Tag Archives: democracy

Georgia’s June crisis

Tensions remain high in Tbilisi after Russian lawmaker Sergey Gavrilov occupied the chair of the speaker of the Georgian parliament last month.

On July 20th, it will be almost one month since Georgia experienced one of the deepest and longest open political crises over the decade. Insulted by Russian deputy Sergey Gavrilov’s behavior during the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy when he occupied the chairman’s seat in the parliament of Georgia, some part of local society, in cooperation with political opposition, took to the streets to call for the government to bear responsibility, protest against occupation and remind the western partners that 20 per cent of the country is still under the control of the Kremlin. The initially peaceful protest turned violent and ended with massive clashes between protesters and riot police. Hundreds were injured, including security officers, while some lost their eyesight. As a result, the government was forced to fire the chairman of the parliament, introduce a proportional electoral system and free everyone detained during the unrest. At the same time, a small group of protesters are still demanding the resignation of the head of the ministry of internal affairs, Giorgi Gakharia. On July 7th, Georgian society experienced further frustration after Rustavi 2 TV journalist Giorgi Gabunia, on his show P.S., verbally insulted the President of Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.

This initially provoked universal public outrage, which raised fears that the Kremlin could have initiated additional economic sanctions. Fortunately, Georgia and Russia managed to avoid further escalation of interstate relations. This incident is important for two reasons. Firstly, Rustavi 2 is one of Georgia’s leading TV channels that is capable of shaping and forming public attitudes. Secondly, this channel represents itself as a highly pro-western (and thus, anti-Russian) media agency that strongly supports the parliamentary opposition and June protests. So far, Gabunia’s absolutely provocative and non-journalistic behavior stigmatises the so-called pro-western movement and strengthens the attitudes of Georgia’s larger civil society that parliamentary opposition and the protesters are politically irresponsible and untrustworthy. Furthermore, it may create the false perception that irresponsible journalism is acceptable for the west and fits into western journalistic standards.

We may easily argue that the most critical stage of the protest has passed and the ruling party managed to avoid a further escalation of the situation for now. The political protest that is present on a regular basis in the city center is slowly fading and will probably be in vain. Putting aside the emotional part of the issue, this incident reflected Georgia’s deepening political and economic crisis; furthermore, a lack of alternatives and, most importantly, unreadiness of the youth to bear respective responsibility for its actions. And it seems that this irresponsibility became widespread, which affected Georgian media too.

The “full picture”

If you go through various local and international publications, you may come to conclusion that the Georgian youth were peacefully protesting against Gavrilov’s visit and the long-lasting occupation of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions by the Russian Federation. But factually, these people were peacefully protesting only for a while, and the reasons were much more complex; stagnation of political will and creativity among them. The visit of the Russian Duma deputy was just a trigger that initiated processes on the ground. Georgia is stuck between the past (the parliamentary opposition) and the present (ruling party) and is probably incapable of leading the state into a better future. Debris of the post-revolutionary government, the United National Movement and European Georgia, are lost in the past with an absolutely outdated political agenda, while the ruling party is seemingly unwilling to handle the significant issues that trouble Georgian society, including the status of the judiciary. Additionally, none of these political forces have a clear vision of how to deal with the economic crisis, unemployment and other socio-economic challenges. The status-quo pushes general Georgian society, especially the youth, to look for alternatives that are simply missing at the table. The non-existence of alternatives totally depreciates elections and leads to nihilism.

Provoked by the visit of representative of the “occupant state” and actually driven by despair, some part of Georgian society, including youth, went to the streets to unleash accumulated anger and dissatisfaction. This absolutely fair movement was acceptable for larger Georgian society until political opposition and their devoted activists decided to raise the stakes; the direct call from one of the leaders of the parliamentary opposition, Nika Melia, to “peacefully” relocate the protest into the building of the main legislative body, turned into an attempt to forcefully seize this state institution, the “heart” of Georgian statehood. Police officers and representatives of other security forces were calling on protesters to stop and attempted to prevent them from taking the building for approximately two hours. By the end of the day, Minister of Internal Affairs, Giorgi Gakharia, ordered the dispersal of the already non-peaceful and anti-constitutional protest. Unfortunately, this process was accompanied by the abuse of power and misbehavior by some members of the security forces that led to hundreds of people receiving various injuries, including the loss of eyesight. Georgian society got a new scare.

