Reacting to a growing political crisis in their country, the leaders of three opposition parties strongly condemned Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's increasingly undemocratic rule in a discussion at The Nixon Center today.
Former Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili of the Georgia's Way Party, David Usupashvili of the Republican Party of Georgia, and Konstantin Gamsakhurdia of the Freedom Party put aside their differences to make an appeal to the Bush Administration to publicly denounce "recent violations of democratic standards", put pressure on the Georgian government to release all political detainees, and demand Georgian authorities adhere to the democratic principles of Georgian law.
Each of the leaders gave grim accounts of the current political conditions in Georgia. "Georgia is no longer moving in the direction of democracy," Zourabichvili somberly declared. It is not a matter of pace, but a matter of complete reversal towards authoritarian rule. "Fear is back in Georgia," she said, saying that people are afraid to express their point-of-view and do not dare challenge incumbent officials for fear of losing their jobs-or worse. Zourabichvili also noted that the press is increasingly restricted and the government capriciously seizes private property. And the judicial system enjoys the lowest level of public confidence among all major institutions in the country. The concept of a fair trial has become a complete illusion. Due to all of this, she said, there is also no chance for a free and thriving economy in Georgia.
Usupashvili stated, "If one makes a checklist of what democracy is about . . . we will have a very, very dark picture about Georgian reality." He cited Saakashvili's push to amend the Georgian constitution-with only three days of public debate rather than the much longer period mandated by law-as one example. He also noted low public confidence in the courts, saying that Georgians view the judiciary as controlled by politicians and pervaded by corruption. Usupashvili then described how local self-governance has been largely eliminated and local government has come under national control. He described a complete lack of accountability in private foundations established by governmental agencies that accept "contributions" from businesses and said that while the government has partially succeeded in eliminating low-level corruption, it has done so by moving corruption into higher levels of the government. In one example, Usupashvili told how a Georgian businessman was forced to turn over ten million dollars in shares to the government for only $200,000 in compensation. "The [business sector] knows you better pay what the government asks," he said.
Gamsakhurdia began his statement by arguing that for only four years in the last century could Georgia be considered a democracy: 1918-1921 and 1990-1991. "Democracy is not taking place in Georgia," he stated. Although Georgia has a well-developed civil society and places a premium on Western values, democracy has not succeeded there. In his view, Saakashvili's regime has used tensions with Russia over territory as an excuse to disregard the rule of law and democratic standards. He gave disconcerting examples of extrajudicial killings by security forces and political prisoners murdered in staged prison riots. Gamsakhurdia also asserted that the death of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania no accident, repeating charges by arrested former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili that security forces moved Zhvania's dead body to the apartment where it was later discovered. Gamsakurdia concluded that resolution of Georgia's issues is in American interests and stated, "It is important for the U.S. government not to turn a blind eye."
After the political leaders spoke, Georgian democracy activist Ana Dolidze-a visiting fellow at Columbia University's Harriman Institute-described how the Georgian judiciary system operates. She said that politics dictate arrests and convictions, that charges are trumped-up, and sentencing is "completely fabricated." She predicted that former defense minister Okruashvili would face two months of pretrial detention without bail, closed hearings, and a political verdict. Dolidze also warned the United States to not be fooled by "Saakashvili's public relations machine" and argued that the "reforms" he appears to make lack systematic character and serve political ends.
Lawrence Barcella, an attorney representing Maia Topuria, a Georgian citizen recently convicted during a closed trial of participating in a conspiracy to overthrow the Saakashvili government, gave a first-hand account of the Georgian judicial system. His client, along with other opposition party members, faced charges of treason for taking part in a purported political meeting with Russian representatives. Although Georgian laws and criminal procedure look good on paper, he soon found out they have no relevance in the courtroom. His client was denied bail for four months. During the trial, the prosecution moved to have the courtroom closed, citing "national security"-but never presented any secret evidence. Videotapes of the arrests were destroyed because one of the men arrested pulled out his passport to prove he was in Germany at the time the alleged meeting took place. The date of the alleged meeting was subsequently changed in government court filings. He described the prosecution's evidence as "the most ridiculously fabricated case in all my 37 years as a lawyer", he said.
When questioned, the three political leaders stressed that they do not take a position on the guilt or innocence of former defense minister Okruashvili, but are prepared vigorously to defend his right to a fair and open trial. Usupashvili argued that the timing of the government's arrest-a day after Okruashvili made sensational allegations that Saakashvili had ordered him to arrange the killing of a prominent Georgian business leader-demonstrated that the arrest was political. Usupashvili also said that in his view, unfortunately, Washington was the only place where his country's current political crisis could be resolved-Saakashvili will listen to no one else. Zourabichvili urged the U.S. to move from watching the deterioration of democracy in Georgia to acting to stop it and called on American officials to meet with opposition leaders and to press the Georgian government to uphold democratic standards and the rule of law.
Caitlin B. Doherty is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.