NGOs Ready To Tackle Government's Failings

Georgia's NGOs are starting to flex their political muscles and are increasingly ready to tackle the government in the absence of a wide range of effective opposition parties.

NGOs Ready To Tackle Government's Failings

Georgia's NGOs are starting to flex their political muscles and are increasingly ready to tackle the government in the absence of a wide range of effective opposition parties.

Thursday, 23 December, 1999

After years of comparative obscurity, Georgia's non-governmental organisations are emerging as a natural foil to the country's elected government.

And the phenomenon - dubbed "the NGO civilisation" by Tbilisi University professor, Nodar Ladaria - could see them taking on the Western role model of watchdogs in the democratic process. Many, however, appear to be filling the political niche usually occupied by opposition parties.

There are around 2,000 NGOs officially registered in Georgia today although only a dozen maintain a high profile on the political stage. Their members are usually recruited from the nation's social elite and, as a result, their political posturings are often viewed with suspicion by the public at large.

Established at the end of the 1980s, Georgia's first NGOs were initially forums for political dissidents fighting to preserve the Soviet republic's culture. Members were intellectuals who had no links with the Komsomol [young Communist] nomenclature and passively supported the nationalist movement in Georgia.

Financed by the government, the early NGOs were little more than an ideological extension of painters', writers', composers' and actors' unions. These entities still exist, but have been slow to adjust to the new political climate and depend largely on state handouts.

Between 1996 and 1997, the number of NGOs was significantly increased under the patronage of parliamentary chairman Zurab Zhvania of the ruling Citizen's Union party who saw this "third estate" as a potential ally and vote-winner.

In return, they have been generally supportive of Zhania, in part, because of his struggle against the former communist nomenclature wing of his own party. But as last October's parliamentary elections approached, it is perhaps more accurate to suggest that the NGO community were more against the prospect of Aslan Abashidze's pro-Russian Revival of Georgia bloc coming to power than they were actively in favour of the government's return to power.

At a meeting with Zhvania on the eve of October's parliamentary elections, David Usupashvili, former chairman of a lawyers' association, outlined the NGOs political ambitions. He called on Zhvania to set stricter criteria for selecting his party candidates.

New faces from the NGO world could he said, campaign on a ticket of integrity and honesty as well as party and parliamentary reform. "This," he was reported as saying, "will probably cost you many of your present supporters but you'll win over a new following who are loyal to the principles you serve."

The chairman pledged to review the Citizens' Union's list of candidates and introduce a number of "new faces". But if the NGO representatives cherished hopes of being absorbed into the party, they were soon to be disappointed.

Instead, the Union's post-election party line-up featured a large proportion of party veterans - long-serving politicians who the NGOs claimed, opposed all manner of reforms relating to corruption and nepotism, through to human rights legislation.

But there was division in the NGO ranks. At a seminar held by the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in the aftermath of the elections, Ivliane Khaindrava, leader of the Republican party which enjoys extensive NGO backing, slammed the Liberty Institute for its active support of a Citizen's Union candidate, Mikhail Saakashvili.

He claimed that the institute had played a major role in Saakashvili's pre-election campaign in the Vake district, where he defeated the former ombudsman, David Salaridze.

The Liberty Institute's representative, Givi Targamadze, argued that the NGO had come out in support of the individual rather than the party. He said it was wrong to expect NGOs to represent opposition factions alone. "We'll collaborate with anyone to achieve our goals," he said bluntly.

The Liberty Institute has since devoted considerable efforts to putting pressure on the government. As a result of its lobbying activities, the Georgian parliament has adopted legislation on regulative committees for the communications industry as well as new laws on land privatisation.

The institute has also collaborated closely with Western financial institutions with a view to establishing Western legislative practice in the former Soviet republic.

Although international funds have provided an important lifeline for the Georgian NGOs, sociologist Emzar Jgerenaia, has raised a major question mark over grant-related ethics. He claims that securing funding is the primary objective of many NGOs while the need to espouse a specific cause is considered only secondary. Only after the NGO has been awarded the grant, argues Jgerenaia, does it actually start working to justify its existence.

However, most observers agree that the NGOs play a vital role in the democratic process. In this respect, they are often more effective than political opposition parties, which are more concerned with discrediting the government than with constructive reform.

And yet there are concerns here that Western organisations may be unwilling to fund NGOs if they continue to take too active a part in opposition politics and attempts to hamstring government reforms.

Nevertheless, David Zurabashvili, of the Liberty Institute, believes that NGOs will soon claim the niche traditionally occupied by the political opposition. As NGOs can only exist in a free society, he says, they will naturally oppose every attempt to limit the principles of democratic government.

He adds that the "third sector" has also been instrumental in promoting Georgia's international status by helping to promote the free exchange of ideas and overcome the traditional "closed door" mentality.

Three NGO unions were created on the eve of the elections: an NGO congress, a coordination council and a united Georgian alliance. Although the majority of NGOs have been slow to influence public opinion, many have succeeded in making their voices heard.

These include the Young Lawyers' Association, the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, the Liberty Institute, Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights, the International Centre for Civic Development, the International Centre for Civic Culture, Fair Elections, the Constitutional Protection League, the 24th Constitutional Article and the Strategic Research Centre.

NGOs have also played an active part in settling local ethnic conflicts. David Zurabashvili, of the Liberty Institute, said the organisation had locked horns with "the biggest, oldest and most traditional Orthodox Church [in the former Soviet Union]" when members allegedly violated the rights of religious minorities.

Georgia's Orthodox Patriarchate was quick to defend its actions by arguing that the church was not an NGO but ''our Saviour's mystical body with Christ at its head".

However, religion and the "third sector" are not mutually exclusive in Georgia. Several religious groups are already officially registered as NGOs, although moves are afoot to bar the Jehovah's Witnesses from the NGO fraternity on the grounds that this constitutes an infringement of civil law.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church has launched its own NGO, a children's home in Dzegvi, near Tbilisi, where homeless children are given shelter and educational facilities. The Dzegvi home is widely regarded as one of the most successful humanitarian projects in Georgia.

Sozar Subeliani is the editor of Georgia's Kavkasioni newspaper

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