PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Several prominent Georgian oppositionists have expressed concern at the political implications of two telephone conversations, posted first on Ukrainian then on Georgian websites, which could be construed as evidence that the Georgian leadership sought to influence the January 17 Ukrainian presidential election to secure a victory for Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Relations between Tymoshenko and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili have been haunted by rumors of a torrid love affair between them. Saakashvili denied those rumors as early as 2005, but that did not prevent the production of a movie chronicling the alleged romance.The first conversation posted online was apparently between Saakashvili and Tymoshenko, who thanks him for sending a team of election observers. Saakashvili's administration responded on January 15 to that recording by denying that Georgia supports any of the presidential candidates.The second conversation purportedly took place on January 14 between all-powerful Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili and Givi Targamadze, chairman of the Georgian Committee on Defense and Security, who at the time of the conversation was in Donetsk. Merabishvili tells Targamadze that Akhalaya (Georgia's defense minister) has promised to provide personnel; Targamadze replies that they have already arrived in Donetsk. Merabishvili then orders Targamadze to impress upon his Ukrainian contacts the need to provide air transport for additional Georgian observers prior to the second round of voting.The Georgian authorities have not formally denied the authenticity of either conversation. Targamadze was quoted on January 20 as saying "I think Ukraine now needs to be focused on a more important issue [meaning the second round] rather than wasting time listening to my mobile phone conversations."The Ukrainian Central Election Commission (CEC) refused on January 11 to register 2,011 would-be election observers from Georgia, having already registered a total of 3,149 from other countries. Targamadze was quoted as saying that CEC members from presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions were behind that refusal, and that the 300-plus Georgian election observers already in Donetsk were being hindered in their activities.The Yulia Tymoshenko bloc (BYuT) appealed the CEC decision to the Kyiv Appellate Court on January 13 and demanded that the Georgian contingent be accredited. The BYuT subsequently alleged that members of Yanukovych's campaign staff beat up two Georgian journalists in Donetsk on January 16.Saakashvili told journalists on January 18, the day after the election, that the dispatch of 2,000 Georgian election observers was agreed in advance "with all Ukrainian political parties" and that the objective was "to express solidarity and provide assistance to Ukraine," not to "interfere in politics."But prominent Georgian opposition politicians have argued that whatever Saakashvili's intent, his apparent meddling in the Ukrainian presidential ballot could negatively affect relations between the two countries. Eka Beselia of the Movement for a United Georgia argued that in any other country, an interior minister or prominent parliamentarian would have resigned if such damaging allegations came to light.Former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili argued that "it is not the business of an interior minister to deal with the sending of election observers -- assuming that the persons in question were bona fide observers" and not, as some have alleged, Georgian Interior Ministry personnel.Former Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, for his part, was quoted by Caucasus Press as telling journalists on January 21 that a formal investigation should be launched and that Merabishvili and Targamadze should be held criminally responsible if that probe yields evidence that they violated the law.