Shared irresponsibility

It is obvious that the government is usually guilty of both success and failure. The ruling Georgian Dream party made dramatic mistakes, including agreeing to hold the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy in the Georgian parliament and its failure to be responsive to the protesters demands and anxieties. Undoubtedly, the government failed to protect those peaceful and unarmed individuals who were attending the protest. At the same time, it has already suffered serious consequences and will feel significant impact during the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2020. But what about the actors who played a significant role in escalating and provoking unrest? Should the political opposition and the protesters also bear some responsibility for the events? We may definitely argue that Georgia cannot transform into a real democratic state unless we introduce the concept of shared responsibility, meaning the government is not always the only actor to blame—every engaged actor must bear its share of responsibility for its own actions and outcomes of these activities. And here we are experiencing serious problems.

Narratives expressed by members of the parliamentary opposition and the protesters simply avoid this issue; they are trying to turn a blind eye to it as if there were no direct attacks on security officers, destruction of state property, attempts to forcefully seize parliament building and general anti-constitutional behavior. John F. Kennedy once said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. The best thing that the protesters and especially the youth could have done for the country was to remain peaceful, but they failed. Today, the best thing they can still do is to share responsibility for June 20th with the government and parliamentary opposition. Unfortunately, neither the opposition nor the youth is ready to do so. This unreadiness for responsibility raises serious questions among larger Georgian society about whether the youth is actually prepared and can be trusted to lead the country.

By and large, Georgia suffers from a political and economic crisis that neither the ruling party nor the parliamentary opposition are probably capable of handling. There is dramatic need for new approaches and creativity through the establishment of alternative political forces and schools of thought. Unfortunately, Georgian society is simply not ready to satisfy this demand and some parts of the society, especially the youth, unleash their anger with political protests. The local parliamentary opposition and protesters are trying to represent the June 20th events as a peaceful protest that was brutally dispersed by the government. This narrative has little to do with the actual facts. Of course, the ruling party made a few significant mistakes, but both the political opposition and protesters played a significant role in escalating and provoking unrest. Thus, all sides should bear some part of the responsibility. Georgian society must realize that the responsibility for the country must be shared among all engaged actors and not only the government. Finally, this recklessness also affected the Georgian media environment. Giorgi Gabunia’s “demarché” against Vladimir Putin was, by all means, extremely damaging non-sense that sent the wrong message regarding Georgian values and journalistic standards and stigmatised political opposition and the protesters as politically irresponsible and untrustworthy actors.

The article was initially published by New Eastern Europe. It is available here.

Out with the Russian Framework: the Untold Story of the Georgian March

On July 13, members of various conservatist, nationalist and ultra-nationalist groups, alongside numerous regular citizens, marched in Tbilisi with pretty unpopular demands that irritated Georgia’s so called liberal elite. In response to the “Georgian March,” on July 23, a counter-strike was held by the Movement for Liberty – European Georgia that united representatives of various political powers and social movements protesting against what they believed to be an expression of fascist and xenophobic attitudes. The majority of international experts and actors condemned the Georgian March as a negative that could affect the country’s image and push away potential investors.

And while we may generally agree with the lion’s share of said allegations, there are very important issues that have yet to be openly discussed.

The demands

Beyond populist moves and statements, we can easily outline the three main demands the participants of the Georgian March made: 1) tighten migration laws; 2) deal with harmful practices in clubs/bars managed by migrants; and 3) restrict the activities of foreign-funded NGOs.

