November – December 2015

Georgia’s New Year Of Election Reform

With less than a year until the Fall 2016 parliamentary elections, the ruling Georgian Dream coalition submitted to parliament two amendments to the Electoral Code of Georgia, effectively ending a year-long political squabble over the country’s electoral system. The first of the amendments entailed redistricting the 73 single-seat majoritarian constituencies, and was passed by the Parliament of Georgia with its second reading on December 18, 2015. The second amendment was initiated on December 21 and involves increasing the threshold for winning the single-seat constituencies, from the current 30% to 50%.

Since the early 1990s, Georgia has had eight parliamentary elections using the mixed electoral system. Its first ever multi-party poll in 1990 elected a 250-member Supreme Council with equal representation of majoritarian and party-list deputies. Since then, the ratio between the majoritarian and party-list parliamentarians has fluctuated, but the principle remained intact. The last major change to the system was in 2003m when the number of parliamentarians was reduced from 235 to 150, and the proportion of majoritarian and proportional deputies returned to its original ratio. Following the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, the two vacant seats representing the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia were transferred to the party-list contest. Currently, Georgian voters elect 73 MPs in majoritarian, single-seat constituencies, while the remaining 77 seats are distributed proportionally under the closed party-list contest among political parties which clear a 5% threshold.

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The political demand to change the majoritarian component of the electoral system is almost as old as the history of multi-party elections in Georgia. Parties in the opposition have vehemently opposed the mixed electoral system, arguing that it represents a tool in the hands of successive governments to consolidate their parliamentary power regardless of overall popular confidence. Opponents of the mixed electoral system have frequently recalled the 2008 Parliamentary Elections, where the final distribution of ruling party seats in the Parliament (80%) significantly exceeded the country-wide distribution of their votes in the party-list contest (59%). International observers as well as local non-governmental organizations and political parties have on numerous occasions raised the issue of the disparity between the sizes of electorates in single-seat constituencies (between 6,000 voters in the smallest and 162,000 in the largest), and have called for reforming the electoral system.

"The permissible departure from the norm should not exceed 10%, except in special circumstances (protection of a concentrated minority, sparsely populated administrative entity), where the permissible departure should not exceed 15%."

In a similar line, exactly a year ago, a number of non-parliamentary political parties teamed up to campaign for scrapping the majoritarian component of the electoral system and replacing it entirely with a proportional, party-list contest. In the following months, the campaign shifted its demands to a more consensual proposal, according to which half of the MPs would be elected by party-list contest nationwide and the rest of the members from regional proportional, multi-mandate constituencies. The new proposal garnered the support of the President of Georgia, the two parliamentary oppositional parties - the United National Movement and the Free Democrats - and several influential non-governmental organizations.

However, it was not until there was a ruling from the Constitutional Court of Georgia that the electoral reform gathered momentum and pushed the Georgian Dream coalition to table its reform proposals. On May 28, 2015, the Constitutional Court ruled that the large disparity in the sizes of single-seat constituencies was unconstitutional, on the grounds that it violated the principle of equality of suffrage, effectively annulling the current rule of election district formation.
In response to the Constitutional Court’s decision, the Georgian Dream coalition announced that it will keep the majoritarian component of the election system with the current ratio (77/73), but that it will re-draw the constituency borders in order to narrow the discrepancy between the number of voters in each constituency. Despite numerous calls from the opposition and civil society groups to transition to a proportional system, the Georgian Dream pledged that the country would adopt the proportional model only for the next parliamentary elections, in 2020, and not for the 2016 elections. There is a separate process of constitutional amendments already launched for this purpose.

The initial proposal for electoral redistricting was submitted to the Parliament on November 26, but was significantly revised in the following three weeks to bring it in line with the Constitutional Court’s decision, which referred to the Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters. The guideline in terms of the number of voters in a constituency is that “the permissible departure from the norm should not exceed 10%, except in special circumstances (protection of a concentrated minority, sparsely populated administrative entity), where the permissible departure should not exceed 15%.”

As a result of the changes, 22 seats have been allocated to Tbilisi (which currently has 10), three to Batumi, three to Kutaisi and two to Rustavi (the exact boundaries are yet to be defined); seven constituencies remain unchanged (Sagarejo, Gurjaani, Khashuri, Sachkhere, Chiatura, Tskaltubo, and Samtredia), while the remaining districts are either merged or divided.

The lawmakers from the ruling coalition have praised the electoral reform, saying that the transfer of seats from sparsely populated to more heavily populated areas will benefit the opposition and the country as a whole. Their argument can be given the benefit of the doubt, as there is much to see what will be in the future; however a close examination of the redistricting plans leaves room for skepticism.

First and foremost, the fact that the boundaries of 30 constituencies are yet to be defined bears the risk for potential gerrymandering.

The proposed bill entitles the Central Election Commission to define the boundaries of election districts in Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi, and Rustavi, but does not specify the exact rule of district formation. The problem might prove particularly problematic in Tbilisi, where the relatively high number of mandates might allow the political cartographers to more flexibly manipulate the district boundaries.

