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Western pressure intensifies towards the Georgian Dream. Is Georgian democracy backsliding?

Responding to outside criticism, Georgian Dream has blamed the opposition adding to the tension ahead of October’s parliamentary election.

September 10, 2020 - Soso Dzamukashvili - Articles and Commentary

The late US Senator Richard Lugar with a visit in Georgia participating in a naming ceremony for the Central Public Health Reference Laboratory. Photo: US Embassy in Tbilisi flickr.com

On July 9th, the US Congress Appropriations Committee adopted the State and Foreign Operations Funding Bill for the 2021 fiscal year. The bill states that Washington will allocate no less than 132 million US dollars in aid to Georgia next year. The funding will be directed at the projects and activities run by the US Department of State, USAID and other international programmes. The document notes that 15 per cent of the financial aid will be withheld in the case of a negative assessment of the Georgian government’s activities by the US state secretary. In order to avoid this potential problem, the Georgian Dream should seek to limit the national oligarchic influence on decision making, as well as legal and regulatory activities. Furthermore, the document urges the incumbent party to take effective steps towards the consolidation of democratic institutions and defines specific criteria which should be fulfilled by Georgia in order to avoid possible restrictions on financial aid. The criteria include the effective implementation of electoral reform, respect for the independence of the judiciary system and a variety of policy reforms that ensure accountability and transparency. At the same time, the document mentions desires for unfettered access to public information, the protection of civil rights and opposition parties, and media independence. Interestingly, the legislation explicitly states that financial aid for programmes aimed at strengthening democracy, the rule of law and the development of media and civil society will remain a separate issue.

The United National Movement, European Georgia and other opposition parties were alarmed by this decision and referred to it as unprecedented. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, however, responded that the government is committed to strengthening democratic institutions and that it is too early to properly discuss the document. This is because it is supposedly still in a “preliminary form”. However, on July 25th, the US Congress adopted the bill by 224 votes to 189. Moreover, the US systematic pressure on the Georgian government only increased on June 27th, when Mike Pompeo held a phone call with Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia. During the call, the American politician highlighted “the importance of holding free, fair, and transparent elections in Georgia this October”. The US secretary of state also urged the prime minister to strengthen the independence of Georgia’s judiciary and hinted that foreign direct investment (FDI) may depend on this matter. Pompeo also cautioned Gakharia “against politicisation of Georgia’s judicial and electoral processes.”

What do the US senators and congressmen want?

The US and EU have continuously criticised the Georgian Dream administration ever since last year’s mass protests in the country. These events saw the population voice its disapproval of Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov’s visit to the Georgian parliament and issues regarding electoral reform. Such reform was not achieved until Georgia’s international partners stepped in to facilitate an agreement between the government and opposition parties. This agreement also involved issues related to the independence of the judiciary. After various statements made by the EU and US regarding the agreement, the Georgian parliament eventually adopted the new electoral system on June 29th. Despite this, the government has only taken partial notice of international statements regarding an independent judiciary. For example, various “political” prisoners remain behind bars. This includes Giorgi Rurua, the former director of TV channel Rustavi 2. American representatives have directly and indirectly requested the Georgian government to pardon Rurua, who was the co-founder of opposition channel Mtavari. Senator Jim Risch, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated on July 30th that the judiciary should never be used for political aims. Risch also declared that the Georgian president should pardon Rurua. In response, Salome Zurabishvili announced that she would not pardon the prisoner, mentioning, “society knows better than me why I am not making this decision”.

In June, Congressmen had already criticised the Georgian government, describing the administration as “corrupted”. Such statements were not voiced even towards President Eduard Shevardnadze in the 1990s, when the state suffered greatly from a democratic deficit. The “US Strengthening and Fight Against Global Threats” bill, which called on Washington to widen its list of sanctioned people around the world, has perhaps been the most critical of Tbilisi. Congressmen involved in this bill highlighted the activities of Vladimir Putin and also mentioned Bidzina Ivanishvili, the head of Georgian Dream. The document referred to Ivanishvili as close ally who is working to destabilise the country. The Georgian prime minister also received a letter from US Congressman Markwayne Mullin, who stated that the economic climate for FDI was deteriorating in Georgia. This may have been a response to the Dream’s decision to halt a deal with the Anaklia Consortium regarding the construction of Georgia’s first Georgian deep-water port. The decision is widely argued to be the result of fears regarding a potential Russian response, as the project is incompatible with the Kremlin’s interests. Anaklia Development Consortium stakeholders have now started a legal battle against Georgia in the International Arbitration Court.

Combatting media pluralism – the government’s response to the West?

In response to the criticism, Georgian Dream has started to blame the opposition United National Movement and their lobbyists in Washington. The party pursued more undemocratic policies in June by proposing new legislation regarding changes to electronic communication and broadcasting. The legislation involved amendments to the Law on Electronic Communications, which would allow the Georgian National Communications Commission to appoint “special managers” to telecommunication companies, including a number of broadcasters. The changes allow GNCC – a regulatory authority charged with distributing electronic communication protocols and managing broadcasting frequencies – to appoint a special manager to companies that provide electronic communication services. This would only help to enforce the decisions of the Commission. According to these new amendments, a special manager will be authorised: to appoint and/or dismiss company directors and members of the supervisory boards; to file a lawsuit in court against the contracts or deals made a year before their appointment and demand their annulment; to restrict the company’s right to distribute profits, dividends, and bonuses, or to increase salaries; to perform other functions of the company’s governing body except for selling its assets or shares.

Amid strong criticism of the legislation expressed by local telecommunication companies and civil society organisations, the parliament adopted the legislation during a third hearing on July 17th. The opposition parties did not attend this session. According to the legislation, the Georgian National Communications Commission will now have the authority to appoint special heads in authorised companies, including the media. Opposition parties, civil society organisations and NGOs believe that this legislation is a challenge to freedom of speech and threatens media pluralism in the country. Simultaneously, telecommunications companies and civil society outfits claim that the amendments will have an immensely negative effect on their future activities, stating that the changes ultimately contradict the constitution.

Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders stated that the recent moves of Tbilisi “jeopardise media independence and pluralism” in the country four months ahead of parliamentary elections. The watchdog highlighted in a statement on July 20th that “the climate is becoming oppressive for Georgia’s media as a result of both judicial harassment that directly threatens their editorial freedom and the tightening of legislation”. The statement argues that the amendments “restrict the freedom of the broadcast media” and that there is “a clear desire to control radio stations and TV channels”.

Currently, Georgia is ranked 60th of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index. The nation’s ranking in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index in Georgia has also dwindled substantially in recent years. In 2019 it dropped to 5.42, a lower figure than in 2012, when Georgian Dream came to power.

Soso Dzamukashvili is pursuing an MA in Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (CEERES) at the University of Glasgow (UK). His interests include European Studies, EU-China relations, and the Eastern Partnership.


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