EGI President’s Letter Summarizing Georgia’s 2021
“In a dark place we find ourselves and a little more knowledge lights our way.”
—Yoda, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
2021 ended up being a year of turmoil – with ever-changing COVID news, turbulent political life and Russia and Ukraine on the brink of war. Looking back at the persons, politics, and stories that shaped the year is always difficult, and Georgian politics are never boring: even on Christmas eve.
Just like everywhere in the world, 2021 was a turbulent year that began in hope, flirted with whiplash, and shuddered to a halt. I will outline several events that are most memorable to me: an unprecedented involvement of the European Union and Charles Michel’s agreement; aftershocks of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and 3 + 3 format; events on the 5th of July and burning of the EU flag; municipal elections in Georgia and Mikheil Saakashvili’s return, and last but not least – Georgia’s long lasting bleeding wound: the judiciary.
The year began with a clash between Nika Melia, the chairman of the United National Movement, and the ruling party. Shortly after the decision to arrest Melia, Georgia’s 14th Prime-Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned and announced the creation of a new “For Georgia” party. The party demonstrated promising results at the municipal elections, becoming the kingmaker in several municipalities. Gakharia’s resignation, Melia’s arrest and the return of Georgian Dream’s hardliner Irakli Gharibashvili to the post deepened the political crisis even more.
To deal with the deepening political crisis Charles Michel’s agreement was achieved. Michel’s involvement and actions were not merely political: it was not only an important symbolic gesture that the European Union remains in the region, but an indication that EU truly considers Georgia a part of European space and is ready to engage. For those in Georgia who felt Westlessness and noticed increased Russian presence and pressure, it was an important step in the right direction. The efforts of both Christian Danielsson and Charles Michel were huge, and will remain an example of political willingness and tremendous hard-work. Even though political relevance of the agreement decreased following both the decision of Georgian Dream to leave it, and Georgia’s municipal elections,it became a foundation for the ongoing process of reconciliation initiated by the President of Georgia. Even though it is yet too early to predict whether this reconciliation attempt will be successful or not, it is yet another important step for Georgia’s democracy.
The aftershocks of the Karabakh War continue to keep the region stressed. This year an important development took place – Azerbaijan released 15 Armenian detainees, while Armenia provided Azerbaijan with important information that will facilitate humanitarian demining and avoid future casualties. Georgia played an essential role in facilitating these steps, which bring the people of the region closer to the peaceful and prosperous future they deserve.
Another aftershock of the war is the 3 + 3 format: an idea to launch a six-nation platform that includes the cooperation of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Iran. The official position of the Georgian government is that Georgia’s engagement in this regional platform “will be very hard when we see no process towards de-occupation”, with emphasis that sovereignty and territorial integrity are “red lines” for the Georgian government. The meeting of the platform was held in Moscow on December 10th and featured the Georgian flag, causing Georgian MFA to condemn this action and reiterate that Georgia “has repeatedly stated its clear position”, emphasising that the country “is not considering participation in this format.” Considering recent events in and around Ukraine, the motivation of these actions is easy to read – to create a bait for Georgia and send a false message of cooperation resulting in Georgia losing its sovereignty.
The most heartbreaking development is also connected with Georgia’s occupation: early in April a family of three drowned in their attempt to cross the Enguri river separating occupied Abkhazia from Samegrelo. Russian authorities effectively closed the Enguri crossing point in late February 2020, forcing the local Georgian population to threaten their lives. This tragedy is a continuation of a heartbreaking pattern in Gali district, a home to over 30,000 people, of which the absolute majority are ethnic Georgians with Georgian citizenship. These people live under constant threat to both their lives and identity, and are denied basic human rights. Irakli Bebua, a young Gali resident who burnt the flag of the occupation regime in Abkhazia, remains in jail, and Russian authorities continue to kidnap Georgian citizens both along Enguri river and in Shida Kartli.
An important development regarding occupation was a judgment on the interstate case of Georgia v. Russia (II), released on January 2. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) asserted that since August 12, 2008, Russia has exercised continued “effective control” over Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Court also held Russia responsible for the breach of six articles of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), as well as for failure to conduct an effective investigation into the alleged breach of the right to life, in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian War of August 2008. The “historic decision” was celebrated in Georgia both by the officials and the opposition as a major win for the country, and the significance of the landmark ruling was also stressed by Tbilisi’s international partners.
The most disappointing events in Georgia’s political life were the 5th of July events. The attacks were committed by right-wing groups on July 5 and 6 in an effort to prevent the Tbilisi Pride march from taking place. The attacks targeted civic activists, community members, and journalists who were peacefully exercising the rights guaranteed to them by Georgia’s Constitution. The mobs went largely unchecked by authorities as they attacked citizens and also broke into and vandalized the offices of the Shame Movement, the Human Rights Center, and Tbilisi Pride, attacked a long-term opposition tent protest outside of Parliament, and burnt the European flag hanging in front of the Georgian Parliament.
