(nytimes.com) No leader of the former Soviet republics has been more pro-Western than President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia. He moves easily in Washington and dreams of bringing his country into full NATO membership. But his government’s handling of prisons and its approach to parliamentary elections set for Monday are raising doubts about his commitment to democracy and reform.
Critics both inside Georgia and internationally have increasingly faulted Mr. Saakashvili for persecuting opponents, pressuring the courts and stifling the news media. In June, the National Democratic Institute reported on a growing political polarization and a rise in hate speech in the country.
Since then, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has expressed concern that the judiciary is not independent enough to guarantee fair elections. Amnesty International and Transparency International Georgia have cited numerous cases in which opposition activists were beaten, intimidated or detained for supporting Mr. Saakashvili’s political rival, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and his “Georgian Dream” coalition. The government slapped Mr. Ivanishvili with what many considered excessive fines for campaign spending violations.
Then a week and a half ago, protests erupted after two pro-opposition television channels — including one owned by Mr. Ivanishvili — showed film of inmates in the capital’s main prison being tortured and raped. Two ministers resigned and 10 prison officials, including the chief, were arrested. The government said the film was recorded by guards who were bribed, but the violence was reprehensible and appeared to violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Only a full, transparent investigation will make good on Mr. Saakashvili’s promise to punish those responsible and reform the system.
Georgia is less than nine years past its Rose Revolution. This election is another critical building block in a fragile democratic order. On Monday, the country will elect a new Parliament; because of legislative changes, the prime minister’s job will become more powerful than the presidency once Mr. Saakashvili’s term ends next year. There is speculation that he will try to stay in power beyond that by seeking the prime minister’s office.
Mr. Saakashvili and his supporters suspect that Mr. Ivanishvili is a stalking horse for Russia, where the billionaire made his fortune and against whom Georgia fought a brief, disastrous war in 2008. Whatever the case, Mr. Saakashvili jeopardizes his legacy and his ability to lead Georgia into NATO if he fails to keep the country moving forward toward democracy and human rights.