A series of arrests of former government officials in Georgia has prompted Western governments to advise Prime Minister Bidzinia Ivanishvili to avoid political score-settling against members of the opposition United National Movement led by President Mikheil Saakashvili. The arrests indicate that hopes for cohabitation following the victory of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition in October’s election may prove false. They are also “posing a dilemma for the international community”:
Washington and Brussels want to keep the country on the pro-western and pro-democracy path set by Saakashvili, but recognise that many Georgians felt his government used the legal system for its own ends and now want to see justice.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon recently met with Ivanishvili and expressed concern over the appearance that his ruling Georgian Dream coalition is pursuing a witch-hunt against members of the opposition.
“Everybody wants to see rule of law implemented and anybody who has committed a crime to be held accountable,” Gordon said. “But at the same time it is essential to avoid any perception or reality of selective prosecutions. If it looks like or it is designed solely to go after political adversaries or it’s not done in a transparent way, then the whole country will pay the price.”
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato secretary-general, said on Tuesday the alliance would “encourage all parties to keep up the momentum of democratic reforms.”
Observers have also been alarmed by a recent Economist report that Georgian authorities plan to free convicted Russian spies, including operatives convicted for a 2010 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi, raising concerns that the new government is tilting towards Moscow, with worrying implications for democracy in the region.
“Our [Georgian] alternative model to Putinism could be at risk,’ Saakashvili told the FT this week. “We showed you can have law and order without crackdowns, crime and abuse. This is what attracted people in Ukraine and other countries in the region. If this model collapses, this is worrying,” he said.
“If we get isolated because of political uncertainty and stability, we will find ourselves in a situation [where] we will no longer go to Europe, our natural habitat, but become easy prey for Russian adventurists,” he said.
Democracy advocate and Georgia-watchers have mixed views on the appropriate role of external actors in helping to safeguard or consolidate the country’s fragile democracy.
“Imagining that Georgia could ever become an America in the Caucasus was obviously a mistake. But it does have a chance to be a modern state, with a government that reflects the will of the people, cleaving to its traditions but restrained from nationalist instincts by foreign advice,” he argues. “If that comes to pass, Georgia can still be a good model for the other post-Soviet states.”
But the West can provide “more concrete pathways” to assist Georgia’s democratization, other observers suggest.
“During a pivotal moment in the country’s development, it’s important that outsiders don’t let themselves get too drawn into the pitched battles of Georgian domestic politics,” Sam Patten and Michael Cecire write in the National Interest:
Given the larger questions of transparency and due process, judging the success of a six-week-old government before they can establish a clear record is premature….Georgia’s friends would do better to provide non-judgmental suggestions on how to navigate this delicate situation and fulfill their campaign promises. Washington and Brussels should be prepared to offer Tbilisi more concrete pathways towards closer Euro-Atlantic integration, whether it be free trade agreements or something more substantive like a NATO membership action plan.
“Georgia’s first peaceful transition has created a powerful opportunity to help further the growth of liberal democracy in the Caucasus—and that’s a chance that deserves the patience and assistance it needs to succeed,” argue Patten, a political consultant for both Saakashvili’s UNM and Ivanishili’s Georgian Dream, and independent analyst Michael Cecire, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
Democratic interventions will need to address the mixed legacy of Saakashvili’s term in office, says de Waal, a Senior Associate in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program:
Saakashvili’s unusual political program has commonly been labeled “liberal Bolshevism.” It was liberal in the sense that, within just a few years, the president and his inner circle dismantled the remnants of the old, essentially Soviet system that they inherited, tackling petty corruption and the Mafia, raising tax collection rates, and overhauling the country’s decrepit infrastructure. Yet it also resembled Bolshevism in its aggressive application, enforced in large part by a highly repressive criminal justice system.
Georgia should adopt a “transitional justice” process akin to the approaches applied in South Africa, Argentina, Timor Leste, Sierra Leone, and Peru, say de Waal and Anna Dolidze, a visiting assistant professor of law at Western University and a Joachim Herz Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
“At first glance, it may seem strange to compare Georgia to these countries, most of which saw massive violence committed in civil conflict. However, the pattern is similar, even if the scale is smaller,” they write in a new Carnegie Endowment paper:
At issue are alleged serious abuses, a disputed political legacy, and the need for a temporary justice mechanism that is seen to be fair and bridges a political transition, during which the country is building a legal system that commands universal respect.
Georgia’s new transitional justice commission can be endowed with a range of powers, including the power to summon witnesses and to recommend that some persons be prosecuted in the criminal courts and others pardoned. The overall goal of the process is to make a definite break with the past by confronting the root causes of an abusive system and providing a historically grounded narrative about it.
One attractive model for Georgia, given the issue of how to deal with a police and state security apparatus accused of abuses, is the Argentinian National Commission on the Disappeared. The commission’s task was to investigate the mass disappearances of people between 1976 and 1983 and to uncover the facts involved in those cases. Its acclaimed report, Nunca Más (Never Again), based on thousands of testimonies and interviews, documented how approximately 9,000 disappearances took places and how the system made this possible.
In order to enjoy legitimacy, the commission needs a strong mandate and a strong basis in society. Above all, it needs to be independent. The commission itself should have broad authority to define its own mandate, including the time period it should address and what cases it should investigate, but a deadline by which the commission must complete its work should be specified in a statute. It should also have the power to review criminal cases already initiated by the new government.
The commission also needs to be given the power to be effective. That means that it must be well funded and adequately staffed, with a mandate that gives it the power to summon witnesses and ensure the cooperation of law enforcement agencies.
Finally, the commission must have the trust of the public and be transparent. The public should be constantly kept abreast of developments. The commission should determine itself whether it will hold public hearings, but regardless, it should accept a large number of depositions from individuals and create a scrupulous record of testimonies. The commission’s report should be presented to the parliament and made publicly available on government websites as well as at government offices.
‘Georgia’s new leadership is facing an ongoing political crisis, for which a transitional justice commission, adapted to face Georgia’s needs and challenges, is the right instrument,” de Waal and Dolidze conclude:
Timing is of the essence: a swiftly created mechanism can help avert a looming political confrontation. Over a longer time period, if it is allowed to do its work effectively, Georgia’s Truth Commission could help usher in more fundamental respect for the rule of law and would set the country on the path to a democratic future.
Anna Dolidze is a former chairperson of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.