“Make Georgia great again”

The aftermath of the recent elections in Georgia has shown that it will be challenging to find a compromise in the current political environment in the country.

The historical parliamentary elections that took place in November in Georgia are now officially over. The Central Election Commission (CEC) recently issued the final results and the newly elected legislative body will soon meet for the first time. While the victorious Georgian Dream party is celebrating its third consecutive term in power, the opposition still refuses to recognise the results. Moreover, opponents of the government argue that corruption influenced the pre-election campaign and the electoral process as a whole. As a result, this group has demanded a repeat of the parliamentary elections with new rules and a reformed electoral administration. Despite this, Georgian Dream has made it clear that it will not reconsider the election results. Currently, the government and opposition are set to meet for the third stage of negotiations facilitated by European and American diplomats. Georgia is now very close to reliving the events of 2008, when the United National Movement gained a constitutional majority and simply decided to rule the state without even acknowledging the opposition. Georgia’s strategic partners have called on both sides to participate in parliament and contribute to the democratic transformation of the state.

Generally, the elections have shown that it is almost impossible to find compromise in the political environment of Georgia. There are only two real political powers in the country and all the main political actors have seemingly become victims of their own propaganda.

Elections (not) stolen

Obviously, some parts of Georgian society, including the academic, non-governmental and business sectors, are troubled by the fact that Georgian Dream won the majority of seats (90 out of 150). They believe that a third term will damage the state’s development and set a bad precedent for the future. For these groups, the adoption of a Western-style “two terms” rule is viewed as the best possible outcome for Georgia and its democracy. These actors tend to focus on the government’s failures and corrupt practices when discussing past elections. At the same time, another part of Georgian society considers these allegations simply to be a long-established practice during Georgian elections. They do not view such accusations as important or a reason to question the results. Interestingly, international observers, who were led by the OSCE/ODIHR, agreed with the second group’s understanding of the elections. This caused an outcry from many representatives of the political opposition. For example, Mikhail Saakashvili, the third president of Georgia, and members of other parties called the head of the electoral mission, Tiny Kox, an “experienced KGB agent”. In contrast to this, NATO, the American Embassy in Georgia and other European states agreed with the findings of these “Russian agents” from the OSCE/ODIHR.

Moving on from these labels, it is clear that Georgia’s strategic partners and international observers said nothing new about the country’s politics. Moreover, these actors are aware of the methods and approaches that almost all Georgian governments and political leaders use to stay in power and gain electoral support. Overall, it has been more important for these outside forces to make sure that Georgia did not challenge the “red lines” that were crossed in Belarus. Thus, the international assessment of the elections appears to match the reality of the situation. Whilst the process was competitive and voters were capable of fully participating in the elections, its fairness was questionable. However, due to the fact that elections in Georgia continue to possess the same flaws and failures as past votes, there is no real reason to question the legitimacy of this year’s contest. If we express doubts over whether or not the government has been elected in accordance with all democratic standards, then we will be forced to question all the elections that have ever been held in Georgia.

Georgia’s American model

Both local and international actors are trying hard to develop traditions of coalition government and, more generally, a pluralistic political culture in Georgia. In order to achieve these goals significant reforms were put in place regarding issues such as the electoral threshold. Before, it was as low as one per cent. Despite these changes, however, the outcome remained the same. Voters are always forced to choose between either keeping the same political establishment in charge or replacing it with another. There is no strong demand for coalitions and complicated formulas. Instead, there is just one party, one power, one ideology, one outlook and one force ruling the country. These traditions show the unwillingness of the Georgian people to compromise and acknowledge the achievements of their opponents. The best examples of this are the narratives expressed by the leading Georgian Dream party and the United National Movement. Members of the ruling party rarely remember the successes of the former government. On the other hand, Saakashvili and his allies do not even recognise that they lost power in 2012-13, blaming “Russian agents” and “Russian hackers” for the defeat. It is subsequently crucial for this group to end Georgian Dream’s control of the state and “make Georgia great again”. Such rhetoric makes it impossible to organise coalition governments and even engage in peaceful dialogue without the “supervision” of American and European actors.

Past elections have shown that voters unite around Georgian Dream and the United National Movement, while smaller parties that promote themselves as “alternatives” win a small amount of seats. The electoral threshold is set to be increased again for the next elections and this will probably see the parliament dominated by these two leading powers. This could result in the formation of Georgia’s own ‘American’ political model, where voters effectively choose between their own versions of the Democratic and Republican parties. In a rather ironic twist, any acceptance of the opposition’s demands by the government would only speed up this shift to a more American system.

Gone with the propaganda

A strong belief in propaganda continues to be the biggest challenge for all political actors in the country. The ruling administration, deceived by its own media, still believes that the electorate hates the representatives of the former government and is afraid of their return. As a result, the government believes that the people will always vote for Georgian Dream and that they will always be thankful for being ‘liberated’ from Saakashvili’s regime. These statements are at least partially misleading. The United National Movement is more active than ever before and is benefitting from the mistakes of the government. Sooner or later, the past will not help Georgian Dream stay in power. It will need to offer something new, which is a difficult task in Georgia’s political system.

There is political opposition, with the UNM at its core, naïve enough to argue that Georgian Dream has done nothing positive for the country. Moreover, Saakashvili has created an alternative reality in which the people dream of his return to power and the restoration of a national “greatness” that has never actually existed. In this political narrative, the former government of Saakashvili never did anything wrong or broke any laws. It is viewed as a generally democratic, pro-Western regime that was overthrown by the Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and his followers. Unfortunately, other opposition parties, such as European Georgia, Lelo, Strategy Agmashenebeli and Girchi, are not strong enough to break this illusion and act in an independent manner.

Consequently, political actors in Georgia remain detached from wider society. They believe that the population unilaterally supports the ideas of the government or the opposition. In reality, what people actually want are clear and well-structured policies that deal with poverty, unemployment and other important socio-economic challenges.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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Georgia’s ‘deter-engage’ dichotomy

Georgian Dream could become the first party to retain power for a third consecutive term. What would this mean for the country’s foreign policy?

On October 31st, Georgia is likely to experience historic parliamentary elections. On the one hand, the country may witness its second peaceful transition of power. On the other hand, the ruling Georgian Dream party could become the country’s first government to retain power for a third consecutive term. At the same time, Georgia is closer than ever before to achieving a coalition government. This possibility is welcomed by both local pro-Western forces and the country’s European and American partners. Despite this, rivalry between the parties remains fierce and is more focused on internal issues such as economic prosperity, equality, equity, poverty and unemployment. But there is also an external dimension in the form of Georgia’s foreign policy. Overall, it is interesting to question to what extent these elections may affect the state’s position in the region. This is especially true with regard to relations with Russia. Overall, it could be argued that the state is yet again facing a ‘deter-engage’ dichotomy in relation to its links with Moscow.

