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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > South Caucasus > Georgia > Georgia: Sliding towards Authoritarianism?

Georgia: Sliding towards Authoritarianism?

Europe Report N°189 19 Dec 2007


The government’s repressive and disproportionate response to peaceful protests in November 2007 shocked Western capitals, which had viewed Georgia as a beacon of democracy in a region of illiberal regimes. Since the Rose Revolution, however, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration has become increasingly intolerant of dissent as it has sought to reform inefficient post-Soviet institutions, stimulate a deeply dysfunctional economy, regain the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and deal with its meddling Russian neighbour. In an attempt to restore his democratic credentials, Saakashvili has called an early presidential election for 5 January 2008, which he is expected to win, but a free and fair election will not be enough to repair the damage. The West should press the government to abandon its increasingly authoritarian behaviour, engage in a genuine dialogue with political opponents and make the ongoing reform process transparent and accountable.

Georgia’s young and dynamic leadership came to power in 2003 with great Western goodwill and some tangible support. Having inherited a failing state, the government committed itself to democratic governance and liberal reforms, and actively pursued membership in the European Union (EU) and NATO. It has had significant success in rebuilding moribund institutions and implementing sweeping reforms that have transformed the economy.

Saakashvili’s administration quickly found itself dealing with a resurgent Russian neighbour flush with oil money. The Putin government reacted with increasing hostility to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic orientation, particularly its NATO membership aspirations. It has sought to bludgeon Georgia into submission through economic embargoes and supported Abkhaz and South Ossetian secession ambitions. Saakashvili has responded with confrontational nationalistic rhetoric, while seeking to rally Western backing. Many of Tbilisi’s repeated accusations of Russian meddling are warranted, particularly with regard to the conflict regions, but claims of Russian involvement in domestic politics, which have been used to justify some of the infringements of civil liberties, are less credible.

The leadership has also cut too many corners. In particular, the concentration of power in a small, like-minded elite and unwillingness to countenance criticism have undermined its democratic standing. Cronyism is increasingly evident within the senior level of the administration. Checks and balances have been stripped back, justice arbitrarily applied, human rights too often violated and freedom of expression curtailed.

The government’s failure to engage constructively with demands of the opposition, civil society and ordinary citizens for transparency, accountability and credible investigations into disturbing cases of official abuse resulted in public protests throughout the country in late October and early November. These culminated in large rallies over six days in Tbilisi and a violent government crackdown on 7 November. Disproportionate use of force against peaceful demonstrators, the violent closure of a private television station and the imposition of emergency rule brought a halt to hitherto unquestioning Western support of the Georgian leadership.

Saakashvili sought to justify his response by labelling the protests as a Russia-inspired attempt to overthrow the government. The authorities charged several opposition leaders with conspiracy and subversive activities and aired television footage which they claimed proved links to Russian espionage. This and subsequent pressure tactics have deepened the rift in society.

Conscious of the damage done to his standing in the West, Saakashvili called a presidential election months before it was due. Seeking to suggest business as usual, he declared that Georgia “passed a very difficult test” and managed to “avert massive bloodshed and civil confrontation”, while warning that its foes – read Russia – would try to undermine the election. The government’s actions, however, remain troublingly authoritarian: the private Imedi TV was allowed to re-open only the day media campaigning officially started and was not on the air for several more days due to equipment damage; November protesters were arrested or fined; opposition activists continue to be targeted, state resources are being used for Saakashvili’s campaign, and the line between the governing party and the state is blurred.

Western friends of Georgia, notably the U.S., the EU and NATO, need to apply concerted pressure on Saakashvili and his administration to correct their increasingly authoritarian course. The U.S. in particular should make clear it supports democratic principles, not a particular regime. It is not enough to say that if the elections are free and fair, Georgia will be back on track. Deeper problems relating to the rule of law, corruption, lack of media freedoms, weak checks and balances and growing economic disparities can no longer be overlooked. Georgia does not face a choice between genuine reform or democratic openness, it must embrace both.


To the Government of Georgia:

1.  Ensure that the 5 January 2008 presidential election is free and fair, in particular by providing equal access to media for all candidates and by desisting from using government resources to help the incumbent.

2.  Respect media freedom, civil liberties and human rights in substance as well as form, including by stopping widespread phone-tapping of public figures and civil society actors, dissemination of intelligence material to smear opponents, and use of financial investigations and other intimidation tactics against non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and businesses perceived to be critical of the government.

3.  Ensure transparency and accountability in the implementation of reforms and pursue open and democratic governance, in particular by:

a) applying the rule of law without arbitrariness and ensuring the judiciary is independent and free from intimidation;

b) engaging in a constructive dialogue with opposition parties, treating them as legitimate participants in the democratic process and ceasing to make unsubstantiated claims about collaboration with the Russian government;

c) strengthening institutional checks and balances, amending the constitution to provide greater parliamentary powers and more effective decentralisation and making adequate resources available to opposition legislators;

d) investigating transparently and impartially all credible allegations of corruption, particularly at the highest levels of government, protecting property rights and reforming the privatisation process to ensure accountability; and

e) increasing the transparency of the defence budget and ensuring that the prime minister’s proposal to reduce defence spending in 2008 is implemented.

4.  Explore areas of potential cooperation with Russia, including on trade, transport, border control and fighting terrorism, organised crime and proliferation of weapons and drugs, while refraining from inflammatory anti-Russian rhetoric.

5.  Engage in genuine dialogue with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including about their legitimate security concerns, while avoiding hostile and militant rhetoric and action against their de facto administrations, in particular by not setting aggressively ambitious timeframes for resolution of the conflicts.

To the Government of the Russian Federation:

6.  Take steps to improve bilateral relations and cooperation, including by lifting the economic embargoes, ceasing official discrimination against Georgian nationals in Russia and refraining from confrontational rhetoric.

7.  Work with Georgia to address security concerns of both sides, while accepting its sovereign right to pursue NATO membership if it wishes.

8.  Encourage Abkhazia and South Ossetia to negotiate constructively with Tbilisi.

To the U.S., EU, NATO and the Member States of Both Organisations:

9.  Support democratic governance, not a particular regime; apply stringent standards when assessing Georgia’s efforts to meet good governance benchmarks; apply pressure, including aid conditionality, if there is more backsliding; and increase support to civil society, the public defender and efforts to strengthen media freedom.

10.  Continue to insist on greater transparency in military expenditures and their reduction as a percentage of the overall state budget.

11.  Verify rigorously that Georgia is committed to and implementing NATO’s values of democracy, rule of law, individual liberty and peaceful resolution of disputes before offering a membership action plan (MAP).

Tbilisi/Brussels, 19 December 2007