Trouble in Tbilisi

Trouble in Tbilisi

Mini Teaser: Liberty and security are hard to combine. Georgians risk losing both.

by Author(s): Whit Mason

Saakashvili's government has implemented a massive clamp-down on the thieves-in-law, claiming that all of them are either in prison or outside the country. The government is building two new prisons that will contain special blocs for thieves-in-law in which their contact with one another and the outside world will be severely curtailed. The immediate result of taking the thieves-in-law out of circulation, however, has been a rise in petty crime. They had ridden herd on hoodlums for years, and the new police don't yet have the experience to take their place.


While the government employs draconian measures, Georgia's friends in the West are busy encouraging and assisting with more traditional institutional reforms. In July 2004 the EU Commission dispatched a mission devoted solely to reforming the criminal justice system. A preliminary needs-assessment by the EU's rule-of-law mission found the judges poorly educated, underpaid, working in decrepit, often windowless courtrooms and offices, subject to intimidation and totally lacking in professional pride. Cases move through the court system so slowly that most of those arrested spend some eight months in pre-trial detention. Defense attorneys and prosecutors often agree on payments in lieu of other punishments, and the judge rubber stamps the deal--often without even knowing how much money has changed hands. The Ministry of Justice now wants to purge judges and prosecutors from the old regime, Jacobin-style; the EU mission is urging it instead to subject them to regular disciplinary procedures under a High Council of Justice. According to the head of the EU mission, Sylvie Pantz, the government's work on legal reform has been fitful. "When something isn't being done", says Ms. Pantz, "it's always hard to tell whether a Georgian lacks political will or is just negligent."

In the past, judges would receive a phone call telling them how to decide, and the role of prosecutors was limited to choosing the sentence. "Lately", says one highly placed Western official, "we're seeing a return to telephone justice." There are rumors that judges are taking more bribes than ever because they sense that their time is running out.

Last October a presidential decree created a nine-part working group to overhaul the criminal justice system. Influenced by those educated in the United States and anxious to raise the system's credibility in the public eye, the group introduced a constitutional amendment creating the right to trial by jury.

The American Bar Association's Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (ABA-CEELI), the NGO that administers the U.S. government's rule-of-law program, is wrestling with Plato's famous conundrum, "Who will guard the Guardians?" The law faculty, where Georgia's jurists are born, is considered perhaps the most corrupt institution in the country. Generally, students just pay for degrees--and until now, this has been the only qualification for practicing law. To raise professional standards, ABA-CEELI has created a bar association along with a challenging entrance exam. Beginning in June 2006, only members of the bar will be allowed to practice. The first bar exam, administered in November 2003, the day after Shevardnadze resigned, was rife with cheating. Beating Georgians at cheating on exams is like beating a grand master at chess. ABA-CEELI has created a data base with 5,000 questions and a computer program to choose questions for the exam at random. Future exams will also reorder questions so they don't match practice questions in the study guide, which exam-takers used as a basis for quickly navigating through crib sheets.

The Georgian Dilemma

Despite these programs, Georgia's foreign friends remain uneasy about some of the extralegal methods the Saakashvili Administration uses to establish the rule of law. "The government urgently needed to consolidate power, real power--like 'pick up the phone and tell an official to get something done' sort of power", says a leading expert on corruption in Georgia. "When this government has had to choose between doing things legally and doing things quickly . . . it has chosen to act quickly."