A brief history

After the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003, the newly elected government of Mikhail Saakashvili and the United National Movement tried to reset Georgia-Russia relations. However, they failed to do so due to conflicting foreign policy goals. Whilst a pro-Western government in Tbilisi tried to integrate into institutions such as the EU and NATO, Vladimir Putin’s Moscow hoped to maintain a grip on its so-called “near abroad”. As a result, the Tbilisi-Moscow ‘honeymoon’ ended almost as soon as it began. Influenced by this development and the neoconservatism of America’s Bush administration, Saakashvili decided to compete with Moscow. This turned Tbilisi into a pro-Western stronghold within both the South Caucasus and post-Soviet space as a whole. Georgia’s ruling elites were certain that the West, represented most importantly by America and NATO, would be willing to stop the Kremlin from using military force against its valuable ally. These dreams were shattered during the conflict in August 2008, when it appeared that neither Brussels nor Washington were ready to actually counter Moscow’s interests in the South Caucasus. Georgia’s foreign policy, therefore, was in need of revision and so the Georgian Dream party, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, made an offer to the electorate. The leader suggested that it would be better to ‘deter’ potential Russian aggression through a change of language. Tbilisi subsequently discouraged anti-Russian sentiment and military rhetoric. Instead of war, there would be reconciliation. Saakashvili lost power and this new policy was introduced as official policy. However, this attempt to reset relations did not lead to a breakthrough. During this period, Moscow started its ongoing process of ‘borderisation’ and even kidnapped Georgian citizens. Such cases of kidnapping have often involved torture and murder. Many former officials, as well as some representatives of Georgian civil society, have subsequently described this desire to not irritate Russia as a betrayal of the country’s interests.

The effect of elections

Currently, Georgian society is being offered two distinct approaches to the Kremlin. The opposition, led by the United National Movement and European Georgia parties, wish to return to a form of military engagement and ‘fight back’ against the Kremlin. At the same time, Georgian Dream continues to support a policy of ‘deterring’ Russian aggression in order to avoid a potential repeat of the catastrophic events of the 2008 war. Despite this, it is indisputable that Georgia’s general foreign policy orientation will remain largely the same, with the country continuing to focus on EU-NATO integration. In particular, Tbilisi is striving to become a member of the West at the expense of a proactive policy in the South Caucasus.

Naturally, only the final outcome of the parliamentary elections will determine whether Tbilisi continues its current approach or switches to the previous one. If Georgian Dream is victorious, the state will further try to avoid direct confrontation with the Kremlin. This is considered the best guarantee of peace, not only for Georgia and Russia but for the whole South Caucasus region. However, a government made up of those who support an ‘engage’ policy will likely encourage increased confrontation between Tbilisi and Moscow. Such aggressive rhetoric could end an already volatile status-quo. Even in America and Europe, there appears to be no shared agreement as to which side should win. Some Western actors openly support the political opposition, while others prefer Georgian Dream’s more balanced and peaceful politics. Despite allegations of interference, the Kremlin appears rather indifferent. This is due to the fact that Tbilisi will still remain oriented towards the West regardless of its government. Furthermore, it could be argued that Russia has done little to encourage Tbilisi to adopt an openly friendly policy. This only encourages beliefs that Moscow simply has no interest in avoiding conflict. Overall, it seems that the Kremlin has achieved its political and geopolitical goals and is satisfied with the existing status-quo.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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Georgia, NATO and South Caucasus

On September 27, 2020 arguably Azerbaijanian military forces initiated a full-scaled operation against self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (RNK) and Armenia officially for securing and restoring the country’s territorial integrity. We may argue that this confrontation is not yet another escalation but rather a real war that can lead to a collapse of South Caucasus regional stability and order. This is even more realistic in the wake of Ankara’s obvious involvement and the Kremlin’s national interests, on the one hand, and deterioration of US global hegemony, on the other hand. In the same time, according to Craig Turp-Balazs from Emerging Europe, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has told Georgian PM Giorgi Gakharia to “prepare for membership” during tet-a-tete visit to Brussels on September 29. Generally speaking, it seems that South Caucasus is going to become the platform of rivalry between the so-called “great nations” again; and despite the “firm statements” from the heart of Europe it is pretty clear that NATO’s presence in the region is not welcomed by key actors. Furthermore, the North-Atlantic alliance is the weakest player on the chessboard.

Dream’s on South Caucasus

It is not a secret that while some members of NATO are highly skeptical with regard to further enlargement to the South-East, others do perceive it as a critically necessary step in a fight against the so-called Russia’s neoimperialistic policy or revisionism. Among the most motivated states are United States of America and Eastern European countries, like Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These actors, perceived by Moscow as a “Russophobic alliance”, push for Georgia to be integrated to the block as soon as possible, considering Tbilisi as a perfect platform in the Russian “backyard” or how the Kremlin calls it “near abroad”. It was George W. Bush’s neoconservative administration that dreamed about friendly Georgia that could have been integrated to NATO and used to introduce the military block to previously totally alien geopolitical space, mainly dominated by modern Turkey, Iran and Russia. But resurrected from comprehensive political, economic, social and military crisis Kremlin stopped this ambitious project postponing the membership perspectives for the years. Currently, there has been a shift in approaching to the enlargement narrative and debate. Particularly, more and more voices were calling to introduce the so-called Black Sea region concept, meaning that seemingly resultless dialogue with regard to NATO on South Caucasus could have been replaced by NATO on the Black Sea. Obviously, South Caucasus have always been perceived as Russia’s zone of influence were Western European countries were not keen to interfere, oppositely to the Black Sea region where two NATO member states are already presented – Turkey and Bulgaria. Furthermore, additionally Ukraine and Georgia do represent significant allies and possible future military strongholds. 

But it seems that this rapprochement is unable to push forward NATO’s aspirations to gain a foothold in South Caucasus due to a few reasonings. The first of all, we should outline deconstruction of America’s worldwide hegemony and self-identity crisis taking place in Washington. Secondly, Turkey’s heavy involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh confrontation is yet another prove that Ankara pursues its own geopolitical goals, considering itself foremostly as a successor of Ottoman Empire and its great mission rather than the North-Atlantic alliance member. Thirdly, the Kremlin’s grip on the “near abroad”. Fourthly, unreadiness of both, Azerbaijan and Armenia, to witness introduction of a new actor to the region. And, finally, unwillingness of the Western European states, especially, Germany and France to engage to this absolute mass. Thus, we should not expect to see an appraisal on NATO; furthermore, without America’s and Turkey’s military and financial capabilities, the block is probably the weakest player on this chessboard, unable to contribute to regional security.

“Be prepared”

Georgia has been “prepared” for NATO membership at least for the last decade. It is widely known that Tbilisi perceives the military block as a milestone in securing its territorial integrity and sovereignty from Russian assaults. Furthermore, NATO became more than just a “defense shield”, membership is considered to be a threshold in the country’s democratic and institutional development; finally, a guarantee of restoration of territorial unity. Despite endless promises given by NATO representatives that Georgia will joint the alliance, there are fears among Georgian political elites that overstretched membership plan can lead to dissatisfaction among regular citizens; this, in turn, may cause re-orientation of Georgia’s foreign course. As a response, American analyst Luke Coffee and Anders Fog Rasmussen, former NATO Secretary-General resurrected the idea of the German precedent, meaning that the state can be integrated to the alliance amending article 5 on the separatist regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia. This approach, initially raised by Georgian actors in mid and late 90s, became widely popular among some American and Eastern European analysts but was highly criticized by Georgians as a recognition of territorial lost. So far, in the wake of a clear stagnation, recent statements by NATO Secretary-General was extremely necessary positive booster. But it is paradoxical that Nagorno-Karabakh confrontation actually proved once more that Georgia’s NATO dreams are unachievable.

