‘Violating Neutrality’ or ‘Attempts to Discredit’: ISFED Responds to Ruling Party Accusations

On 18 August, the ruling Georgian Dream party decided not to invite one of Georgia’s most influential civil society organizations working on election issues, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), to the first meeting of the electoral reforms working group created to develop legislative changes necessary for obtaining EU candidate status.

Ruling Party Justification

Ruling party leaders justified the decision by stating that ISFED violated its “political neutrality,” particularly when ISFED’s Director, Nino Dolidze, joined in the demand for the creation of an interim technical government during a June 24 protest after the country was denied EU candidate status.

Different Accounts from Ruling Party

  • Givi Mikanadze, head of the electoral reforms working group stated, “It is impossible for an organization that questions the legitimacy of this government, calls for the government’s dismissal, [and] the formation of a technical government, to join this legitimate process…”
  • According to Shalva Papuashvili, Speaker of Parliament, ISFED was one of the organizations which called for the government’s dismissal during the June 24 rally and presented a one-week ultimatum for an interim technical government to be established, in the process of which ISFED would have veto rights. Per Papuashvili, if ISFED condemns the ultimatum and demand for the government to resign, they will be able to participate in the working groups. 
  • Irakli Kobakhidze, the ruling party chairperson, intensified his criticism of ISFED on 23 August when he stated that in 2020, “ISFED was actively involved in the falsification of the parallel counting of votes” and thus “was directly involved in the revolutionary processes that were led by the radical opposition.” He also reiterated that in June 2022 ISFED was seen making political demands during the protest in front of Parliament for the government to resign and an interim one to take its place.

The Facts: What Happened on June 24?

On 23 June, the European Council recognized Georgia’s European perspective but unlike Ukraine and Moldova, chose not to grant EU candidacy to the country until it fulfills 12 recommendations outlined by the European Commission.

That same night, members of the “Going Home to Europe” movement held a joint briefing which criticized the government for failing to attain EU candidate status and called on citizens to join in the pro-Europe rally planned in front of Parliament on 24 June. ISFED’s Director, Nino Dolidze, was among those who spoke during the briefing.

Did Dolidze Demand the Government’s Resignation During the Briefing?

During the briefing, Dolidze criticized the government and stated, “At a time when the Georgian government was supposed to be everywhere, in all the European capitals, and doing everything that was in its power and not in its power, we saw the opposite, so that we would not get the [EU candidate] status today.” “All of us must do everything together so that the European door is not closed for Georgia, [and] to move forward towards our historical choice,” Dolidze said and called on citizens to join the June 24 rally, although she did not say anything about the current government resigning or a technical interim government taking its place.

ISFED Statement During the Protest

During the rally on 24 June, Shota Dighmelashvili, one of the Shame Movement’s founders, spoke on behalf of the “Going Home to Europe” movement and demanded the resignation of the government and the formation of an interim technical government. Before making the statement, Dighmelashvili invited other members of the movement to join him on stage, including Dolidze, who did so but did not speak herself. There was also no mention of granting veto rights to any civil society organization in the process of forming an interim technical government.

ISFED’s Position

In the wake of growing criticism directed at ISFED from the ruling party, Civil.ge interviewed Nino Dolidze, ISFED’s Director, to get her take on the matter.

Violating Neutrality

Dolidze said that in the 27 years that the organization has been around, ISFED has never supported or opposed any political party. “We are always working for free and fair elections to be held in the country,” she denoted.

“The result is not important to us. How elections are conducted is important. This is what the organization serves, and all its official announcements, whatever they are, are directed to this end. If any party or entity violates something, we constantly talk about it,” Dolidze explained.

In reference to ruling party accusations regarding the 24 June rally, Dolidze emphasized that ISFED never violated its neutrality and, like other civil society organizations, stood at the protest with the demand for a European future.

She also underscored that ISFED did not organize the rally, although it supported the pro-European rallies, which “is a common right and I exercised this right.”

24 June: Reason or Excuse?

Dolidze remarked that other civil society organizations also stood at the protest but that ISFED was the only one who was barred from the electoral reforms working group in a sign of selective discrimination. According to Dolidze, the ruling party’s real motive is to limit CSOs’ participation in the development of legislation, and hence, it makes no sense to discuss the excuse that they have given.

“I think that [Georgian Dream’s decision] is discriminatory and selective, and that’s why we don’t continue talking about it anymore… accordingly, I don’t go into the details anymore,” she said.

