Georgian Democracy Gets Bleak Assessment

Activists welcome American watchdog’s criticism of their lack of freedom.

Georgian Democracy Gets Bleak Assessment

Activists welcome American watchdog’s criticism of their lack of freedom.

A respected American think tank has reduced its rating on Georgian political freedoms, prompting activists in the ex-Soviet republic to wonder what took it so long.

Freedom House, a non-governmental organisation set up in 1941 to campaign for democracy and human rights, last week took Georgia off its list of “electoral democracies” and called it only “partly free”.

That was a blow for the government of Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power in the bloodless “Rose Revolution” in 2003 and who insists he wants to move closer to western methods of government.

But Freedom House’s move was no surprise to Sozar Subari, the country’s ombudsman – an independent state official appointed by parliament to safeguard the population’s human rights – who says he was beaten by police during the violent suppression of opposition protests in November 2007.

“Georgia held a high rating until now not because everything was going smoothly with basic freedoms, but because of the high expectations of the world community after the Rose Revolution,” he told IWPR.

“The euphoria started to gradually ebb away after the November events of 2007 when the opposition protests were broken up and a state of emergency was proclaimed.”

In 2005, the then US president, George Bush, praised the country as a “beacon of democracy” during a visit, and Washington earlier this month signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with its South Caucasus ally, which pledged help with democratisation programmes.

But such attitudes have become rarer. Saakashvili himself acknowledged Georgia had a problem late last year when in a speech to parliament he promised a “new wave of democracy” was beginning.

“Georgia was the site of the first in the recent spate of colour revolutions and represented one of the few bright spots in the former Soviet Union,” said Freedom House in its annual report examining the state of freedom in over 190 countries of the world.

“Its erratic course, including a state of emergency in 2007 and war with Russia in August, ranks among the more disturbing developments of the past two years.”

The report outlined several reasons why Georgia’s rating had been lowered. It cited “flaws in the Presidential and Parliamentary election processes, including extensive reports of intimidation and the use of state administrative resources, which resulted in a markedly unequal playing field in favour of the ruling United National Movement party”.

Georgian television did not mention the Freedom House report, which, according to parliamentary deputy Petre Mamradze, was another example of the lack of freedom that caused him to leave the ruling party in parliament and join the opposition For a Fair Georgia party.

“We have no truly free television,” he said. “Our printed press is free, but its circulation is small and its influence on public opinion insufficient. It’s obvious that what we have is an imitation of democracy, and this is what our greatest friends in the West have been saying. You can feel they are fatigued by the Georgian authorities.”

Other Georgian activists say the country has been drifting in an authoritarian direction for years, and that Freedom House was very slow to recognise the changes.

Georgy Liluashvili, an independent human rights expert, said even the first year of Saakashvili’s rule was marked by restrictions on basic liberties.

“In genuine terms, the situation in the area of democracy started to get worse directly after the revolution, when Saakashvili made his powers almost like those of a king, and parliament agreed with him,” Liluashvili said.

“This is what started the restrictions on the rights of the media, of business and of ordinary citizens, with its apogee in the break-up of the protest on November 7, 2007. Sadly, it took quite a lot of time for people in the West to realise that Georgia dimmed very quickly as ‘a beacon of democracy’.”

Officials pledged to digest the Freedom House report, and insisted that rhetoric about a new wave of democracy would become reality.

“This year it will be definitely possible to talk about a second wave of democratisation, even though there have already been changes in relation to the freedom of the media. On the First Channel four political talk-shows have appeared. There is a talk-show on the Imedi channel. Finally, there is an opposition channel Kavkasiya, where there is also a talk-show,” said Shota Malashkhiya, a parliamentary deputy from the ruling United National Movement Party.

“Suggestions from the president for limiting his powers and strengthening the powers of parliament have already appeared in parliament. In February, we will be able to talk more specifically about the details. In this way, we can say that we have studied [the Freedom House report], and work goes on in this area.”

Mikhail Vignansky is a correspondent of the Vremya Novostei newspaper in Tbilisi.
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