Actually, to be grounded and realistic there are only three scenarios that can lead to Georgia’s NATO membership: 1) Gorbachev-Yeltsin model, meaning regime change in Moscow and re-iteration of Gorbachev-Yeltsin era when Russia was unwilling as well as too weak to counter the West; 2) the Turkish model, repeating scenario when Ankara was invited to the military block due to fears of the so-called communist or Soviet threat; and finally, 3) in the case of a war between the West and Russia. Yet it seems that neither of these events are going to happen in the nearer future, what makes Tbilisi’s NATO aspirations very long-term objective. Furthermore, the whole Georgian idea of being a NATO member was and still is to finally end the wars and not to engage to yet another one. Thus, the best option is to wait until some positive changes will take place in the Kremlin.

The article was originally published by Caucasus Watch.

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Georgia’s wayward son

When it comes to Mikheil Saakashvili and his legacy as president, Georgians praise and curse him simultaneously. His announced return should the largest opposition party win in upcoming elections should be seen through the lens of the local society, most of which would not warmly welcome such a homecoming.

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili announced a “come back” to Georgian political life. In a short advertisement video, the prominent politician asked the local society for forgiveness and promised to complete reforms that he and his political party United National Movement (UNM) initiated before being defeated later in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013. Saakashvili, who chairs the executive committee of Ukraine’s National Reforms Council, stated that Georgia is in total stagnation, returning to the so-called “dark” 90s as a result of a traitorous policy pursued by the government of the Georgian Dream. Soon after, the UNM, the main opposition party, stated that in the case of being victorious in the parliamentary elections set for October 31st, it will nominate its “founding father” as candidate for prime minister. Saakashvili, who actually has never really left Georgian politics, announced that, if victorious, he would occupy the post for two years and then continue his career in Ukraine.

While some parts of the political opposition, as well as civil society, expressed gratitude for the readiness to help liberate the state from, what they call, a Russian-controlled oligarchy represented by typhoon Bidzina Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream, others expressed serious concerns. Giga Bokeria, a former high-ranking official under Saakashvili who established a new political movement called European Georgia, stated that Saakashvili’s aspiration is to return Georgia to the past.

Political rivalries aside, it is time to finally speak out on issues that make him a significant historic figure that will probably never “come back” again. Moreover, for the sake of Georgia’s democratic development, it would be best for Saakashvili to not return.

Georgian Che

Mikheil Saakashvili is extremely popular among American neo-conservative circles, Eastern European political figures and, of course, liberal and even non-liberal elites in the post-Soviet space. He is known best for being a highly successful reformer who transformed Georgia from a “rogue” state into a developing pro-western country. Most importantly, he is respected by some groups in the West for his harsh anti-Russian rhetoric. At the same time, he has been continuously seen by Russian liberals as a counter-example to Vladimir Putin; thus, his fall from power was well-celebrated in the Kremlin. Paradoxically, the former president of Georgia is also notorious among those considered pro-Russian elites in Armenia, as well as pro-governmental groups in Azerbaijan and Central Asia that are sick and tired of systemic corruption, violence and the inability to build a career beyond loyalty to existing political regimes.

All these actors, unfortunately, lack fully objective information when it comes to Saakashvili’s true legacy, overwhelmed by his tremendously well-performed PR campaign. So far, they often simply can’t understand why so many people at home praise and curse him at the same time.

To understand this inconsistency, we should accept, once and for all, that Saakashvili is not a reformist but first and foremost – a revolutionary. What’s more the former president truly believes in his own path – the “Misha Way”. In other words, he believes that he knows what is true and false; what is patriotic and what is unpatriotic. Generally speaking, there is only one right way, the “Misha Way” and Georgia, as well as the local society, should follow it whether they express willingness to or not.

As the revolutionary, Saakashvili is ready to pursue and fight for his ideas and goals till the end. This disposition was perfectly reflected during his governance when there was no dialogue, no debate and no exchange between the state and the people. Furthermore, after the constitutional amendments introduced in 2004, Georgia’s political system became hyper-presidential, in which parliament played no role while Saakashvili ruled over the state almost as a sheikh.

Soon after, the state developed its media platforms as well as the business sector. As a result, the processes in the country were driven solely by the will of its leader, Saakashvili, and a small group of individuals. Moreover, democratic values such as human rights, freedom of speech and the press and private property were largely abandoned for the sake of revolutionary breakthroughs – a modernisation which by all means has not been coordinated and harmonised with the Georgian people.

Yet another factor that we should emphasise is the unique PR skills of the former president of Georgia, as he manages to exaggerate achievements, on the one hand, while being able to fully overshadow the negative sides on the other hand. For example, police reform was tremendously successful in fighting “petty corruption” and ensuring the fight against crime, while being a total failure in defending local society from elite corruption and state abuse or the impunity of the security services that were involved in hundreds of criminal cases including killings, tortures and other grave misdeeds. This state reform protected Georgian society from crime but was incapable of doing the same when the state behaved as a criminal itself.

Thus, at the end of the day, Saakashvili gave the local population much-needed hope for a better future but, at the same time, sacrificed a desirable, democratic institutional development. Logically, Georgians praise and curse him simultaneously, depending on what was and is more important for each particular citizen.

Despite this paradox, all sides agree that Saakashvili is a historic figure – the “Georgian Che” who motivated Georgian society to continue its state-building process. Yet, the “Misha Way” was unable to live up to the strong desire for nation-building fully in line with democratic values.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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On the West we rely

The Georgian parliament has adopted constitutional changes that have been applauded by their international partners. As a result, the Georgian Dream government might struggle with an even more alienated opposition.

On June 29th 2020 the Georgian parliament finally adopted constitutional amendments that have been praised by an absolute majority of local and international actors as “historic”. The new electoral system, which introduces a mixed model consisting of 120 members of Parliament proportionally elected and 30 majoritarian MPs, is seen as an opportunity for Georgian democracy to build a culture of collaboration and coalition governments. And while this statement may be seriously challenged, there are issues that are more relevant and important in Georgian society.

Particularly, members of the political opposition, Irakli Okruashvili and Gigi Ugulava, had been previously pardoned by president Salome Zurabishvili. These individuals, arguably perceived as criminals by the majority of Georgians, were released as a result of international pressure from some representatives of European Parliament and American Congress. Local oppositional parties praised the decision, calling it a step towards less political turbulence; more justice and peace is expected in buildup to the upcoming parliamentary elections set for October 2020.

Meanwhile, the majority of the electorate of Georgian Dream is most likely shocked and astonished as they simply cannot understand how former members of the ruling government who directly participated in building a semi-authoritarian regime while oppressing media and human rights can be protected and lobbied by the state’s strategic partners in the EU and USA. This is especially relevant as it relies on judgements by the ECHR and International arbitrage in The Hague. Moreover, there is an apparent embarrassment due to the behavior of Georgia’s allies who directly intervened in internal affairs and pressured the government, or even threatened it.

Terrorists or freedom fighters

It goes without saying that the biggest issue here is the alleged existence of political prisoners in Georgia. Some members of European Parliament as well as American Senators and Congressmen are extremely keen to refer to almost all the members of political opposition who went to jail as political prisoners. Of course local judiciary and prosecutor offices are far from Western standards and need to be further strengthened and distanced from the state’s grip. At the same time, all statistical data shows that these institutions are freer and more independent than ever before. Thus, Georgians can be sure that their rights will be better protected than in the past. This fact is sometimes even challenged despite clear evidence.