Migration is probably one of the most challenging issues that both developed and developing states face. Regardless of whether the targeted migrants represent a small group consisting the local population, or foreigners, what matters is that their number is obviously increasing. Foreign migrants mainly come from Asia or developing countries and work to occupy appreciable and “sensitive” areas – small and medium-sized businesses and the agricultural sector. In the wake of poor social and economic conditions, some citizens are feeling increasingly abandoned and “unprotected” by the government in the face of comparatively financially well-backed migrants. There is nothing more dangerous than this process, as it will undoubtedly lead to a xenophobic backlash, and it is unlikely that focusing on the significant number of Georgians illegally living abroad will somehow solve the problem.

The second Georgian March demand deals with increased facts of prostitution and other dubious activities in various places of entertainment. It is a paradox that while so-called liberal elites advocate rule of law, they rarely recognize that illegal prostitution exists in Georgia and is a common practice in many Turkish and Iranian clubs. Furthermore, there have been cases of child prostitution. This is not the first time the topic has been raised. A few years ago, there were calls to check a number of buildings in the settlement of Gonio, near the border with Turkey, where allegedly illegal prostitution was taking place. The government hushed up the affair. Another challenge is the harmful practice of price exploitation used at the same entertainment venues with the aim of gaining maximum profit from tourists visiting Tbilisi. Such cases often end in threats and fights that can cause significant harm to Georgia’s tourism sector reputation. And while we do not need to focus on the ethnic or national belonging of the owners of said venues, we should recognize the problem and take respective steps before it is too late.

Finally, the march organizers demanded the restriction of activities of foreign-funded NGOs. Georgia’s non-governmental sector has played a crucial role in building democratic institutions and practices. We need to keep this in mind. But, at the same time, we should realize that the third sector has transformed over the years. Nowadays, some current non-governmental movements are so actively involved in the country’s everyday life and, in particular, political processes, that it is sometimes too complicated to draw a clear line between political party, private sector and civil society. The best example is the ongoing constitutional reform where it seems that every single actor, including NGOs and INGOs, is lobbying specific political and business agendas. The issue is even more addled if we recognize the well-established so-called ‘revolving door’ principle in the country (the movement of individuals between positions in the private and the public sectors). So far, it is logical that more and more questions are being raised about the total and absolute dependence of these movements on foreign aid. This issue is nothing new in academic debates abroad, but in Georgia it is still a taboo.

So far, the issues raised by participants of the march are pretty relevant and we need to start debates and discussions even if we do not share the general pathos of the movement. Further, it is crucial to avoid stepping on the same rake twice by avoiding clichés.

What We Shouldn’t Do

There are two important things that we should stop doing if we aspire to building a unified democratic society. First of all, we need to finally abandon the so-called ‘Russian framework’. Secondly, we must stop fragmenting Georgian society into ‘desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ elements.

The ‘Russian framework’

The Russian way has been a popular political method in Georgia for years. Mikhail Saakashvili and his United National Movement started using it to consolidate society around a ruling government, slandering different “unnecessary” groups and blaming hidden forces for various conspiracy theories. Russia may or may not be involved, but it is evident that blaming the so-called fifth column, Moscow’s intelligence services and other covert organizations, for every unpleasant meeting or riot is guaranteed by default. Unfortunately, the Georgian March was automatically analyzed in the given theoretical framework. By doing so, the government and opponents easily managed to turn a blind eye to the topics raised and, generally, flaws within the existing political order. We may boldly assume that the counter march led by the Movement for Liberty – European Georgia on July 23 with the slogan “No to Russian Fascism” is a continuation of this process. Additionally, it is the reflection of the total inability of Georgian actors to think beyond the ‘Russian framework’ and analyze events based on the current local political, social and economic conditions rather than external factors. Briefly, there is nothing that Georgia’s so called liberal elites can offer except the old “corny” story about Moscow’s menace. We should learn from Russia rather than further contributing to our fears.

‘Desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ elements

There is widely-shared assumption among Georgian liberals that they are more tolerant than those who belong to conservatist or other movements. But, in fact, this is a more-or-less false statement. Georgian society in general is highly aggressive, non-tolerant toward approaches that to some extent significantly differ from the mainstream and has a tendency of continuous internal destructive confrontation. Furthermore, Georgian society fragments itself into ‘desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ elements. Local liberal elites are no exception as they automatically create humiliating labels for those people or groups of people who do not share their main postulates regarding NATO and EU integration, Russian politics, immigration laws, land regulations, etc. This is a self-protection mechanism which stimulates a counter-response. As a result, terms such as ‘fascist,’ ‘Nazi,’ ‘traitor’ and other high-flying words are used on a regular basis by all involved parties.

