Friction over election campaigning in Gali
By Nino Mumladze
Monday, December 17
In an attempt to draw international attention to alleged infringement of voting rights in the Abkhazian conflict zone, Besik Kolbaia, an ethnic Georgian from the Abkhaz-controlled district of Gali, has begun a protest walk from the secessionist region’s administrative border to Tbilisi.
After a day of walking, Kolbaia reached Samtredia on Sunday to a warm welcome filmed by Georgian television networks.
Speaking a day earlier to Rustavi 2, Kolbaia spoke of the “very oppressed condition” of ethnic Georgians in the conflict zone allegedly being prevented by secessionist authorities from casting a vote in Georgia’s January 5 presidential election.
De facto Abkhaz authorities deny any repression of ethnic Georgians in Gali.
He was reportedly detained by Russian peacekeepers after being nominated head of the election committee by local Gali residents, and trying unsuccessfully to set up a local polling station.
Kolbaia was wearing a scarf with a logo supporting incumbent presidential candidate Mikheil Saakashvili.
“We address the [international community] to defend the voting rights of Georgian citizens and not allow an abrogation of this right by the de facto Sokhumi administration,” stated the Georgian State Ministry for Conflict Resolution in a December 13 press release.
Abkhaz de facto authorities, meanwhile, emphasized that they will not let any polling stations for the upcoming Georgian election open on territory under their control.
“No elections for Georgian president have ever taken place, and never will be held in Abkhazia,” de facto foreign minister Sergey Shamba commented to Russian news agency RIA Novosti last week.
“The Georgian government has not applied to us with a request to open polling stations, because the answer is clear beforehand… We don’t consider ourselves part of Georgia, and don’t participate in its political life,” he declared.
Shamba also denied Georgian claims that Sokhumi is prohibiting ethnic Georgians from leaving secessionist Abkhazia to vote, although has confirmed that hundreds of additional armed personnel have been deployed along the administrative border.
“We don’t forbid anything. If these people want to take part in Georgian political life, if they reckon themselves citizens of Georgia, they can go and live there,” Shamba said.
But ethnic Georgians in Gali continue to speak of intimidation and controls on their movement.
“We have encountered big hindrances at Enguri [Bridge],” Bela Shamugia, a teacher from Gali, told Mze TV on Sunday. “[Ethnic Georgian] teachers in Gali are suffering from pressure, especially from the Russian peacekeepers.”
Shota Malashkhia, chair of parliament’s Temporary Committee on Territorial Integrity Issues responded to Shamba a day after the separatist foreign minister’s comments, saying that while votes for Georgian elections have not previously been cast in secessionist-controlled Gali, its residents have typically been able to travel to Georgian-controlled territory to cast their ballots.
“If Russians can do election campaigning on others’ territory, why are Georgians prevented from doing this on their own land?” Malashkhia asked, according to the news agency NewsGeorgia.
On December 2, about 30 polling stations opened in Abkhazia and separatist South Ossetia for the Russian Duma elections. Russian officials said that Russian citizens—most South Ossetians and many in Abkhazia hold Russian passports—should be able to exercise their voting rights, wherever they may be.
Tbilisi cites international norms and the country’s constitution as the basis for holding the presidential election throughout all of Georgia’s de jure territory, and has condemned alleged Abkhaz obstruction of presidential campaigning in Gali as well as “punitive measures” against ethnic Georgians there.
Rustavi 2 has reported that Russian peacekeepers and Abkhaz forces are tearing down Saakashvili’s campaign posters.
“Armed men are patrolling villages warning the people not to participate in the January 5 election. There were several instances when people had their [Georgian] ID cards confiscated and destroyed in front of them,” claimed Paata Shamugia, the Gali coordinator for the Abkhaz government-in-exile, according to NewsGeorgia.
Tbilisi has also demanded punishment for the Russian peacekeepers which reportedly physically abused a team of Georgian television journalists when the news crew tried to film copies of booklets entitled, “We Will Be Back,” scattered along the Enguri Bridge on the administrative border with Abkhazia.
Video footage shot by the journalists showed Russian peacekeepers shoving back the news crew, demanding that they not record images of checkpoints.
Davit Bakradze, the Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution, used the issue at a December 14 press conference to again denounce the existing peacekeeping format, in which Russia leads a nominally CIS force.
“This is willful outrage from Russian troops once again shows us [that] this is not a contingent that can impartially and neutrally ensure conflict resolution,” Bakradze declared.
Tbilisi has expressed hope that upcoming UN reports on Abkhazia would see the situation in the same light.
Russian envoy to the UN Vitaly Churkin, however, slammed Tbilisi for making “provocations” and said that despite the UN’s mandated support for the CIS peacekeeping force, the Georgian side continually makes the “strange” demand to replace the peacekeepers.