Secondly, it is up to local and international legal institutions to give final judgement on whether a person has been persecuted due to political views and activities or not. But what bothers regular citizens of Georgia is that there are active attempts by some Western officials to whitewash members of Saakashvili’s government; although it is a government prominent for its brutal dispersal of peaceful protests, massive oppression of political opponents, seizure of oppositional media outlets and total disregard of human rights. And these outcomes frequently come through direct misrepresentation of data and even ECHR judgements. For example, Małgorzata Maria Gosiewska, Deputy Marshal of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland, represented former Minister of Internal Affairs Ivane Merabishvili as a political prisoner and cited an ECHR judgement as a legal document. Ms. Gosiewska blatantly misled listeners as the court ruled that the state hadn’t violated Mr. Merabishvili’s right to a fair and public trial and his sentence was given in accordance to international practice. Generally speaking, there are serious hesitations and doubts about fairness of conclusions made by some politicians, especially Europeans. This is especially relevant in wake of a call by Marketa Gregorova, Czech activist, member of the Czech Pirate Party, and elected MEP, to investigate dispersal of a questionably “peaceful” political protest on June 20th 2019. If this issue is so urgent and relevant for some members of EU parliament then why do they continue to whitewash Ivane Merabishvili, who brutally stamped out dozens of peaceful protests which resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of people being injured and three people being killed?!

Generally, an extremely large gap in perceptions exists between regular Georgian citizens on the one hand and some political actors on the ground and abroad on the other hand. This challenge can described within the framework given by a character from the movie Die Another Day, in which he stated “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. For the larger Georgian society, Gigi Ugulava and other former top officials are criminals mentioned in judgements by the ECHR in cases such as Sulkhan Molashvili v. Georgia (political persecution and torture), Enukidze and Gvirgvliani v. Georgia (torture of civilian and concealment of evidences), Batiashvili v. Georgia (intentional fabrication of evidences), Rustavi 2 Broadcasting Company Ltd and Others v. Georgia (unlawful expropriation of private media property) and so on.

Politics above the law

The lion’s share of allegations against Georgian Dream from its American allies is arguably mostly politically motivated. At the very least, the allegations made by American Senators and Congressmen are definitely political rather than legal. Arguably the best example of this is the claimed oppression of American business, as in the Frontera Resources case. This Texas company has operated in Georgia since 1997 and continues promising to find natural resources, such as gas and oil. The Georgian Dream government argued that the company violated an agreement, resulting in approximately one hundred Georgian citizens not being paid salaries for more than year. The company, however, was and still is arguing that it has found the largest oil and gas deposits, which have been false claims for the last two decades. Therefore, the government of Georgia decided to break the contract. This situation was addressed by American Republican Congressman Pete Olson, who directly called Bidzina Ivanishvili and the current government pro-Russian puppets; additionally, Mr. Olson argued that Frontera Resources has been pushed away in order to give Georgian gas to the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin in general. This narrative was picked up by members of the political opposition despite the fact that one of its own leaders from the United National Movement, MP Roman Gotsiridze, was personally calling Frontera Resources a “charlatan” company and urging the government to defend Georgian citizens. These allegations did not disappear even after a judgement by an international arbitrage, located in The Hague, ruled in favor of the Georgian government and gave the state permission to break cooperation with the American company due to a breach of contract. But what is especially disturbing is that some representatives of leading international and local NGOs, such as Transparency International, including Georgia’s Executive Director Eka Gigauri, are still using this case to express “concerns” and contribute to the legally false claims of Congressman Olson and the local political opposition.

It seems that these organisations, at least some of their members, have their own ideological and political rivalry or confrontation with the ruling Georgian Dream, which pushes them to turn a blind eye to the legal aspects and focus more on a political agenda. The same scenario happened during the private Rustavi 2 channel dispute when NGOs argued that Bidzina Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream controlled local courts, pushing the institution to transfer property rights to pro-governmental businessman Kibar Khalvashi. This narrative is still proliferated by these same organisations and people despite an ECHR judgement that ruled in favor of the decision made previously by a Georgian court. Moreover, none of the claims made by NGO representatives had been publicly shared. By the end of this ruling. members of the political opposition called the judgement pro-Russian and claimed the ECHR was bribed by Bidzina Ivanishvili and influenced by the Kremlin.

Behind the back politics 

The biggest concerns among regular citizens are raised most often due to political negotiations and agreements facilitated by European and American diplomats between the Georgian Dream government and political opposition. The most important achievement of this process was the March 8th agreement that, in theory, should have depolarised the environment in the country and ensured more transparent and democratic parliamentary elections, which are set for October 2020. But as soon as the ruling party and political opposition started disputing the agreement itself, Georgian citizens realised that they had no clue what was happening at all. It took place behind closed doors and agreements were made in secret. Thus far, local voters are in a frustrating situation as political actors are representing things in a completely contradictory manner while European and American diplomats keep silent. Georgia’s strategic partners have often “negotiated democracy” with local political elites “behind the back” of Georgian society. Thus, the above concerns are obviously not baseless. In a country where “shadow politics” is taking place on a regular basis, it is highly questionable whether yet another example of “international shadow politics” can strengthen democracy or increase trust in the political process. Moreover, this can easily be perceived as a intervention into domestic affairs and an attempt to defend interests of political elites on the one hand and national (political, geopolitical and economic) interests of the EU and USA on the other hand, without asking for an opinion from Georgian voters.

By and large, the substantial astonishment among a significant portion of Georgian society, namely those who sent Mikhail Saakashvili’s government to the “political bench”, stems from them simply being unable to understand how the former officials, involved in corruption and other legal cases, can be lobbied by the West and even called “freedom fighters”?! Furthermore, why do some European and American officials think that Georgian democracy will be strengthened by keeping these perceivably corrupt individuals active in politics and even appointing them to high political positions again?! The usual pro-Western actors in the country, as well as their allies abroad, should be ready for increased anti-Western criticism and skepticism among regular citizens of Georgia who see lobbyist attempts as a glaring intervention in domestic affairs and a politically-motivated liberation of alleged criminals. Most importantly, however, are the concerns raised about whether the European and American actors involved in the process promote principles of equality before the law or an old quote known as “all are equal but some are more equal”. And it seems that in this case Gigi Ugulava and Irakli Okruashvili fall into the second basket, because there is no doubt that no one can be bothered to save individuals who lack political labels and/or political protection.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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The Hidden Crisis of Georgia’s Nongovernmental Sector

The topic of Georgia’s nongovernmental realm is highly sensitive. This sector played a crucial role in building local civil society and pushing a wide-range of important reforms since the beginning of the restoration of Georgia’s statehood. Furthermore, it is still on the forefront of changes that the country needs to apply to ensure political, economic and, most importantly, social prosperity of the state as well as the society at large. At the same time, the nongovernmental sector has not remained static over the last three decades; it has been evolving and transforming, keeping up with timely challenges and internal processes/environment. Thus, it had gone through a significant metamorphosis. And while there are no doubts with regard to the role of the sector, more and more analysts and scholars do raise concerns that it has become highly politicized and detached from Georgian realities, lacking vital legitimacy and trust from the local society as well as from regular citizens. By and large, it is in a deep crisis that is being intentionally hidden and turned a blind eye on.