Something similar happened with the Georgian March. Opposed to some arguments, the first unfriendly catchword was thrown by the members of so-called liberal elites and marchers were given a highly hostile reception before, during and after the event. Moreover, whether participants belonged to any particular group or were just citizens dissatisfied with the current state policy, was neither here nor there as they were all by default proclaimed enemies of the State. This was a huge mistake. We need to keep in mind that all that glitters is not gold- not everyone participating in the event belonged to ultra-radical groups with financial assistance from the Kremlin; and, consequently, do not represent ‘non-desirable’ state elements.

What Next?

Georgia’s political and other elites must stop using the ‘Russian framework’ to turn a blind eye to the challenges that such marches raise; they should work hard to start open debates to show their readiness for dialogue and awareness of the existing political, social and economic challenges. Moreover, there should be no further attempts to split society into ‘desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ groups and elements. The fact that some issues may be or are brought up by questionable groups in a questionable manner does not undermine their importance. Issues expressed by the Georgian March have some logic as well as empirics behind them and we need to talk about them. If not, the existing dissatisfaction will undoubtedly increase and such marches will be seen on a growing basis.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

Historic debates lack pizzazz without Georgian Dream

News that the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, refused to take part in the historic TV debates arranged by the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) on September 9, left many surprised and disappointed.

The debates, which were organized with support from USAID and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), marked a precedent when the leaders of Georgia’s political establishment gathered to take part in a well-designed debate aimed at deepening and strengthening the ties between political entities in Georgia and Georgian society. The political figures invited to participate were all prime ministerial candidates: Georgian Dream coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili, Christian-Democratic Movement leader Giorgi Targamadze and PM Vano Merabishvili of the United National Movement.

Ivanishvili, who was busy with pre-election campaigning in the regions at the time the debates were due to begin, cited two reasons behind his refusal to participate. First, he referred to the participants as the ‘pseudo opposition.’ Ivanishvili doesn’t recognize the Labor Party and Christian-Democratic Movement as oppositional forces; in fact he publicly called them an ‘appendage’ of the ruling party. The second reason for his absence was that according to the Georgian billionaire, Merabishvili has no real power or authority inside the ruling party. Consequently, Bidzina asked to debate with the actual leader of the UNM, Mikhail Saakashvili.

The GPB debates were structured in such a way that featured less actual debating – obviously in an effort to avoid chaos, which tends to appear during direct debates between Georgian political figures. All participants of the TV debates were given questions two days prior to the debates. As a result, their answers to each of the four questions were essentially just prepared three-minute speeches. There were a total of four questions provided that covered unemployment, budget distribution, tax and fiscal policies and territorial integrity and safety. At the end of the responses, each participant was permitted to make a one-minute rebuttal following the opponents’ answers.

In their introduction speeches, the leader of the Labor Party Shalva Natelashvili, as well as Vano Merabishvili emphasized the absence of the Georgian Dream Coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. “I think this meeting would have been much more interesting if all the candidates had participated. I think it would have showed more respect to voters and TV viewers [if he were present],” Merabishvili noted.

Indeed, the participation by all the main political forces in Georgia could have promoted civil awareness and increased the political importance of the debates. The Georgian Dream coalition is definitely the key opposition force in the country and the refusal of its leader to take part in the debates was a vote of no confidence, which in turn decreased society’s interest in the discussion.

Ivanishvili’s refusal to take part in the debates does make sense in the minds of his supporters however. It’s no secret that the real power inside the country is in the hands of Mikheil Saakashvili – not Ivanishvili. Misha is the main striking force of the UNM and it is he who enjoys the support of Georgian society. Hence, if the Georgian Dream and particularly Bidzina Ivanishvili plan to achieve victory, this victory must be achieved against President Saakashvili, rather than Prime Minister Merabishvili.

