Issues Points Memo – Interview with Liana Kvarchelia, deputy director, Centre for Humanitarian Programmes, Sukhum, Abkhazia

IP: What is the Centre for Humanitarian Programmes? 

The Centre for Humanitarian Programmes (CHP), a non-governmental, non-profit, charity organization, was established by a citizens group in Sukhum and officially registered in December 1994, just after the end of the Georgian-Abkhaz war. For almost a decade, CHP has been involved in the process of democratization in Abkhazia through its programs focusing on civil society capacity building, democratization, good governance and judicial reform. In addition, we have pursued dialogue with the Georgian and the broader Caucasus and international civil society around the issues of conflict resolution, confidence building and democratization. All services provided by CHP are based on the principles of charity and independence. Our foreign partners currently are “Conciliation Resources” (Great Britain), “International Alert” (Great Britain, University of California (Irvine, USA), Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Resolution (Germany).

IP: Does your organization work with other NGOS in Abkhazia? 

CHP works in cooperation with other local NGOs. As an association of NGOs we have prepared the Law on Access to information which we lobbied at the Parliament and which was adopted in 2008. The association of NGOs also supported the Women’s Association of Abkhazia to draft the Law on gender equality, which was adopted by the Parliament in 2009. 

IP: What work has your group done in support of the election process in Abkhazia? 

On the eve of Presidential elections in 2004, CHP co-established the League of Voters for Fair Elections along with several other NGOs (10 NGOs). The League prepared proposals on election and monitoring procedures, many of which were accepted by the Central Election Committee. Members of the League conducted seminars for campaigners and observers representing various candidates, and for journalists.

Our goals were to educate the participants of the election process about the existing legislature and procedures, as well as the rights of the participants.  The League monitored the elections and prepared a report on the election process. 

IP:  Have you done any work in preparation for the Dec. 12 presidential election, in which President Sergei Bagapsh and four other candidates are competing? 

In 2009 the League resumed its activities to monitor the Presidential elections. The League has been involved in preparing amendments to the election law. One of the amendments was a new provision in the Election Law that allows non-party (popular, NGO) monitoring of the elections. In addition, the NGOs insisted that all the funding for campaigns should be transparent and that the candidates should have accounts in a bank in Abkhazia. This amendment was also adopted, and in our view it makes the system of campaign funding more transparent and the candidates accountable. 

IP:  Have you taken any action to enhance or improve the campaign process for the upcoming election?  

The League is now monitoring the campaign through mass media and made a statement in which we called on all participants of the election process to refrain from insulting language, provocation, blackmail, etc. We also called on the officials not to violate the election law by campaigning on behalf of the current President. 

IP: Do you work closely with the Central Election Commission?  

The Central Election Commission has prepared instructions for local commissions. Before distributing them, they asked the League to read them and provide our feedback. Our recommendations were included in the revised version of the Instructions. 

IP: Do you expect a large number of registered voters to vote? 

My estimate is that around 70% of the voters will go to the polling stations. 

IP: What kind of monitoring systems are in place to assure a fair and honest election? 

Each candidate will have two persons at each polling station who will observe the election procedure on his behalf. Plus each candidate will have 10 representatives who will have access to all polling stations equally with observers.

IP: Will there be monitors from other countries participating? 

There will be monitors from CIS countries. Russia will have the most representatives and there will be less from European countries, because Europe thinks that it is sensitive for them to observe elections in a state they do not recognize. However, they admit that elections are an important process even if they do not recognize us. Given that, we think that an independent mission of experts will be helpful. The League is holding discussions with several additional election monitoring experts who might come in their individual capacity. 

IP: Do you or others in the NGO community have concerns about how the election process has unfolded? If so, what are they and how have they been addressed? 

The League has taken the position that it is a violation of the Abkhazian Law on Citizenship to temporarily stop issuing Abkhaz passports to the residents of the Gal district of Abkhazia. That will impede the ability of residents of that region to vote.  Therefore, the most critical issue for the League at the moment is persuading the government to resume issuing Abkhaz passports for Gal residents. The second issue is to monitor the campaign in the media and convince the candidates to overcome their reluctance to participate in the debates. 

IP: Is there excitement in Abkhazia about the elections? 

There is less excitement in the community than in previous elections. I think that is because the situation has become more stable security –wise, politically and economically and the election in 2009 is more of a routine process as opposed to 2004 (when there was a strong need for change). 

IP:  How do the candidates get information to the voters about their positions? 

The official campaigning period started only on 3 November. There has not been much propaganda so far. All the candidates have their own private or party newspapers and they will have equal access to the state TV according to the Law. 

IP: What are the major issues in the presidential campaign? 

I guess the main issues will be – economic development, privatization issues and foreign investment policies – facing the dilemma of how to develop economically and not be bought out by some foreign oligarch.  

IP: Does your organization interact with all five candidates? 

The League plans to interact with all the candidates. However, those who lost previous elections have voiced their concerns about the League, saying that part of the voters does not trust them. In fact they claim they are speaking on behalf of the voters, but they do not reflect the attitude of the voters. The mistrust comes from political circles who lost the previous election, and whose credo is “those who are not with us, are against us’. 

IP: Is there anything you would like the world to know about the Abkhaz presidential elections?

The democratic forces in Abkhazia are trying to ensure that the election process is fair and transparent. We did this in the past and we are doing it now without any outside help or encouragement from the international community. I think the international community should not choose between democratic development and stability achieved through democratization and justice on the one hand and Georgia’s mythical “territorial integrity” on the other. For me the preferred choice is obvious. 

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