Usually, such criticism is being countered by representatives of the nongovernmental sector as a pro-Russian narrative aimed at insulting and undermining civil society by politically motivated actors that aspire to stop Georgia’s democratic development. But the latest public opinion survey by CRRC Georgia in combination with the BTI 2020 Country Report have arguably proven that the concerns mentioned above are not only a figment of the imagination of ill-wishers but indeed real challenges in need to be discussed and dealt with.

Legitimacy and Trust

Every nongovernmental sector is historically a product of volunteering and relies on two significant variables: legitimacy and trust that derive mainly from the local community. To be more precise, representatives of a particular society do create civil society organizations to handle issues on the ground; this activism is financed by residents and it ensures the legitimacy of actions undertaken by the organization as well as a continuing trust. This functional chain (volunteering, investments, legitimacy and the trust, abb. VILT) was broken in the post-Soviet space due to lack volunteering culture and fiscal capabilities. As a result, the nongovernmental sector of Georgia as such was totally built on donations and grants coming from external actors, especially from the US and European countries. This dependency was justified in 90s and 2000s in the wake of political and socio-economic catastrophe. At the same time, Georgia experienced positive changes over the last two decades that raised hopes among its strategic partners that local society will finally start investing into the nongovernmental sector, resulting in a decreasing share of external actors. In theory, this should have further strengthened the importance of the NGOs and increased their legitimacy as well as their trust. Generally speaking, an appliance of the VILT formula should have brought together the nongovernmental sector, on the one hand, and the regular citizens, on the other hand.

We may definitely argue that the transition failed and that the local nongovernmental sector still heavily relies on external actors, while local investments remain miserable. Such disposition raised concerns that the sector is detached from the larger Georgian society, being an elitist union and pushing agendas relevant for its external contributors but which are frequently irrelevant for the people on the ground. Furthermore, a lack of financial assistance from regular citizens undermines legitimacy and trust at large. These points, usually met by the representatives of the leading nongovernmental organizations with a strong hostility, have been at least partially proven by the latest research reports by CRRC Georgia and BTI Index. The survey showed a low trust-level toward the sector, while the country report re-iterated its elitist nature and its detachment from the wider Georgian society.

From Volunteering to Politics

Yet, another disturbing tendency that needs to be investigated is the extreme speed at which the nongovernmental sector is politicizing. We are witnessing a process, in which representatives of local civil society organizations transfer from the nongovernmental sector into politics, while politicians actively move into the sector on a regular basis. Generally speaking, this exchange of human capital actively started after the so-called Rose Revolution, when civil activists from, for example, the Liberty Institute, collectively transferred to the newly established power structures. As a result, there are doubts whether local NGOs are politically neutral and objective watchdogs, and not simply lobbyists of their own preferences or political and business actors. For example, the three latest chairpersons of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), one of the largest human rights watchdogs in Georgia, Ms. Tamar Chugoshvili, Mr. Kakha Kozhoridze and Ms. Anna Natsvlishvili, actively joined political processes. Simultaneously, after the regime change in 2012-2013 due to parliamentary and presidential elections, in which the United National Movement has been replaced by the Georgian Dream Coalition, former high-ranking officials established their own nongovernmental organizations, actively participating in the political life and becoming direct rivals of the current ruling party. By the end of the day, it became difficult to trust the nongovernmental sector, even though the absolute majority of Georgian society would like to belief that the sector is working for the people.

Apart from that, we must also mention the naïve views that existed in Georgia since the foundation of the nongovernmental sector as such. Particularly, there was an idealistic perception of liberal democracy, meaning that local society was easily lured in by its promises, which led to the sacralization of its founding process. Hence, the nongovernmental sector, as an inherent part of the new model, has been shaped into a radically selfless and altruistic phenomenon in the hearts and minds of regular citizens. And even though altruism and volunteering have historically been two obvious founding pillars, the sector itself is heavily affected by individual interests and approaches. Nowadays, the larger Georgian society, after getting over its political growing pains, started to realize thatliberal democracy is neither perfect nor is the nongovernmental sector free from egoism and other unpleasant reflections of everyday life.

By and large, Georgia’s nongovernmental sector is in a crisis that their representativesare unwilling to acknowledge. Furthermore, criticism can lead to counter allegations for promoting pro-Russian narratives by undermining legitimacy and trust toward the allegedly neutral watchdogs. At the same time, more and more local analysts and scholars raise concerns that civil society organizations became detached from the larger Georgian society due to a total dependency on its Western financial sources. In turn, this leads to a lack of legitimacy and trust from regular citizens. Additionally, there are serious doubts whether the sector itself is politically neutral and still continues to play “the watchdog” role. These allegations are being further strengthened by the active human capital exchange between the nongovernmental and the political dimensions. These factors in combination with idealistic perceptions of liberal democracy, including those of the nongovernmental sector as a phenomenon, contribute to an increased feeling of disappointment that must be dealt with and not simply turned a blind eye on.

The article was originally published by Caucasus Watch.

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Coronavirus of Georgian politics

The government of the Georgian Dream has been fairly successful with its gradual approach to tackling the pandemic. At the same time it found itself pitted against one of the most trusted institutions in the country, the Georgian Orthodox Church.

In a move that was unexpected by both Georgia’s strategic partners and its own society, the Georgian Dream government has managed to successfully wage a war against COVID-19. The state’s gradualist tactics, involving timely and appropriate political reactions, has allowed for a controllable proliferation of the disease and limited deaths thus far. So far, Georgia has been deemed a “state to follow” in the global fight against the coronavirus.

Despite this pandemic and accompanying challenges, political processes are still very relevant within the country. Both the government and its political opponents are using all possible tools to gain more electoral votes in the upcoming October parliamentary elections. Initial statements by the United Opposition that announced a “moratorium on criticism” did not hold out long. These political groups have involved affiliated media outlets and platforms which, depending on their ideological attachment, present reality in absolutely diverse ways.

Most recently, the Georgian Dream government found itself pitted against one of the most trusted state institutions, the Georgian Orthodox Church, which refused to follow strict regulations regarding the Easter holiday.

Gradualism against COVID-19

Georgia is probably one of the best examples of a gradualist approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a move opposite to most European and non-Western states, where populations were suddenly locked up, the government of Georgian Dream quickly reacted to the threat and started slowly setting new regulations and restrictions after the first case was discovered on February 26th. This model gave both the state and local society enough time to get used the idea that a new reality was coming and everyone should adjust. Furthermore, citizens were reassured that the country has high-level professionals in the medical sector who, in collaboration with the ruling party, managed to lead the nation while becoming symbols of hope in the fight against the virus. The state is currently in total lockdown, but due to the appropriate crisis management approach, civilians remain relatively calm and secure.

On the other hand, the Georgian Dream government threatens its own political success with an unclear economic policy. This has becoming increasingly problematic since the state of emergency was extended until May 22. It is clear that representatives of the health service are devoted to saving lives and preventing the further spread of COVID-19, but the government must also keep in mind the political, economic and social dimensions of the crisis. However, they have not yet managed to persuade Georgian society that there is a clear policy to deal with the increased rates of unemployment and poverty. Consequently, there has already been an anti-lockdown rally in the city of Marneuli where locals are in need of serious financial and social assistance.