The leader of the Christian-Democratic Movement, Giorgi Targamadze, was chosen to answer the first and one of the most important issues –regarding unemployment. According to Targamadze, there are three pillars that must be addressed to deal with unemployment: the first is fair tariffs/prices, as well as the privatization of the energy sector. His party plans to allocate one billion Georgian lari to address this issue. The second is the renewal of the agriculture sector via creating agricultural cooperatives. And the third is the promotion of small and mid-sized businesses.

On his behalf, PM Merabishvili emphasized the importance of creating the Ministry for Employment. According to him, the ministry is already working on shaping the list of unemployed citizens, as well as studying the job market. He assured the audience that they will make available comprehensive information about the professions that are in demand. Additionally, he underlined the necessity to further promote tourism.

The second issue had to do with budget distribution. Merabishvili reminded society that the UNM is going to hand out1,000 lari vouchers as well as plans to keep its word given to pensioners concerning increasing the state-provided monthly allowances to one-hundred dollars equivalent in lari all senior citizens.

On the same populist note, Targamadze claimed that Christian-Democratic Movement plans to allocate 0.1% of the Georgian budget (about 100, 000, 000 lari) to maintain the Georgian Orthodox Church which is considered to be the main pillar of Georgia’s well-being.

Lastly, Natelashvili further promoted the pre-election statement of the Labor Party “Take from the Rich, Give to the Poor,” which is based on the idea that the era of oligarchs and multi-millionaires must be ended and the country’s wealth should be divided between all citizens of Georgia. How this task will be carried out in reality Natelashvili never elaborated.

The final two questions touched upon tax and fiscal policies as well as territorial integrity and the safety of the state. As expected, the participants focused on Georgia’s relationship with Russia and NATO integration. Unsurprisingly, Natelashvili explained that if he becomes the new PM, Georgia will cease its path towards NATO integration.

In a nutshell, the debates lacked the essence of actual debates: however, the debates represented a huge step forward in establishing a democratic society in Georgia. The debates also highlighted the fact that the culture of debates must be further developed to create a foundation for having direct and comprehensive discussions between political figures and parties.

The original article was pulished by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

PM appointment quells fears of Putin-Medvedev switch in Georgia

On August 20, the United National Movement of Georgia’s (UNM) spokesperson, MP Chiora Taktakishvili, named candidates for the number one position in the ruling party’s list of MP candidates and the Prime-Minister post. According to Taktakishvili, Davit Bakradze, the speaker of the outgoing parliament of Georgia will retain his position and maintain leadership in the ruling party list. Meanwhile, former Minister of Interior Affairs of Georgia and now, newly appointed Prime-Minister of Georgia Vano Merabishvili, will act as a counterbalance to the Georgian Dream Coalition PM candidate Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Bakradze has led the ruling party list of MP candidates since 2008. The UNM chose him as a top political figure in the party list when former Speaker of Parliament of Georgia and number one candidate in the UNM list, Nino Burjanadze, unexpectedly refused to lead the ruling party during the 2008 parliamentary elections. As such, Bakradze has replaced Burjanadze as the number one candidate in the UNM list of MP candidates. After his victory in the parliamentary elections, he was elected as the Chairperson of the Parliament of Georgia. Under the current constitution, the Chairperson of the Parliament of Georgia is the second highest ranking post in Georgia after the President.

Merabishvili, once more nominated by the UNM as the PM candidate, is well-known for his activities during his stint as Minister of Interior Affairs of Georgia. Earlier, various human rights activists were alarmed by the appointment of Merabishvili, as his tenure as the Interior Minister was tainted by the controversial events that unfolded on November 7, 2007 and May 26, 2011, when Georgian police and Special Forces were blamed for using excessive force and violating human rights.

