September 28, 2012 2:04 pm

Saakashvili warns on Georgian democracy

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Mikheil Saakashvili, the current President of Georgia©Getty

President Mikheil Saakashvili has said Georgian democracy is at risk unless his party prevails over a billionaire-led challenge in an election campaign he called the “ugliest” in the country’s post-Soviet history.

The campaign for Monday’s parliamentary election has been rocked by last week’s release of distressing videos of prisoners being physically and mentally tortured in a Tbilisi jail.

The opposition Georgian Dream coalition, led by businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, said the videos confirmed the autocratic tendencies of Mr Saakashvili’s government since it led the pro-democracy “Rose revolution” in 2003.

The president’s party has accused Georgian Dream of deliberately leaking the videos to destabilise the campaign, and of having a hand in their filming – both of which Mr Ivanishvili’s alliance denies.

The war of claim and counter-claim has stoked tensions ahead of elections that were already the biggest test for Georgia since the 2003 uprising. The campaign is taking place in the shadow of a menacing build-up of Russian troops in South Ossetia, the breakaway province where Russian forces have been stationed since the Russo-Georgian conflict.

On his presidential aircraft on a visit to the Black Sea resort of Batumi, Mr Saakashvili told the Financial Times the videos exposed a “systemic failure” in Georgia’s prison service, but repeated pledges of sweeping reforms after replacing two ministers.

Appearing relaxed despite the political turmoil he also admitted the affair had damaged his United National Movement’s popularity. But he believed his party would still win Monday’s poll.

“People are disgusted, and I think the effect that it will have will be on both sides. Because people also think that the other side has everything to do with it. It is obvious that this is an election campaign [ploy],” he said.

“It was a normal, good campaign until now, and it has become very ugly, the ugliest campaign I can remember in Georgia.”

Mr Saakashvili said he believed Georgian Dream might try to organise street protests if it lost the election, even if more than 400 international observers gave the poll a clean bill of health. But he insisted authorities would not use force against any peaceful protest, saying there would be no repeat of events in 2007 when opposition demonstrators were dispersed using tear gas.

“If there is no disturbance on election day, then whatever happens after the election, once we have the conclusion of the international observers, that is the end of the story. Then you can demonstrate at a rally . . . we will not use force, for sure.”

But repeating themes of a speech an hour earlier to 20,000 flag-waving supporters in the western city of Kutaisi, Mr Saakashvili insisted his party was the only guarantee of a democratic, western-leaning Georgia.

“Unfortunately the choice isn’t between going forward and stagnation,” he said. “Basically the choice is between going forward and undermining everything that has been achieved.”

The Georgian president has faced mounting allegations that his government used sometimes authoritarian methods as it drove through modernising pro-market and anti-corruption reforms.

But, in his characteristic rapid-fire English, Mr Saakashvili insisted charges that he had dictatorial tendencies were unjustified, and dismissed claims that there was little independent media in Georgia as “bullshit”.

“We pushed the reform programme through . . . but we said we will always ask for a mandate all the time. And all the previous elections were renewing this mandate,” he said. “I had to resign once. And the reason why I resigned in 2007 was to turn around and ask people, do you want continuation of our reforms or not? I won with a narrow margin,” Mr Saakashvili added.

The president repeated hints that Mr Ivanishvili had ties to Moscow, highlighting reports that Georgia’s richest man sold substantial corporate stakes in Russia – where he made his fortune – for cash in an unusually short time. Mr Ivanishvili, estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth $6.4bn, has denied links to Moscow, saying he wants to continue Georgia’s integration with the west while pursuing better relations with Russia.

“I don’t know if there is a deal [with Russia],” Mr Saakashvili said. “What I know is he went beyond what any mainstream Georgian politician could do, in making almost an absolute apology to Russia.

“They are a very colourful coalition,” Mr Saakashvili added of Georgian Dream. “If they don’t win, they will fall apart. If they do win, nobody will decide anything but Ivanishvili himself.”

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