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UNM and prison scandal

By Messenger Staff
Monday, September 24
The recent scandal involving the mistreatment and abuse of inmates in Georgian prisons just 10 days prior to the elections was a very unpleasant development for the ruling United National Movement. Moreover, the scandal was followed by days of protest rallies comprised of mostly students– particularly in Tbilisi. Despite this public relations setback, the United National Movement (UNM) is trying to do its best to soften the scandal's backlash and still achieve the victory in the elections.

The videos shown on TV and the internet were a serious blow to the UNM pre-election campaign. More significantly, many who took to the streets were those who until recently were not involved in the pre-election campaign at all or did not have particular side; these people openly expressed anti-ruling party sentiment.

The first step in the damage control process taken by the ruling party was to somehow stop the protest actions. Perhaps the sudden resignation of the Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia was a sacrifice made in this direction– providing a scapegoat if you will. However, there remained a large proportion of the students that felt the resignation of prison minister Khatuna Kalmakhelidze and Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia was not enough and demanded that supreme accountability be taken in the form of formal criminal charges.

As for the politicians, the opposition unanimously supports the idea that both actors in this scandal should take on legal responsibility for what transpired in the prisons. The leader of the Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has also requested that President Saakashvili step down. However Saakashvili’s response was not resignation; instead he spoke about another victory in the elections. With this background, the current administration is attempting to recover the situation. Representatives of the UNM keep repeating that the videos were single cases of abuse and the people involved would be aggressively prosecuted and punished. Moreover, the administration claims that the opposition knew about these abuse incidences and used them right on the eve of the elections in order to influence the voters' decisions. In light of two ministers' resignations, the arrests of several prison employees recognized in the videos, the current administration says that the prison scandal is over. However, it is not yet known whether the general public thinks so as well.

The prison scandal of course created sympathy within the population for the Georgian Dream. There were cases where some people even gave up their UNM membership and some neutral people became very active revealing their pro opposition sentiment. The protest actions, which are targeted against the current administration, also demonstrate the opposition's support. Ivanishvili and his team however, are very cautious, warning protesters not to be overly radical, as this could be used by the ruling party to postpone elections.

Just several days before the elections, the slogans of the protest rallies have been modified and the demand to detain the former ministers is becoming a priority. Of course the ruling party will not sacrifice its ministers and this could be the catalyst for the increasing amount of protest rallies.

In the end, the election campaign received a very surprising spin and presumably more surprises will appear. Meanwhile president Saakashvili continues his pre-election voyage, meeting with voters and trying to persuade them that everything is under control.