Sunday, June 02, 2013

FORBES MAGAZIN: The Washington Post Is Wrong: Georgia's Democracy Isn't In Peril. By Mark Adomanis, Contributor (

( I’ve written before about how Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s prime minister and an ardent advocate of integration with NATO and the EU, was laughably smeared as “pro-Russia” and “Putin’s man.” To a very great extent this was not because of anything Ivanishvili actually said or did, but because Mikhail Saakashvili did an absolutely brilliant job of cultivating friends and supporters in elite Washington circles and of presenting himself as America’s only reliable ally. Hatred and fear of Ivanishvili was more intense on the right side of the political spectrum, but centrist outfits like the Washington Post have also been decidedly skeptical of the billionaire turned politician.

The Washington Post really upped the ante, however, when it published an extremely one-sided and alarmist editorial which openly suggested that “Georgia’s democracy is in peril.” Here is how the Washington Post put it (emphasis added):
Georgia’s previous government under Mr. Merabishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili was guilty of bending laws and occasionally pressuring opponents and the media. But the pair also presided over the most democratic elections in Georgia’s history and quickly accepted defeat in the vote that brought Mr. Ivanishvili to power. The notion that Mr. Merabishvili is not being prosecuted for political reasons is no more credible than that Ukraine opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is imprisoned because of her previous malfeasance as prime minister.
 Mr. Ivanishvili, a billionaire who acquired his fortune in Russia, could have built on Mr. Saakashvili’s peaceful and democratic yielding of power by avoiding prosecutions of the previous regime and  focusing on sustaining what had been years of steady economic growth. Instead, the  economy has stalled as the new government has attacked its opposition in the courts and in the streets.
First of all, the Georgian government’s democracy (or lack thereof) has nothing whatsoever to do with economic growth. Some authoritarian governments oversee rapid economic expansion. Some democratic governments oversee economic stagnation. I’m not sure why the Post mixed and matched two very different things (political liberalism and economic growth) but it’s such a glaring and fundamental error that it strongly suggests an argument made in bad faith.
But back to Saakashvili’s government and its “bending [read: "breaking"] of the law. Here is just a sampling of what some respected human rights outfits have had to say about Saakashvili’s government and its attitude towards civil liberties.

Freedom House: “Georgia continues to suffer from corruption at elite levels, and the UNM administration’s insularity fostered opportunities for cronyism and insider deals…The major private television stations received heavy subsidies from the UNM government and displayed a pro-government slant…The judiciary has suffered from significant corruption and pressure from the executive branch.”

Amnesty International: “Amnesty International is concerned that the widespread questioning of opposition party members and supporters throughout Georgia over the course of this week has been accompanied by reports of the violation of legal safeguards and the intimidation of opposition sympathizers. The questioning of opposition supporters and other non affiliated persons has been accompanied by numerous reports of the denial of legal representation to which they are legally entitled. The selective examination of only opposition party members and presumed supporters, the manner in which many examinations took place, the nature of many of the questions asked and the sheer number of those called in for questioning suggests that the operation is politically motivated and aimed at intimidating current and potential opposition party sympathizers.”

United Nations: “There are a number of worrying signs that indicate that the generally positive trajectory in Georgia could be derailed, and the focus on modernization could lead to a widespread climate of fear, intimidation and arbitrary restrictions of fundamental freedoms…The only way Georgia can continue its path to prosperity, wealth and security is by respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms. The recent legislative acts, as well as State actions, appear to threaten this path.

European Court of Human Rights: “”Different branches of state power — including the Ministry of the Interior, the prosecution authority, the domestic courts and the president of Georgia — had all acted in concert in preventing justice from being done.”

So, according to broadly respected and impartial human rights organizations, the Georgian government under Saakashvili was guilty of a number of very serious violations and crimes. It harassed political opponents. It put pressure on the judiciary. It cut crooked insider deals. Someone was responsible for that. Since Merabashvili was the minister of the interior while all of that abuse was taking place, isn’t it at least possible that his prosecution is not crude political score settling but entirely justified? Is it really a lunatic idea to suggest that, just maybe, the minister of the interior could be partly responsible for abuse carried out by, ahem, the interior ministry?

The Post strongly suggests that any attempt to prosecute high-ranking UNM officials is illegitimate. But that’s nonsense. Looking at the evidence marshaled by international organizations, it’s entirely obvious that a number of high-ranking UNM officials really did commit serious crimes while they were in office. A government that was fully committed to the rule of law is obligated to investigate and prosecute any officials suspected of involvement in the widespread abuse that characterized Saakashvili’s government. That’s what the “rule of law” means, that anyone and everyone has to answer for a crime they committed: there’s no special dispensation for “but my policies made the economy grow really quickly!”

The only way to judge the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Merabashvili’s prosecution, and the prosecutions of other UNM officials, is to look at the evidence that the Georgian government provides and the way in which the trials is handled. If Ivanishvili’s government presents obviously forged evidence and exerts open pressure on the judiciary to render a guilty verdict that would be a sign that Georgia’s democracy is in trouble.* But the simple fact that it is bringing charges against Merabashvili isn’t, by itself, indicative of anything.
My sincere hope is that Georgia is able to make progress towards institutionalizing the rule of law and democracy. However, this can only happen if officials from the previous government are held to account for the widespread abuse that occurred on their watch. We need to look not at if UNM officials are put on trial but how. The proof will ultimately be in the pudding: Ivanishvili’s government could  be engaged in a political witch hunt, but it could be engaged in a perfectly reasonable quest for justice. We will simply have to wait and see. What we should not do is what the Post did in its editorial: engage in one-sided political grandstanding and ill-informed speculation.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkAdomanis

PS: Thanks to Michael Cecire of the Foreign Policy Research Institute for assistance in gathering information for this post. While Mike and I don’t see eye to eye on Russia, he’s an unbiased, unsparing, and excellent source of information on the Caucasus
* well actually it’s an indication that Georgia’s democracy is about at the same level that it was before, but it’s clearly not something that should be cheered

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