Levan Ramashvili is concerned that the use of extralegal measures has created a dangerous precedent. "Up to 1,000 cases of maltreatment of prisoners were documented last year", he says. Media exposure has dramatically reduced the level of abuse--but by prompting police to arrest fewer people, not to switch to legal methods. There are also concerns that senior figures in the government are pushing police to arrest political critics and rivals. Claude Zullo, deputy regional director of ABA-CEELI, cites the case of a newspaper editor in the town of Gori on whom police had allegedly planted drugs. "The judge hearing that case received a lot of phone calls from people in power telling him which way it should go", says Zullo. Just after the Rose Revolution, police arrested former Deputy Defense Minister Gia Vashakidze and two associates. They allegedly took all three to a cemetery and beat the two associates, then took them to Tbilisi's central police station where the abuse continued. Saakashvili, then president-elect, held a press conference in which he praised the "brilliant operation" and asserted the guilt of the accused. At around the same time, approximately 200 peaceful demonstrators blocked the main east-west highway in the center of the country to protest the police having allegedly planted an illegal handgun on a local official as a pretext for arresting him. The police beat the demonstrators on national TV. Seven were arrested and spent three months in pre-trial detention. Rather than criticize the police department's heavy-handedness, Saakashvili denounced the protesters as "hooligans" and declared: "I want to tell everyone who is defending crime bosses that they will be dealt a very hard blow to the teeth."

Though the anti-corruption drive has violated Western notions of civil liberties, Georgians generally rank it as the government's greatest success so far. Most Georgians seem convinced that the ends justify the means. At the same time, the practice of "plea bargaining" is widely seen as a form of legalized corruption that may undermine public confidence in law enforcement officials.

Sources say the most important change is that there are no longer pyramids of corruption reaching to the top of the administration. One expert told me that the government is "99 percent cleaner at the top." Perhaps more importantly, this impression is shared by the Georgian public. In a recent poll conducted by Transparency International, 23 percent of Georgians say they expect corruption to be far less in three years time. (Just before the Rose Revolution, only 1 percent expected an improvement in three years, while 55 percent expected it to get worse.)

Perhaps the young crusaders will clean house and then trade in their draconian methods for Western approaches to governance. Or could Georgia be morphing into what Fareed Zakaria calls an "illiberal democracy", one of those proliferating "democratically elected regimes . . . [that] are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving citizens of their basic rights"? For now the question remains open.

One test case is how the Saakashvili Administration handles Ajaria. From the collapse of the Soviet Union until last May, this autonomous region was the personal fiefdom of a local autocrat, Aslan Abashidze. Ajaria paid no taxes to the central government, while Abashidze personally pocketed a fee for every shipment of oil that passed through the region's oil terminal at Batumi. After a tense stand-off last spring, Saakashvili succeeded in ousting Abashidze and reasserting Tbilisi's control over Ajaria.

Today, Ajaria remains autonomous in name only. All officials in Ajaria are now wholly subordinate to the administration in Tbilisi. The new head of the region's government as of July 30, 2004 is Levan Varshalomidze, a lawyer who studied with Saakashvili in Kiev. Although Varshalomidze was confirmed by Ajaria's assembly, he was effectively imposed by Saakashvili. The head of the Ajaria branch of the Interior Ministry, Giorgi Papuashvili, another official sent from Tbilisi, seems to be universally loathed in Ajaria. Rumor has it that he was appointed to the position because he is willing to use draconian or unethical methods that his predecessor was not.

In Ajaria, detained officials and their cronies are supposed to pay into something called "The Ajaria Development Fund." Authorities have refused to divulge any information about this fund, such as how much money it contains, how it's managed or what it will be used for. They say that they will reveal all once they have collected enough money--without saying how much "enough" is. The Transnational Crime Center offered to help Ajaria's regional government set up a body to monitor the fund, in order to bolster public confidence. The offer was rejected.

Western governments still hesitate to gainsay a smart, popular president who is a lawyer and is unshakable in his faith that he knows how to ensure the success of reform in Georgia. After all, Saakashvili entered office with an ambitious and praiseworthy goal: "In establishing a model of good governance, we have the ability to bring positive change to an entire region. Not through exporting revolutions, but rather by providing an example that democracy and stability, prosperity and respect for human dignity are possible in our region of the world." No one is prepared--yet--to write him off, but many are looking at his government's actions with an increasingly wary eye.

Essay Types: Essay