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Traditional political issues lost amid criminal accusations in TV debate

By Temur Kiguradze
Monday, May 19
The state-owned public broadcaster ran the last in a series of debates on May 15, pitting campaigners from the ruling National Movement party against two opposition blocs.

The opposition politicians hit on key themes of alleged government repression, rotten courts, controversial privatizations and fears of vote rigging. Ruling party representatives split their replies between calling for unity in the face of a Russian threat, and dismissing opposition complaints as ungrounded or purposefully inflammatory.

Speaking for the government was Giorgi Baramidze, the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration. The ruling party, he said, “has a real chance of winning a majority” in parliament.

Baramidze repeated colleagues’ previous appeals for cooperation between the opposition and the government in the face of external threats.

“We’re in a situation of undeclared war,” Baramidze said, in reference to Russia’s increasing actions in breakaway Abkhazia. “In this situation, the opposition and the government must be united.”

If the debate was any indication, there is little likelihood of that happening.

Mamuka Katsitadze of the nine-party opposition coalition accused the government of employing “methods of terror” in its election campaign, citing allegations of pressure on opposition activists, particularly in tightly-networked rural Georgia.

He said local ruling party workers are intimidating and bribing voters.

“Activists from the National Movement promised 100 lari [Georgian currency] for each vote they get,” he claimed.

Guguli Maghradze, leader of the Women’s Party and a recent ruling party defector, put some of the blame on regional governors, which are appointed by the president. They will do everything to turn out votes for the ruling party, she said, because their careers depend on it.

In riposte, the ruling party’s Davit Darchiashvili said the opposition’s election campaign has been “based on negativity,” pushing them to substantiate their allegations.

Outside observers, including the OSCE election monitoring mission, have reported that some allegations of campaign violations were credible, and faulted election commissions and courts for turning a blind eye.

The opposition coalition’s Koka Guntsadze brought up the judicial system, saying “the courts in Georgia are as fake as the tears in [President Mikheil] Saakashvili’s eyes.”

Baramidze replied that the judiciary is being reformed, with an eye toward EU and NATO standards.

“What shall we do with the criminals, the ones in the government?” asked Guntsadze, the opposition candidate. “What shall we do with the pressure on the media, business and the confiscation of property?”

Progress is being made, Baramidze replied, before again appealing to the opposition to cooperate with the government.

Unsatisfied with the answer, Guntsadze ruled out any cooperation with the government: “We have only one choice—to change this government or to continue the criminal regime.”

He and Katsitadze then spoke of “illegal privatization,” claiming that “hundreds of citizens” have been “robbed” by the selling of Poti port, Likani sanatorium and other properties.

Baramidze and Darchiashvili retorted that the opposition was shilling “socialism,” and had no understanding of modern economics.

The final issue tackled was the exit polls planned for the May 21 election. The opposition representatives slammed the polls as tools for rigging the elections; in return Baramidze accused the opposition of inflaming distrust of the Central Election Commission.