No less important is the issue of ethnic representation in Parliament. Georgia has two regions with a high concentration of ethnic minority populations – Armenians in Samtskhe-Javakheti and Azeris in Kvemo Kartli – yet very they have low representation in terms of majoritarian MPs ( two Armenians and one Azeri). The proposed bill will further decrease the number of ethnic minority MPs; a single constituency will be formed by merging the Armenian-populated constituencies of Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki (both in Samtskhe-Javakheti), reducing the number of seats unofficially allocated to ethnic Armenians from two down to one.

It is also probable that the new district boundaries will lead to lower voter turnout in several newly merged constituencies. Just like in many other countries, majoritarian voting in Georgia is very personal; voters tend to cast their ballots in favor of their friends, relatives, classmates, neighbors, acquaintances, ethnic kin, etc., and in the absence of these factors, people will be less motivated to participate in elections. The problem might be especially salient in cases where a smaller constituency is merged with a relatively larger one, Aspindza and Borjomi for instance. Here, candidates from Borjomi will almost inevitably outnumber the ones from Aspindza, leaving the electorate from Aspindza with fewer reasons to show up at polling stations. Candidates might even neglect to actively campaign in Aspindza, for example, knowing that they are able to secure a victory with the Borjomi votes only.

Daesh And Challenges Facing Georgia

The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (hereafter referred to as Daesh) is an important and complex threat to the modern world.
Georgia faces several major threats from Daesh. One of the biggest threats is the ‘Caucasus Wilayat’ that created on June 24, 2015, which encompasses the operational territory of the well-known Caucasus Emirate – the republics in the Russian Federation of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan. Historical experience shows that a newly formed terrorist organization (or its relatively autonomous branch) will necessarily be active soon after its formation, in order to not to lose the spotlight and relevenacy and to stay in the center of attention.

Another issue for Georgia is the recruitment of Georgian citizens to Daesh and radical Islamist groups. The recent report by the United States State Department on terrorism says that between 50-100 Georgian citizens that left the Pankisi Gorge and the Adjara highlands are now fighting for Daesh. The recruitment of Georgian citizens to Daesh carries the following threats:

• The radicalization of recruits brings the probability of terrorist attacks inside the country. The main problem is when the recruited fighters return to Georgia, as they represent a potential source of radicalization for others;
• The civic re-socialization and integration of the returned fighters is a very complex process, especially in in compact communities in which Georgian Muslims live;

"The recruitment of Georgian citizens seriously damages the international image of the country, and destroys its hard-earned reputation as an ally of the West and a fighter against terrorism"

It is important to study the Pankisi Gorge in-depth and clearly analyze the larger picture, as most of the youth leaving for Syria and Iraq are from Pankisi Gorge. Pankisi Gorge is located in the Akhmeta Municipality of the Kakheti region. The total population of Akhmeta Municipality is 33,000. 69.7% is Georgian, whilst 20.9% is Kist. We can point out several fundamental challenges in Pankisi Gorge that promotes the radicalization of the youth and facilitates the recruitment process:

• Education: There are four schools and kindergartens in Pankisi Gorge, however, the quality of education is very low. School principals and teachers report that the majority of senior pupils (mostly boys) are pessimistic about continuing their studies in Higher Education Institutions. In recent years, there are frequent cases of pupils skipping school on Fridays, explaining that they are attending mosques and long prayers.
• The economic environment: Unemployment is high; it should be noted that neither the Akhmeta municipality, nor the National Statistics Office of Georgia collect information or data on employment, income levels, and source data.
• Community and religious environment: There are no exact statistics of the number of followers of the various movements of Islam in Pankisi; however, according to locals we spoke with, the number of adherents of Wahhabism has been increasing every year. Wahhabism plays an important role in the ideological formation of the youth and ultimately leads to them opposing followers of traditional Islam.

The Islamic State’s activity on various international fronts indirectly creates several important threats to Georgian security. Mainly, for us, it is important to account for the Russian factor in a number of directions:

1) Since September 2015, the Syrian conflict has been even less predictable. A peace prospect became even more doubtful after the smooth approval from the Russian Duma to President Vladimir Putin to send military help to Russia’s ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad. However, this can be considered to be a move in Russia’s interests, and not as an aid to an ally. Apart from regional interest, Russia’s interference in the Syrian conflict is due to it’s desire to alleviate international pressure from the Crimea crisis, which will be possible after Russia create an image of itself as a state fighting terrorism.
A a major goal of Russia’s foreign policy was directed to gaining an international image that Russia is a state fighting against Daesh. During the G20 summit in Turkey in November 2015, Russia managed to increase its role and function in the anti-Daesh campaign. As a result, Russia may become an active and close ally of the anti-Daesh coalition and the US, with the aim of neutralizing the terrorist organization. This, in turn, can mean that other disagreements between the West and Russia, such as over Ukraine and Georgia, will disappear from agenda.