Per Dolidze, the civil society sector’s participation in the reforms is one of the 12 requirements of the European Union. “In general, the fact that someone was standing at the rally is not the selection criterion that was needed to fulfill the EU recommendations. The main this is the work and who can provide the necessary experience and not, who you don’t like and who is critical of the government.”

Allegations of Political Ambitions

Dolidze denied the allegation that ISFED planned to participate in the formation of the interim technical government. “It is not true that ISFED wanted to have veto rights in the formation of the government […] ISFED has never expressed any desire or demand to participate in the formation of such a government. Such a statement will not be found anywhere,” she stressed.

The Paradox of Cooperating with the Ruling Party

Civil.ge asked Dolidze how logical it is to participate in a working group organized by the ruling party when she herself strongly criticizes its policy and accuses it of deliberately sabotaging the European Union’s recommendations.

According to Dolidze, her organization’s position is that despite everything, cooperation was necessary because the European Commission’s 12 recommendations must be implemented.

“With this motivation and in this spirit, we decided to participate in working groups and any activity that would contribute to this process, and obviously, my desire was to participate in the discussion on electoral issues […] However, look how [this process] continued,” ISFED’s Director stated.

Dolidze said that “at the end of the day, the EU will look at whether the country has succeeded and implemented the 12 recommendations they presented to us. They will look at, one, the progress, and, two, they will look at the process.”

“In this process, we expressed our willingness to cooperate, and the ruling party itself does not want this. Therefore, this certainly affects all of this, and our concern is precisely in connection with this, that the country will be damaged, and I think this is a very big problem. Georgian Dream should understand this very well, and since they decided this way, perhaps the assessment and what will follow are less important to them,” she said.

A Campaign Against Civil Society

Dolidze explained that apart from its public announcements and briefings, the ruling party did not directly talk or communicate with ISFED on this issue. Per Dolidze, when the Eastern Partnership Platform proposed to the ruling party that ISFED be included in the electoral reforms working group, that is when GD expressed its position.

“[After that] I myself expressed my willingness to meet and talk with them because it was not clear to me why [only] ISFED and not others? … However, there was no continuation to this, except for the public statements that we heard,” Dolidze asserted.

Per her explanation, it is “wrong” and “discriminatory” for the ruling party to demand that only one organization withdraw the “ultimatum” for a technical interim government. “[In general], voicing such demands now, is an attempt to move the discussion to another place, rather than discussing the issues,” she added.

In the context of discrediting civil society, Dolidze addressed the ruling party’s constant references to the flaw found in the parallel vote counting conducted by ISFED in the 2020 Parliamentary elections and noted that “the ruling party has always wanted to discredit civil organizations and now that they have such an opportunity when an organization made a mistake, obviously they would use it, even though the ruling party knows very well that it was a mistake and not a purposeful act.”

“I’m pretty sure that were it not for these protests, they can think of another reason to talk about this and they have it at their disposal so that if the organization ever expresses a different or critical opinion, they remind you that you’ve messed up and it’s like we’re not allowed to talk after that,” Dolidze denoted and added that in 2020, the organization took full responsibility and changed its chairperson.

Potential Reasons for the Campaign

Dolidze said there were three possible reasons for the ruling party’s attitude towards ISFED. First – “It is not desirable for them when there is a critical ‘watchdog’ in the country.”

Second, it is possible that such rhetoric against ISFED is in preparation for upcoming elections and an attempt to discredit the organization that speaks the truth on electoral issues in advance, “so that whatever [the organization] says in the future will somehow lose its value.”

Lastly, Dolidze explained that this provides a good opportunity for the ruling party to attack and discredit civil society organizations.

ISFED’s Plans

ISFED’s Director emphasized that despite the ruling party’s refusal to include the organization in the working group, they will present appropriate recommendations to all parties involved in the process starting in September.

“We will obviously continue our process in order to have better electoral reforms in the country. We are focused on this work and on attempts at distraction […] As for the working group, I wish it success […] Our only wish is for the country to move in the direction of democratic development and get candidate status, and if someone does that, of course, we will only be happy,” Dolidze said.

In this context, Dolidze criticized the allocation of only two seats for civil society organizations in each working group and said that in general, involving more parties in the process leads to a more inclusive environment, more diverse issues being raised, and more flaws in the electoral system being discussed.

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