Coronavirus, politics and media

Elections are coming and the earlier expectations that the coronavirus pandemic would overshadow it failed. No real consolidation of the political powers has been achieved. The United Opposition has realised that while it is on the “political bench,” the Georgian Dream is scoring additional votes through its crisis policies. So far, despite the announced “moratorium on criticism,” the opposition has already started waging a full-scaled rhetorical war, trying to undermine achievements of the government. They have pushed forward a negative narrative of the crisis that focuses on unemployment, poverty, and sporadic cases of police abuse. Finally, the opposition refused to support an extension of the state of emergency, arguing that the Georgian Dream had not presented an action plan that validated the necessity of keeping the state under lockdown.

At the same time, the government of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia is aware that the pandemic has given the ruling team a unique opportunity. On the one hand, they avoided strong political protests that were expected to begin in early April regarding the liberation of alleged political prisoners, free and fair elections. On the other hand, the existing quarantine has locked down both regular citizens and members of the political opposition, who are currently at home and not able to fully participate in political life. Finally, the pandemic itself has become a chance to pursue the best possible pre-election campaign without actually announcing this campaign. The way the ruling party manages this crisis will have a profound impact on the upcoming parliamentary elections. The ball is in the government’s court and the Georgian Dream has successfully controlled it thus far .

The war between political powers is even more apparent in the Georgian media where all involved parties try hard to discredit each other. Imedi, the pro-governmental news channel, pushes a narrative that the state is doing well, while turning a blind eye to the existing challenges. The oppositional channels, like Mtavari and TV Pirveli, often do not inform their audiences about successful crisis management, arguing that the state has returned to the “dark” 1990s with people starving and dying on the streets. This unfortunate polarity has once again raised concerns about the politicised nature of local media.

The calls: Church versus Gakharia

In accordance with a long-lasting tradition, the Georgian Orthodox Church has managed to prove that it is still the most influential institution in Georgia. The church has not only disobeyed restrictions set by the government, but they have actually avoided adhering to the majority of them, including the prohibition of mass gatherings, driving cars, curfew and even basic safety standards.

From the beginning a lion’s share of Georgian Orthodox priests resisted the restrictions, arguing that faith is above any law and spirituality will defend the flock from this misfortune. Moreover, they stated that an attempt to close churches is a direct path toward repeating a totalitarian, forceful policy preached by the communist regime. Thus, these religious leaders called on the followers to continue attending spiritual rituals despite the pandemic and existing strict regulations. The narrative was significantly softened after direct negotiations with the state officials and public negative outcry. And still, Georgian Orthodox Church managed to held Easter rituals with significant violations of the law while representatives of other religious denominations where diplomatically “asked” (actually, prohibited) not to do so; this is especially actual for the state’s Muslim community that is still unable to pray at mosques despite the Ramadan.

The government, which is unwilling to engage in a direct confrontation, especially in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections, has turned a blind eye to these transgressions. The political opposition and a significant part of local civil society members have criticised the government for its selective justice. They call it a grave breach of secularity principles, and thus, the constitution itself. At the same time, representatives of other religious denominations have raised reasonable concerns about double-standards, inequality and discrimination.

These attitudes were strengthened by Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s pre-Easter speech, when he called on citizens to avoid attending religious rituals, arguing that the violation of the curfew would not only hit the church as an institution but also push the state towards a larger coronavirus outbreak. Some critics, highlight signs of unwillingness by the government to lead the state and defend the law, while “rebellious” priests saw it as an attempt to blame possible negative outcomes on the church. But these critics have overlooked the similarities between Gakharia’s speech and what John F. Kennedy once said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The church is superior to the government, not because the Georgian Dream decided so, but, foremostly, because Georgian society gave it more legitimacy. It is up to the Georgian citizens to respect the role of the government and finally recognise it as a supreme institution.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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Georgian Media as a Fake News?

In the wake of the ‘war on disinformation’ more and more states focus on promotion of the so-called objective independent and hopefully pro-Western media. This tendency is even stronger in Eastern European countries such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and, of course, Ukraine and Georgia. But despite the announced magna mission, usually these sources of information are simply more propagandist rather than neutral and objective; furthermore, they counter the Kremlin ‘disinformation’ and manipulations with their own. Georgia, as a beacon of freedom in the post-Soviet region, is one to the best examples, when countering the Russian threats transformed into constructing conspiracy theories around it. Additionally, Georgian media legitimizes this approach by the necessity to defend the ‘Western values’ and the country from fake news coming from Putin’s regime. Factually, the attempt to counter the Russian fake news with Georgian “pro-Western” fake news led to establishment of highly politicised media environment that tries to hide its partiality and dependence on ideology. Apart from it, Georgian media suffers from various actors who invest in the field with concrete mercantile objectives, the most importantly, to counter the government while prefix ‘pro-Western’ is a ‘bait’ for the state’s strategic partners. By the end of the day, the whole notion of an objective independent and pro-Western Georgian media became the biggest fake news itself.

Objective versus Independent

Representatives of Georgian media are keen to speak about ‘controlled’ Russian broadcasters while praising their own independence from the government. But what they forget to say is that they are not independent from business interests and particularly those actors who heavily invest in this field, especially television, to pursue concrete mercantile goals. For example, Georgian tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili who established TV 9 to counter Mikhail Saakashvili’s government and once regime has been changed simply closed it. Or, Davit Kezerashvili, former Defence Minister of Georgia during Saakashvili’s regime who fled the country to avoid criminal charges, founded new tv broadcaster Formula as he argues to counter current government, Russian fake news and, of course, bring pro-Western standards/professionalism to local journalism. The same story with Nika Gvaramia, former Minister of Justice and Education, who created channel Mtavari (the Main) to fight against pro-Russian government of Georgian Dream. All these cases are reflections of a sinful practice of founding media institutes for political purposes. They are independent from the government but highly dependent on their source of income – political and business groups – that transforms them into a political tool or even party channels.

We may definitely argue that neither Imedi TV, local private broadcaster by some considered as pro-governmental, nor oppositional channels like Rustavi 2, Pirveli TV, Formula and Mtavari are ‘controlled’; they are independent from outside intervention but they are still dependent due to their primary goals – to defend or to counter. This assumption leads us to controversy between being independent and being objective. Georgian media is ‘uncontrolled’ and ‘independent’ but definitely not objective. Objectivity demands equal representation and neutrality that cannot be achieved because, as it has been said above, the magna mission of the most Georgian broadcasters is, foremostly, to defend or to counter.

Critical versus Oppositional

Another challenge for local media environment is inability or may be even unwillingness to make the difference between being critical and being oppositional. To be critical means to represent both, pros and cons while to be oppositional to show only one side of the coin. We may frequently hear that Georgian media is critical to the government but factually it is mainly oppositional; the same situation is with regard to Imedi TV that is in opposition to the parliamentary opposition, especially, United National Movement and European Georgia. This is pretty logical if we take into consideration the fact that representatives of these movements participated in an unlawful seizure of the channel in November 2007. So far, what we have are channels that due to their ‘oppositional nature’ represent processes in the country in totally different ways – anti-governmental showing a poor, blank and destroyed country while pro-governmental, the slowly growing state. As a result, even local society lives in two Georgia’s and, of course, votes respectively. Furthermore, these broadcasters and their followers are highly intolerant toward those who prefer critical media, allegedly for not being able to choose the ‘right sight’. Probably the best example is a case with the Georgian Public Broadcaster that have been labeled by ‘defenders’ and proponents of the Western values (at the time, Rustavi 2 and others) as pro-Russian and pro-governmental because they have not been ‘critical enough’.