I will not dive into theories connecting the ruling party with the alt-right groups (who eventually were able to easily register a political party following these events), but the fact that the Georgian government had and has the responsibility to do their utmost to protect journalists conducting their work and citizens exercising their constitutional rights is obvious. The government did not protect this right, and did little but nothing to bring justice to the injured, and failed to publicly condemn and prosecute acts of violence against them. The tragedy of Lekso Lashkarava, a cameraman of the TV Pirveli, who was found dead at home on July 11, days after being attacked by the mob, will remain a constant tragic reminder of these events.
Regarding the elections I will just quote the ISFED Main Findings report published recently: “Municipal elections were more or less competitive; the election day was largely well administered. However, the financial and administrative resources concentrated in the hands of the ruling party prevented the provision of an equal electoral environment. The electoral environment was damaged by the high number of cases of pressure, threats, dismissal or coercion on political grounds, and the inappropriate response of the state to such cases.” Cases of pressure, threats, dismissal or coercion are an unfortunate reality of Georgian politics, and they need to stay in the past. The return of Georgia’s third President was the most important earthquake of Georgian politics this year. Even though everyone, including the former President, should be equal before the law and, in ordinary circumstances, the fact of his arrest is not something extraordinary, there are several rather unfortunate developments turning this case into an example of politically motivated justice.
The judicial proceedings related to the third President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, drew special public attention. During Saakashvili’s hunger strike, the Special Penitentiary Service refused to bring the accused to court. The termination of the essential part of the medical treatment and the pending investigation in the State Security Service were named as reasons.
The Public Defender of Georgia believed that restricting the possibility of appearing before a court grossly violates the right to a fair trial enshrined in the Constitution of Georgia and the European Convention. As for the refusal to escort Mikheil Saakashvili to court for alleged security reasons, it is noteworthy that the procedural law does not provide for such a thing. It should be noted that today Mikheil Saakashvili has access to court and he has twice participated in the trial in person.
Another unfortunate development was the release of footage showing the transfer of Mikheil Saakashvili to Medical Establishment No. 18 against his will. The Public Defender assessed it as a violation of the prisoner’s right to honor, dignity and privacy. It should be noted that this fact was similarly assessed by the State Inspector’s Office. The developments around this office are also rather unfortunate – the Government of Georgia initiated a reform to eliminate the office of State Inspector of Georgia by splitting it into two separate agencies, decreasing the ability to monitor wrongdoings by officials and weakening it. These developments are rather unfortunate personal/political retaliation to the office.
And finally – last but not least – Georgia’s long lasting bleeding wound: the judiciary. Since Georgia regained our independence, the judiciary has always remained the soft spot. Every political party was trying to subdue the judiciary, and this process continues. Legal experts and civil society organizations highlighted that Parliament’s flawed process did not advance the most qualified nominees, resulting in less-qualified judges receiving lifetime appointments on the court. Even though the parties agreed to conduct ambitious judicial reform through a broad, transparent process that includes legal experts, civil society, and opposition parties, Charles Michel’s agreement was violated. Unilateral legislative changes, including those adopted against the advice of international partners while the April 19 Agreement was being negotiated, are inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the Agreement.
The early April amendments to the Organic Law on Common Courts failed to fully address Venice Commission recommendations, including a key recommendation related to staggering judicial appointments. Recent changes regarding appointments of CEC members is also part of this unfortunate trend, and the decision to break and weaken the State Inspector’s Office is another unfortunate example.
The situation in and around Ukraine, as well as Russian demands, continue to be closely monitored in Georgia. Following Russia’s demand to “disavow the 2008 Bucharest Summit decision – that Georgia and Ukraine will become NATO members”, Georgian MFA issued a statement that “On April 3, 2008, at the NATO Bucharest Summit the leaders of the NATO member states decided that Georgia (and Ukraine) will become a NATO member. The above-mentioned is an extremely important, consensus-based political decision in line with the fundamental principle of international law that all states have the sovereign right to choose their own foreign policy course.”
The geopolitical situation remains a challenge for Georgia – the situation should become more predictable after the negotiations between Russia and the US planned in January, and all that is left for Georgia and Ukraine is to hope that the next year will be better than the previous. The attempts to divide Europe into spheres of influence, to neglect the free will of the people living both in Georgia and Ukraine, should not succeed. The time of great-power dominance is long gone, and both people of Ukraine and Georgia have the right to decide our own fate – this is what we believe at the EGI, and will do our best to defend Georgia’s choice.