While the capital of Georgia is under watch from observers for a fair election on 30 May, the rest of the country is almost free from prying eyes, leaving local politicians to suffocate their opposition in the run-up to voting day. In one region, that meant detaining opposition candidates overnight and forcing them to withdraw from the election race. The incident would have gone almost unheard of, if it hadn't been caught on camera.
Before the video emerged the scene was reported by anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, who called the incident "alarming". According to their report the operation was carried out by the chief of police, the current governor, several other high-ranking officials and a special unit of police in the north-western city of Mestia, Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region. The team of between 40 and 50 people detained five Freedom Party candidates in the local administration building on the night of 3 May. By the next morning, all of the opposition candidates had withdrawn from the election race.
The authorities denied accusations that they had forced the candidates to resign. But on 18 May, a video filmed outside of the administration building emerged on the Internet.
The incriminating footage
The people shouting outside are said to be family members of the candidates. According to the website Human Rights Georgia, a woman shouts "You will be punished for this. We will appeal to international organisations for help; we will say everything before cameras and will not forgive you! ... So, you claim the candidates arrived here according to their wishes, do you?!" and later, "you cannot torment the Svaneti region!" Video posted on YouTube 18 May 2010 by "nanapazhava".
“The only thing you can do is present the video to Western observers in the hope they'll put pressure on Saakashvili”
David Doborjginidze, 34, is a business graduate from Tbilisi.
In the regions [constituencies outside Tbilisi], pre-election intimidation like this is common and usually goes unchallenged. It's likely that the locals in the region [Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti] don't even know that this happened.
Like most of the regions, Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti doesn't have either of Georgia's non-state TV channels (Maestro and Caucasia), Radio Free Europe [a US funded broadcaster] or much Internet access [according to one of the websites that posted the video, under 10% of its visitors come from outside the capital, and 0% from the region in question].
The Central Election Committee might look into the incident but probably not as they tend to pick up a few unimportant issues to be seen as democratic but ignore the real issues. There's no independent complaints commission here.
As for the video, it's not hefty in terms of evidence. There have been several court cases in the past few years when judges have dismissed video evidence and opted for eyewitness accounts instead. After the Imedi TV hoax in March [when the state TV channel aired a fake news broadcast about the country having been invaded by Russia], a phone recording about the bulletin was sent to the UK for independent inspection. It came back proving that the president was indeed involved in permitting the hoax, but nothing happened.
And while there are now quite a number of international observers in Tbilisi, in the regions the situation is very bad. You need people like the one that filmed this video to prove electoral fraud. And even then, the only thing you can do with the document is present it to Western media and observers in the hope that foreign organisations will then put pressure on [President Mikhail] Saakashvili. If you hand it over to the local authorities, nothing will get done."