‘War on disinformation’ versus ‘War on critical thinking’

Finally, the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s example raises one more very important topic – controversy between the ‘war on disinformation’ and the ‘war on critical thinking’, or the oppression of the different standpoint. Provoked by ‘successful’ approaches of countering Russian propaganda, especially, in USA and countries like Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Georgian self-proclaimed liberal elite representatives are obsessed by the idea of eradicating everything and everyone attached, according to their perceptions, to the so-called pro-Russian agenda. The holy war on ‘Russian disinformation’ led to actually oppression of the freedom of speech and critical thinking. Georgian media environment is a space where you simply cannot criticise neither the US nor Europe unless you are ready to be called agent of the Kremlin, enabler of the Putin’s regime and to be ‘excommunicated’ from pro-Western Georgian society. Unfortunately, this ‘war on critical thinking’ is frequently supported by those political actors from the strategic countries who have been appointed to keep an eye on the country’s successful transition toward democracy.

Conclusion

Georgia has a highly politicized and ideologically motivated media atmosphere. Television still remains the main source of information. Apart from a few examples, maybe the First Channel, other broadcasters such as Imedi TV, Rustavi 2, Pirveli TV, Formula and, undoubtedly, Mtavari serve to concrete purposes; in some cases, tv broadcasters have been created as a political tool. Georgian tv broadcasters are mainly ‘uncontrolled’ and ‘independent’ from outside intervention but not objective; additionally, they are oppositional rather than critical. The whole notion of being ‘pro-Western’ is just a ‘bait’ for the abroad audience. Building fake news and manipulating information just to achieve mercantile goals by all means have nothing to do with the real Western values and Western journalistic standards. Lastly, the ‘war on disinformation’ led to the ‘war on critical thinking’ when using the Western critical approach to analyse USA and EU may, by default, lead to grave consequences, particularly, allegations of being pro-Russian, agent of the Kremlin, the fifth column and other labels. 

By and large, rumors about an objective independent pro-Western Georgian media is probably the biggest fake news in the country that outside strategic partners, especially, in USA and Eastern Europe are extremely keen to buy; furthermore, tend to naively trust and build-up serious analysis on it.

The article was originally published by Caucasus Watch.

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Coronavirus in Georgia: Dilemma with the Orthodox Church

Georgia has joined the group of many other states with its first recorded death on April 4. The local government in collaboration with leading virologists tried hard to avoid the precedent and continue comparatively successful fight against coronavirus pandemic. Praised internationally for effective and efficient policy, the leadership of Georgian Dream, headed by PM Giorgi Gakharia introduced nationwide quarantine on March 31, including curfew to stop proliferation of the virus in the state by enforcing the so-called “social distancing” concept.

And while the absolute majority of Georgians support the government’s approach, Georgian Dream found itself in rivalry with the state’s one of the most trusted and strongest institutions – Georgian Orthodox Church. Particularly, the lion’s share of Georgian priests initially refused to follow the new regulations arguing that the flock must attend religious meetings; furthermore, they even refused to change some aspects of the rituals to avoid spread of the virus. Finally, officials are now trying to persuade the church to postpone celebration of one of the most respected and holy religious holidays – Easter. 

Hesitations and inconsistency of the ruling party with regard to Orthodox Georgian Church’s behavior split local society on the so-called liberals, conservatists and neutrals: the first group arguing that this is a grave violation of superiority of the law (secular state), others considering the happening as an assault on Orthodox Christianity (the GOD) and the neutrals being simply too occupied by everyday routine.

Above the Law

Spirituality is an inherent part of Georgian society. Georgia, a historically strongly Orthodox Christian entity, tries to carefully nurture its heritage and is especially sensitive to the issue of religious freedom due to its Soviet past when all denominations were oppressed by communists. The religion played even more important role during and after the collapse of USSR when the Georgian Orthodox Church actually became the only coherent and trustworthy institution in the country. Governments used to come and fall but the church was always there as a “painkiller” for a physically and emotionally exhausted population. This objective reality made it a nation-wide “influencer”, an important political and social actor, a decision-maker. Thus, the state, on the one hand, and the entity, on the other hand, signed in 2002 the so-called – concordat – constitutional agreement recognizing the historic role of the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia in building, strengthening and maintaining statehood and the Georgian nationhood in general. Furthermore, it granted the church and its representatives additional rights and protections that raised the institution above any other religious denomination.

Representatives of the so-called liberals, mainly civil society organizations and some other actors, have been troubled by the concordat arguing that both, the state and the church, are violating the principles of equality and secular state for years. These arguments have been re-iterated and strengthened during the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic when Orthodox priests refused to follow strict regulations set by the Georgian Dream, even threatening to retaliate if the ruling party dares to restrict spiritual rituals. This comes alongside comparatively minor religious denominations immediately showing social responsibility by temporarily halting activities and calling on their flocks to obey the law. The government, being caught between the hammer and the anvil, hesitated whether to react on the disobedience raising additional concerns that the Georgian Orthodox Church is truly above the law. 

The ruling party is still at the crossroad: it should maintain the law while try to avoid rivalry with one of the most trusted institutions right before the elections.

Politics of Faith

It is not a secret that Georgian politicians actively use various religious groups for political purposes. This is especially true during election campaigns when not only Georgian Orthodox Church but also Muslim community and other groups are being dragged into political processes. Political actors are extremely keen to use it to gain additional electoral support by giving a wide range of promises that are usually not implemented later on.

Nevertheless, due to the Georgian Orthodox Church’s vast societal support manages to bargain more benefits from local government. Moreover, its representatives are aware of the existing reality and frequently use this as a quite effective trigger against ruling political elites. On the other hand, Georgian governments were always trying to “conclude” political alliance with the institution to strengthen legitimacy and attract more followers; creating an illusion of people’s power.

Thus, both, the ruling Georgian Dream and the political opposition, behave according to the established tradition. In the wake of the extremely important upcoming parliamentary elections set for October this year, the government is unwilling to fall into confrontation with the church while adversaries are trying to gain the hearts and minds of less privileged religious groups by voicing the concept of equality. Conventionally, even during the coronavirus pandemic faith is being deployed by all interested parties for political and other benefits.

By and large, the Georgian Dream is still struggling to handle the dilemma with the Georgian Orthodox Church in a sophisticated way to avoid allegations of breaking principles of secular state, on the one hand, and, to keep political support of the institution, on the other hand. The Easter holidays are coming and state officials have already expressed their willingness to observe it in accordance with the “social distancing” approach (being at home). This is an additional strong message to the priests that the law must be followed. Thus, the upcoming holidays will be yet another test for the Georgian Dream government and will, probably, finalize the struggle. At the same time, political opponents shall try hard to use this confrontation to unveil political incompetence of the establishment. All in all, parliamentary elections are coming and even the COVID-19 pandemic cannot stop it.

The article was originally published by Caucasus Watch.

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The right to a fair trial in Georgia

Every attempt to reform the Georgian judiciary has been met with suspicion. It is no different when Georgian Dream pushes for them now.

