BRUSSELS/TBILISI (EJP) --- EU leaders welcomed the news of the electoral defeat of incumbent Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili by billionaire opponent Bidzina Ivanishvili Tuesday, in the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s post-Soviet history, as foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton commended the elections for showing “a healthy respect for fundamental freedoms at the heart of democratic elections”.
Pro-Israel Saakashvili, who holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa, initially claimed victory over the opposition Georgian Dream coalition after the country went to the polls Monday, as initial exit polls suggested his United National Movement might have done enough to secure 73 out of 150 seats in the national parliament and retain power for a third successive term.
Although both candidates advocated close ties with the EU and NATO, Saakashvili sought to distinguish between himself and Ivanishvili by highlighting his opponent’s wish to restore relations with Russia which were damaged following Georgia’s disastrous military campaign to regain control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, which provoked a counterattack by Moscow and was seen by many to have damaged Georgia’s chances of joining the EU and NATO.
Despite a joint statement by Ashton and EU integration commissioner Stefan Fule paying tribute to “generally positive conduct of (the) parliamentary elections”, they weren’t carried off without their share of controversy, after Ivanishvili staged a symbolic protest by refusing to vote, insisting authorities has “already resorted to very many violations” and human rights group Amnesty International claimed his supporters had been “fined, fired, harassed or detaining for expressing their political views” throughout the campaign period.
However, MEP Milan Cabrnoch, head of the eight-member European Parliament delegation to the international election observation mission in Georgia heralded the “visible” progress “in the respect of freedoms “that allowed for a very active and vibrant citizen participation and a competitive campaign, although polarised”, adding that the elections were “crucial” for “the continued democratic development of Georgia”.
Describing Georgia as “an important partner of the EU”, he committed the EU’s support of the promotion of democracy and reforms in the former Soviet state, calling on the elected part to “exercise responsibly, in power or as opposition, their democratic privilege and continue on the path to reform, for the benefit of the Georgian people”.
Georgia is of strategic importance to the EU, since it is located on a pipeline route that provides Caspian Sea oil and gas to Europe. Since independence from the Soviet Union, it has experienced economic collapse, civil war and numerous instances of political unrest, including the ill-advised war with Russia.
Saakshvili, who has previously visited Israel to host the opening of the official Georgian-Jewish Friendship Week, at which a host of Jewish leaders were present, conceded defeat in a televised address Tuesday, in which he expressed disappointment for his defeat, whilst maintaining confidence for the preservation of his administration’s “achievements (that) have turned Georgia into one of the key countries for the rest of the world”.
Local security forces foiled a bomb attack targeting a driver for the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, in February in what Israeli Ambassador to Georgia Yitzchak Gerber described as an “unpleasant” but “expected” development, coming one day after the fourth anniversary of Israel’s killing of senior Hezbollah official Imad Mughniyeh. Israel blamed Iran for the attack, for whom it accuses Lebanese militant group Hezbollah of serving as a proxy.
Georgian Jewry’s identification with the State of Israel increased dramatically following the 1967 Six-Day War, when the country’s Jewish population appealed to the UN Human Rights Commission to overturn the Soviet authorities’ refusal of their applications to emigrate to the Jewish State. This resulted in mass emigration throughout the 1970s, as approximately 30,000 Jews left Georgia for Israel, constituting about 17% of all Soviet Jewish immigrants during that period.
On January 31, 2001, an agreement was signed between the Georgian Orthodox Church, the country’s official religious authority, and the Jewish Community of Georgia, aimed at promoting mutual respect and support, as well as working together to advance democratisation, peace and stability in the region. The once 100,000-strong Jewish community is now thought to stand at approximately 13,000n the majority of whom are based in Tbilisi.