The issue of the ruling party’s PM candidate was crucial. Earlier, the Parliament of Georgia passed amendments to Georgia’s constitution. Based upon the amendments accepted on October 15 of 2010, Georgia transformed from a presidential government to semi-presidential republic. The constitutional powers of the president will now be diminished as more power will be transferred to the PM position. The changes to the constitution will come into effect after the Presidential elections that are set for 2013.

However, these changes to the constitution raised questions and much suspicion as to whether Mikhail Saakashvili planned to follow in the footsteps of Putin and Medvedev by retaining the reins of power as prime minister when his presidential tenure expired. Vladimir Putin was replaced by Dmitry Medvedev on the post of the President of Russia. Based upon the relative political weakness of Medvedev, Prime-Minister Putin maintained full control over the country, despite the fact that Russia is still officially a presidential government.

According to the current Georgian Constitution, Saakashvili cannot run for the post of president for a third term; he has to give-up his position which he has held now for eight-years. On the backdrop of Saakashvili’s speeches, the behavior and unquestionable leadership within the UNM and the government as a whole, some Georgian NGOs, politicians, opposition activists and international observers have questioned whether or not Saakashvili was ready to leave the top position in the political structure of the state. As such, amendments made to the constitution have been considered a technical means for which Mikhail Saakashvili could retain power through a constitutional loophole.

By following the Putin-Medvedev model, Saakashvili would effectively set back the aspirations of Georgian society in its path towards developing democratic values, as well as Georgia’s goal of further integration into Western institutions.

For a long time, political experts, as well as Georgian and foreign journalists, have been trying to figure out whether or not Mikhail Saakashvili intends to stay on as a leader of a reformed Georgia. However, when posed with such questions, the president of Georgia has avoided providing a definitive answer, emphasizing that he didn’t have any future plans yet.

Now with the influential Vano Merabishvili in power as Georgia’s PM and nominated as a candidate for the PM post for the UNM, the chances of seeing Saakashvili as the PM of Georgia have decreased considerably.

Political experts note that Merabishvili, well-known for being a strong hand, most probably won’t be a ‘marionette’ in the hands of the current president of Georgia. In general, the appointment of such a strong political figure to the post of PM will definitely present an obstacle for Mikhail Saakashvili to retain full control over all pillars of the executive and legislative branches of government.

In addition, Merabishvili’s nomination will also weaken the doubts of international and Georgian commentators regarding Saakashvili’s aspirations to maintain the existing status-quo in the political establishment of the country. Yet still, rumors regarding the political resemblance between Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Saakashvili will persist until proven otherwise.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

Is the future of Georgian democracy at stake?

On June 29, The National Democratic Institute (NDI) published a pre-election assessment of the political situation in Georgia, emphasizing that “The vilification of political adversaries has become commonplace.”

According to the assessment, hate speech against religious and ethnic minorities can “still” be found in Georgian campaign rhetoric. “Reports of politically motivated harassment, improper campaign spending, claims of the attempted bribery of state officials, and use of administrative resources persist,” the document reads.

The mission noted that in light of the multi-million lari fine imposed on Georgian Dream opposition coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, the authorities must “ensure transparent, equal and the reasonable application of campaign finance laws… [Government] should review and consider further reforms to address civil society’s concerns about the proportionate implementation of regulations.”

Earlier on June 8, the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai was published underlining the necessity of further strengthening human rights in Georgia and taking preventive steps to force government to stop using the law for its own purposes.

For all sides, there are reasons for concern regarding the future of Georgia’s democracy and some of the recent developments in Georgia are only strengthening this feeling.

Global TV, a Georgian cable operator and satellite TV provider, forcefully closed by the Chamber of Control, represented one of the most important examples of using the law for the government’s own interests.

The Chamber of Control, an independent public institution, conducts audits of the state budget, public finances and the activities of the public administration. Presently, this body is actively involved in auditing the activities of political parties during this pre-election period.

In June of this year, the Chamber of Control sent documents to the public prosecutor’s office emphasizing that Global TV was involved in attempts of vote-buying by Bidzina Ivanishvili. The court-ordered the seizure of Global TV-owned satellite dishes, which were distributed free in Georgia’s rural regions (Global TV is co-owned by Bidzina Ivanishvili’s brother Alexander).

