We, the undersigned representatives of the civil society organizations of Georgia would like to address the friends of Georgia and share with you our concerns with regards to the quality of democracy, media and political freedoms, corruption and eventual state capture that we are facing today.
We are alarmed by the recent developments in Georgia, which have been hallmarked by the utmost concentration of power in the hands of the ruling political party, thus dangerously undermining the balance of power and the viability of institutions. The situation is further aggravated by the factor of informal governance effectively undertaken by the former Prime Minister of Georgia, the leader of the ruling party Mr. Bidzina Ivanishvili, who, being the richest man in the country has dominated the political landscape in Georgia, since 2012, and even after his resignation from the PM post in 2013, effectively remains in control behind the curtains. Mr. Ivanishvili interferes and influences each and every important issue and has people personally loyal to him appointed as the heads of all important independent institutions, thus creating leverage of influencing over them. This is the case with the Prosecutor’s Office, law-enforcement institutions, judiciary, various ministries and state agencies. It is according to the will and decision of Mr. Ivanishvili that Prime Ministers of Georgia resign and are elected, circumventing any political process.
The Georgian leadership has failed to demonstrate the political will to address the outstanding problems in the field of anti-corruption policy in recent years. Although petty bribery in public services is still extremely rare, the authorities have repeatedly failed to respond effectively to credible allegations of corruption against high-ranking officials and other influential individuals with links to the ruling party. Extreme concentration of power in the hands of the ruling party’s leadership appears to have enabled it to exert undue influence over key public institutions (including law enforcement agencies) and prevent them from performing their roles in an independent and professional manner.
The ruling party, has failed to demonstrate a strong and consistent political will for strengthening judicial independence. Rather, since 2015 diligent efforts have been made to ensure strengthening and extending the influence of the so-called dominant group of corrupt and compromised judges, often called a Clan, as they are connected between each other with kinship, friendship or former professional affiliations and act as a uniform entity. The ongoing challenge in Judiciary, which would further exacerbate the situation, is a concerted process between the Clan and the ruling party to jointly populate approximately 60% of the Supreme court seats with themselves (Clan) and their affiliates, which would be the climax in the process of capturing the Judiciary.
The situation is further aggravated by the uneven political playing field during and in the run-up to the elections, which was best illustrated during the last Presidential elections in Autumn 2018. The extreme political polarization, abuse of state resources in favour of the ruling party, large scale vote buying, alleged (but compelling) cases of intimidation, negative and slandering media campaigns against political opponents, as well as excessive financial resources in the hands of the ruling party have further contributed to the grim picture. Looking forward, the expressed political will of the ruling Georgian Dream party to conduct next parliamentary elections through a fully proportional electoral system, might be an important improvement of the electoral environment, however this decision is not stamped yet, but it is not enough to counterbalance the existing disproportionalities. On top of this, the ruling party announced some legislative changes within the election system reform, which, if enacted, could significantly damage existing standards of freedom of expression and press.
Media independence remains a major challenge in Georgia. Following the ownership changes of Rustavi 2, the most popular opposition TV station, media pluralism has been under serious threat. The latest prosecution measures (indictment) taken by the law-enforcements against the former director of Rustavi 2 (Mr. Nika Gvaramia), and a family member of the owner of the independent station TV Pirveli (Vakhtang Tsereteli), leads to the conclusion that the government might be exerting pressure on media representatives and organizations that are believed to have an editorial policy critical towards the government.
In addition to the widespread Russian propaganda in Georgia, which incites hatred and promotes anti-Western, anti-EU/NATO sentiments, the ruling party is believed to be responsible for the growing number of discrediting campaigns on social media mostly targeting the political opposition and civil society through sponsored content. Russian propaganda is largely unchallenged by the state, on the contrary many instances have proven that pro-russian, ultra nationalistic and aggressive groups are above the law and are not held accountable for their aggressive actions or calls for aggression.
In the context of the abovementioned, it is alarming that lately we see an increased number of politically motivated criminal investigations and prosecutions. The non-exclusive list includes a scandalous criminal case and indictment against the founders of one of the largest commercial banks TBC Bank, and the owners of the Anaklia Deep Sea port project (with strategic US participation), a criminal case against the former Director of the opposition TV station Rustavi 2, a criminal case against the father of the owner of an independent TV outlet TV Pirveli, indictments and in some cases imprisonment of the anti-occupation protesters including the detention of the leader of an opposition party Mr. Okruashvili. We believe that these examples concisely and perfectly encapsulates all the major problems in Georgia, uniting the signs of abusing the state institutions for political gain, political retribution, orchestrated social media attacks, pressure on free media, but also raise concerns over the possible Russian influence over the ruling elite.
With this short resume, we wanted to bring to the attention of you, friends of Georgia, the dire state of affairs in terms of the democratic backsliding and state capture, and wanted to request your continued interest and engagement with Georgian affairs, with the aim to pressure the leadership of the country to bring about the democratic change which would be consistent with Georgia’s declared goal of joining European Union and NATO.