TBILISI, Georgia—The Georgian government’s backslide into authoritarianism was the backdrop for a day-long round of meetings between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the country’s ruling party, which has increasingly marginalized Tbilisi’s more Western-oriented opposition leaders.
The whole spectrum of Georgian opposition parties are refusing to accept the official results of parliamentary elections held on Oct. 31, claiming widespread fraud and voter intimidation. The U.S. government-backed International Republican Institute has bolstered those charges, accusing the ruling party of "voter intimidation, vote buying, the manipulation of precinct-level summary protocols, and a result management process that failed to meet international standards."
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While U.S. officials who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon expressed concerns about the fairness of Georgia’s October elections, they called on opposition leaders to return to the political process.
Pompeo spent Wednesday in meetings with the Georgian president, prime minister, and foreign minister. The country’s ruling Georgian Dream Party is bankrolled and controlled by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire with deep ties to Moscow and at one time the largest private shareholder of Russian natural gas giant Gazprom. Georgian Dream's reorientation of the country has sparked concerns among U.S. officials that Ivanishvili’s government is undermining the pro-Western consensus in that country and sliding toward authoritarianism. Bipartisan groups of lawmakers in Congress have raised concerns about what they see as hostility to U.S. interests by the ruling party—and its toleration of a growing Russian influence on the country.
According to State Department officials, during sit downs with Georgian president Salome Zourabichvili and prime minister Giorgi Gakharia, Pompeo delivered a message of support for Georgia’s sovereignty in light of Russian aggression and occupation, but also emphasized the need for free and fair elections.
While Pompeo’s message on free and fair elections has been seen as an important signal during the crisis, the fact that he did not meet with the opposition was seized on by the ruling party. "The fact that Secretary Pompeo did not meet the opposition is a clear message," said Irakli Kobakhidze, a de-facto spokesman for Ivanishvili, who has frequently called opposition leaders fascists and criminals who should be eradicated.
"From our friends in the U.S., from the leader of the free world, we need more articulated support in this process," Giga Bokeria, a prominent leader in the Movement for Freedom-European Georgia Party, told the Free Beacon. "The trouble with Secretary Pompeo not meeting the opposition is how the authoritarian regime of Ivanishvili interprets that and uses that."
The opposition argues that expansive electoral reforms and the freeing of political prisoners offer the only way out of current crisis.
"We are grateful that Secretary Pompeo visited Georgia in this difficult time," said Bokeria. "The message he delivered was very important and the Georgian public is deeply grateful for all the support we have gotten from the United States throughout our independence." Bokeria said that Georgia, as a frontier state, can play a key role in pushing back on Putin’s Russia other bad actors who seek to dominate the region.
"Georgia can be an outpost for projection of legitimate U.S. power but this could be undermined by Ivanishvili’s authoritarianism and his alliance with pro-Putin forces on the ground," Bokeria said.