The issue of the right to a fair trial in Georgia has plagued the country since its independence. No government has managed to bring the judicial system to an appropriate condition yet. Currently, the Georgian Dream party is pushing for grand reforms to finally settle the topic. While some may argue that the justice system has become more functional, there is strong evidence raising concerns the ruling government is still unwilling to fully give up on it as a political tool. Transparency International Georgia, as well as other local NGOs, argue that the recent appointments of judges on a permanent basis was flawed and politically motivated. These concerns have been echoed by a number of American congressmen and European actors.

It may sound like a typical story of corruption when the regime tries to subordinate the courts while civil society, in collaboration with external actors, fight to maintain its independence, but as usual, everything is not as simple as it looks in Georgia. When analysing the right to a fair trial, it is important to keep in mind that there always was, is, and probably will be politics behind the justice system. All actors have their own agendas and perceptions.

Background

There are no debates that Mikhail Saakashvili’s courts were totally flawed and controlled by the ruling party. Thus, the newly elected Georgian Dream, with help of local and international actors, initiated a reform process that aimed at building an independent, transparent and accountable judiciary system. As a part of the reforms, the Venice Commission called on the government to appoint judges on a permanent basis so that they could be invulnerable to changes of the political elites and influence from outside. The Ambassador of the European Union to Georgia, Carl Hartzell, argued that the process of nomination and appointment was open to the public and transparent like never before. But political opposition and local observers raised concerns that the ruling government broke the merit-based principle and appointed judges with highly questionable pasts. Particularly, they raised concern about those who were involved in sensitive criminal cases during Saakashvili’s regime and were previously perceived as “following the political order from above.” So far, critics of the Georgian Dream party have blamed it for “promotion” in exchange for “obedience.”

Furthermore, independent experts such as Ana Dolidze, the former chief legal adviser to the President of Georgia, argue that the government has given Saakashvili-era corrupt judges a platform to build the so-called “Murusidze-Chinchaladze clan” and control the whole system through political alliances. Some of these grave concerns are shared by Georgia’s strategic partners. As a result, the Georgian Dream was forced to halt its Supreme Court judicial appointments.

At the same time, contrary to everything said above, the latest statistics and reports show that courts are now functioning better than ever before. According to the statistics of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the amount of new applications submitted to a judicial formation increased with 30 per cent in 2019 compared to the previous year. Some 1,390 applications from Georgia were found to be inadmissible, a historic achievement. Furthermore, the Georgian government also won the important Rustavi 2 case in Strasbourg.

Therefore, while the system itself remains the least trustworthy institution according to a survey by the Caucasus Research Resource Center, the right to a fair trial is definitely more ensured in Georgia than previously.

Georgian politics behind the Georgian justice

On July 18th 2019, the European Court on Human Rights in Strasbourg published a historic judgement for Georgia regarding the so-called Rustavi 2 case. It was important due to the fact that the decision proved that Georgian courts can work appropriately and ensure the right to a fair trial, even in extremely sensitive cases.

The private opposition channel Rustavi 2, led by a close ally to Saakashvili and former high official, Nika Gvaramia, was sued by the former owner Kibar Khalvashi. According to Khalvashi, the channel was forcefully taken from him during the governance of the post-Rose Revolution government and allocated to the regime’s friendly forces. Khalvashi asked the Georgian courts to return his property. In 2017 Georgia’s supreme court reaffirmed previous judgements and ordered a transfer of the channel’s rights. Nika Gvaramia and the whole specter of the political opposition argued that Khalvashi was directed by the ruling government to close the only oppositional channel; furthermore, they argued that this was a direct attack on critical media and freedom of speech. Finally, Gvaramia stressed that the government was pursuing a direct order from the Kremlin to close the most pro-Western channel in the country. These allegations were mainly shared by respected local and non-governmental organisations such as Transparency International Georgia and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association. The public defender Nino Lomjaria also expressed grave concerns. Gvaramia and others sent a letter to the ECHR emphasising that Rustavi 2 is crucial for Georgian democracy. They asked the court to suspend the decision of the supreme court and investigate the case. The European Court agreed. Rustavi 2 channel members, as well as political opposition and the “elite” civil society representatives, spend the next two years re-iterating that the case was a clear example of the grip of the ruling regime on the courts.

Shockingly for these actors, the ECHR not only supported the change of the ownership but also stated that no rights to a fair trial were violated and that there were no signs of Georgian democracy and freedom of speech being under a threat. Finally, European judges noticed that Nika Gvaramia was directly insulting the Georgian judiciary system and intentionally undermining the local court’s legitimacy and credibility.

Georgia’s “elite” civil society became silent. Gvaramia, grinding his teeth, called it a “huge mistake,” while leaders of the political opposition like Giorgi Baramidze, the former Acting Prime Minister, and Khatia Dekanoidze, the former Minister of Education and Science, assessed the judgement as a pro-Russian. They asserted that the ECHR was being bribed by the Kremlin and Georgian tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili.

What is the question about?!

To generalise the debate in Georgian society, we can argue that the judiciary reforms raises a highly philosophical dilemma: is the glass half empty or half full?

Obviously, local political opposition, along with representatives of the so-called “elite” civil society, consider the glass half empty. Logically, opponents of the government use this approach for the purpose of political rivalry to undermine the ruling party and gain electoral votes. But in the case of the “elite” civil society members, it has to do with a combination of political preferences, general agendas, and beliefs.

On the other hand, there is the current government that continuously compares its achievements with the legacy left by United National Movement, and consequently argues that the glass is half full. The comparison is crucial to remind the Georgian population, which is frequently keen to forget lessons of the past, that the post-Rose Revolution regime simply failed to fulfill any standards for the right to a fair trial. But, at the same time, this narrative cannot be used as an excuse. Furthermore, the government should not simply ensure “better” courts, it must raise the stakes and make the whole system respective to European standards. They need to finally set the institution free, something that the ruling power is not ready to do yet.

The magna challenge

The judgement on the Rustavi 2 case shows that there is clearly one magna challenge with regard to the establishment of an independent and objective judiciary system in Georgia. That is the unreadiness of local actors to obey, respect and follow.

The United National Movement had no concerns with the right to a fair trial when the reigns of power were in their hands and they controlled the courts to oppress opponents. But, as soon as they lost control and were threatened by the system they directly nurtured, former government representatives suddenly proclaimed that the institution is flawed and in need of total reconsideration. The judges, who were highly praised at that time by representatives of the government, were transformed from democracy-defenders to enemies of the state. This example refers us to an old established perception among political actors and, generally, wider society: the court is free and fair if it produces “appropriate” judgement. This means that no actors, including “elite” civil society and the general population, are actually ready to recognise that the court can provide the right for fair trial even if members of political opposition are being jailed, arguments expressed by civic activists have not been shared and, of course, government has been held responsible for its actions. All in all, the judiciary system works appropriately not only by restraining the regime but, generally, through making everyone equal and accountable. The courts must ensure that former or current elites are accountable, as well as any regular citizen. This is something that is still unobservable with the state.

So far, the real reforms must be continued and the government should be ready to give up this institution as a political tool once and for all. But, at the same time, the most important pre-condition for building well-trusted courts is to come to a common agreement that the judgement must be followed and respected. It cannot be abandoned, local courts cannot be intentionally discredited and simply undermined by neither side due to mercantile, narrow political interests.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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