits?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And if the President does it, it is not illegal.