According to the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a human rights NGO, Article 151 of the Criminal Procedures Code was violated; the article stipulates that a property can be seized only if the situation is concerned with the accused or a person who is related to the accused. The chief prosecutor’s office initiated a criminal investigation into possible vote-bribery, but no one has been charged yet in the case. Consequently, the GYLA underlined the fact that the court order on the seizure of property was not in line with the law.

Some experts considered the case to be the government’s attempt to use the law for its own political interests– in particular, by interfering with the free flow of information to the public leaving those in Georgia’s rural areas without an alternative point of view. The point is that Global TV is the only cable operator which is carried in the Channel 9 package, a television station co-owned by Ivanishvili’s wife Ekaterine Khvedelidze.

The lack of an alternative point of view and information is the main challenge within the Georgian media. Consequently, the US Ambassador and several Georgian-based NGOs have succeeded in urging the government to introduce the Must Carry principle, which obligates cable TV providers to carry all channels with news programming. The government has allowed this principle for 60 days before the elections.

The second disturbing event was the use of civil servants in attempts to prevent opposition leaders from communicating with Georgian voters in the regions. The Mereti village was one such case that became prominent: A fistfight erupted in the village of Mereti, in Shida Kartli region on June 26, as Bidzina Ivanishvili was holding a campaign meeting with locals.

The village is located in the immediate vicinity of the breakaway South Ossetian administrative border. The clash happened during conversations with the residents of the village when a group of people began shouting “Misha! Misha!” and women were exclaiming that Bidzina Ivanishvili is a traitor and he is controlled by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Consequently, two people, both supporters of the Georgian Dream coalition and one woman were hospitalized. Later, four men were arrested and jailed for ten-days following a fistfight incident in the village of Mereti. Two the four jailed men are activists of the Georgian Dream, who have denied involvement in the incident.

The Interior Ministry denied allegations that its employees were involved in the Mereti incident, though many NGOs and experts recognized civil servants as the main force which not only escalated the situation in the Mereti village and pushed it toward violence, but were also deeply involved in the fist fight.

The Public Defender’s Office launched an investigation into the Mereti village case, because of the video footage aired by various media outlets. “Those who were involved in the incident are public servants, including the employees of the Gori local self-government body and emergency situations service of the Shida Kartli region,” the statement of The Public Defender’s Office (PDO) read.

The last event which raised concerns was the recent appointments of interior ministry strongman, Vano Merabishvili as Georgia’s new Prime Minister. Some human rights activists were alarmed by the appointment of Merabishvili, as his tenure as the Interior Minister was tainted by the events of November 7, 2007 and May 26, 2011, when Georgian police and Special Forces were blamed for using excessive force and breaching human freedoms.

Darkening the picture is another fact: BachoAkhalaia’s brother, Data Akhalaia was allegedly involved in the notorious murder of Sandro Gvirgvliani, the head of the United Georgian Bank’s Foreign Department, in 2006. Data Akhalaia led the Department of Constitutional Security (DCS) at the Interior Ministry at that time and he was suspended from his post following the scandalous murder, which turned out to be one of the most serious challenges for Merabishvili.

Many people expressed fears that the appointment of such people to these high-ranking positions represents an attempt to shape a ‘police regime’ in the country. “They’ve done it probably in order to reinforce police violence against the people. But no reshuffle of the government will save these authorities,” commented Bidzina Ivanishvili.

By and large, it seems that the pre-election period will be difficult and the situation will become even tenser in the days to come. The ruling party feels a real threat and will probably try to use its administrative resources to stay in power by all means.

Consequently, we can just hope that the political game will stay within the bounds of democratic, free and fair competition. The government will undoubtedly require mechanisms of containment, and international observers and their assessments will surely have a key role to play in this.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

Tolerance and democratization?