2) The vulnerability of the Pankisi Gorge, Adjara, and Kvemo Kartli Muslim communities create a threat stemming from the Russian Federation. Russia’s declared policy of fighting terrorists at their creation, radicalization and recruitment sites makes Pankisi and the entire Georgia vulnerable to an intervention. This may seem exaggerated, but the Russian Federation will undoubtedly use this weakness to intervene in Pankisi whenever it feels suitable.
Russia has a number of potential arguments for an intervention: a) the Pankisi Gorge may be an active and potential source of recruitment; b) the Pankisi Gorge may serve as a a safe haven for North Caucasus terrorist groups (with an emphasis made on the Caucasus Wilayat).

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Considering the hatred the current leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has towards the Pankisi inhabitants and Wahhabism in general, it should not be hard for Moscow to find a cause for intervention. Especially noteworthy is when in October 2015, Kadyrov visited the border with Georgia and openly threatened that terrorists would not cross the border from Georgia.

3) Russia’s violation of Turkey’s airspace on November 24 and the downing of a Russian jet by Turkish bombers increased the chance of a confrontation between these two big powers in the region. Even though that these incidents are new and the threats caused by them are still being analyzed, it is fact that an intensification of a conflict in our neighborhood will be a serious political and economic challenge to Georgia’s security.

4) On November 23, a video message was published in Georgia showing four young men who travelled to Syria from Georgia and were addressing the Georgian population and threatening them with bloodshed, with beheadings of kafirs, and jihad. This threat was the first of its kind and it should have obviously worried the respective bodies and the population in general. Despite our belief that a terrorist threat is not high for Georgia, there is a possibility of terrorist attacks if the conditions are right and there is insufficient attention on behalf of law enforcement bodies. The probability is further increased due to a lack of experience fighting against terrorists inside the country and specifically in protecting public places.
Daesh resorted to a quite interesting strategy in several recent statements: While recruiting is a very important element, Daesh cannot physically receive and sustain many soldiers. Therefore, Daesh leaders stated that everyone can fight for the idea of creating a Caliphate – even from where they are. That dighters who [previoualy had to travel to Syria or Iraq to fight for the idea of creating a Caliphate can do the same in their own regions.
In doing that, the Islamic State tried to reach two goals:

1) To maintain its strength in the eyes of its allies;
2) to Activate local supporters and make the war more total and dispersed (this method has also been used by other organizations, and, most successfully, by al-Qaeda).

Naturally, the main struggle against Daesh is conducted by the state, and covertly, however it is impossible to determine the efficiency of the struggle based on open sources, without any operative information. There are several evident steps made by the state against Daesh.

reqruitment

First, there were several arrests because of a connection with terrorism. The first widely known arrest was made on June 14, 2015. The State Security Service arrested Giorgi Kuprava for becoming a member of a foreign terrorist organization and for assistance in terrorist activities. He was especially active in social groups and webpages concerning the propaganda and popularization of the creation of a Caliphate.

Then there was the widely known arrest on November 22, 2015, when Davit Borchashvili was arrested by the State Security Service for terrorism charges and for the crime under article 328 of the Criminal Code, implying accession to a terrorist organization of a foreign state or to such an organization controlled by a foreign state or assisting it in terrorist activities. A video was published soon after the arrest shwoing Borchashvili in an armed vehicle, allegedly with other members of Daesh. According to his lawyer, Borchashvili does not deny being in Syria, but excludes any cooperation with Daesh, and claims that in Syria he was fighting for other rebel groups, that oppose both the the Assad government and Daesh.

Georgia’s MIA took a noteworthy step when they addressed Georgian mass media outlets with the request not to disseminate the information or Daesh videos involving violence or calls for violence. This is ery important, as incorrect footage and/or inciting religious hatred may have an adverse effect and work in favor of the goals set by the terrorists.

As for recommendations, we would like to emphasize that:

1. The government should conduct a more active anti-terrorist foreign policy. We understand that under such vulnerable conditions, the government’s primary instinct might be to pursue a tiptoe strategy of “have it both ways.” But in fact, Georgia’s sole interest is to reduce the terrorism threat on its territory and to maintain its international prestige as an actor in the international developments in its region. More anti-terrorist activity will cause a greater cause of concern for the terrorists, on the one hand, however, it will also bring more attention of our international partners to the internal problems in Georgia.
2. There should be an increase in the activitities of the special forces, including increasing resources. The terrorist threats are new to Georgia, and the country does not have much experience in countering such threas; there, it is important that resources are spent with the aim of fighting against terrorism.
3. There should be and intensification in cooperation with foreign special services.
4. Take decisive actions against the individuals who deliberately incite hatred between ethnic and religious groups. One of the arguments of those fighting on the side of Daesh is that Georgia is against and fights Islam. While it’s an absurd statement, in the recent years, some groups in society were openly anti-Muslim in their actions (such as the story over the removal of the Chela minaret; villagers protesting a Muslim school in Kobuleti by attaching a pig’s head on the door; the protests over the shrine in the Mokhe village).
5. There should be ,maximal transparency and openness with the major mass media outlets, and explain to them the dangers of airing reportages on terrorism and the unintentional dissemination of terrorist or extremist propaganda.