This column is in react response to the article ‘Violence at Gay Demonstration Exposes Darker Side of Georgian Culture’ published in Georgia Today’s May 25 issue. In the piece, the author, Teona Betlemidze, discusses the clashes that happened on May 17 in Tbilisi, as the NGOs Identoba and LGBT Georgia organized a peaceful march to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. The march was interrupted by the ‘radical religious groups’ such as the Union of Orthodox Parents and the Union of St. King Vakhtang Gorgasali. As a result, there was a confrontation.

This day was first celebrated globally in 2004. The date of May 17 was chosen to commemorate the World Health Organization’s decision in 1990 to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. According to the official site of the event: “An International Day Against Homophobia belongs to no one individual. It’s about all people hoping for a prejudice-free world that can provide a place at the table for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation.”

The article also cites Ekaterine Agdomelashvili, Director of the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group, a local human rights organization, who associates the case with a cultural problem: “Providing her explanation about these latest developments, Agdomelashvili said she sees the problem [intolerance toward gays] lying on the darker side of Georgian culture, the part which prioritizes religion and tradition over human rights.” At the same time, the author cites a comment by the French Ambassador to Georgia, Renaud Salins where he states that “It’s a struggle which is supported by the European Union, by many international bodies and it’s about more than tolerance, it’s about acceptance.”

All in all, the reader would conclude that tolerance toward homophobia and transphobia seems to be an inherent part of the democratization process; which is supported by international bodies. Meaning: that confrontation over the rights of gays is an aspect of the ‘darker side of Georgian culture.’

Is that credible? Is intolerance toward gay rights and other minorities a sign of a non-democratic, backward society? The examples show a different picture.

Democracy means that when the majority governs the state, as a consequence, the minority is governed by the majority. The rights of the minority are based on the goodwill of the majority. Everyone must have civil liberties without taking into account race, skin color and sexual orientation.

Nevertheless, human rights and- in particular- the rights of minorities as we know them, are the brainchild of Western culture. These are really unique principles, but they are not universal. Therefore, an attempt to push them forcefully against the wishes of the majority of society sows the seeds of confrontation.

Samuel Huntington, the famous American political scientist, became prominent for his book The Clash of Civilizations, where he developed a thesis of a post-Cold War new world order. According to Huntington, during the Cold War era, conflict occurred between the capitalist West and the communist East. Thus [conflict] is most likely to occur between the world’s major civilizations. He identified seven, and a possible eighth major civilization: (i) Western, (ii) Latin American, (iii) Islamic, (iv) Sinic (Chinese), (v) Hindu, (vi) Orthodox, (vii) Japanese, and (viii) African. The main point of his work was that the West, particularly the US, must abandon its imposition of its ideal of democratic universalism and its associated military interventionism. An attempt by the West to universalize its values and spread it along the world pushes other civilizations into confrontation. Huntington put forth the idea that Western civilization and its culture is unique, but not universal; therefore, other nations should have an opportunity to choose whether to accept them or not.

In his book, The Middle East, Space, Society, and Politics, Professor Revaz Gachechiladze, former Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Georgia to the State of Israel wrote: “Judaism is actually a national religion. In Hebrew, individualism uses one word – Yuhudi, to emphasize his ethnicity [Jew] and religious affiliation [Judaist]. And even the secular Jew is closely tied with Judaism by hidden, but strong threads.” Consequently, for the hundreds of thousands of Arabs living in Israel it is impossible to become a full member of Israeli society. No matter how unbearable for them, becoming a citizen of Israel means becoming a Jew.

Moreover, Jews do does not consider Arabs as equals. According to a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in November 2010, “more than half of Israeli Jews believe that the state has the right to encourage Arab citizens to emigrate… The study found that 53 percent of Jewish citizens would prefer to see Arabs leave Israel. While 55 percent said Jewish cities should receive more government resources than Arab communities.” And still no one doubts that Israel is one of the most democratic states in the world with a developed society and culture.

Hence, an attempt to consider intolerance toward gays or other minorities in a multi-cultural, multi-civilized world as a sign of an undemocratic, retrograde, retarded society with ‘dark’ stains in its culture, without taking into account such factors as politics, religion or moral issues, seems to be a shortsighted approach and a hasty conclusion.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

You may also read a counter-responce by King William here.