GEORGIA: POWER AND THE NGOs ON THE EVE OF PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Zaza Baazov, Editor, independent analytical bulletin Razvitie, demokratia i nezavisimye SMI Gruzii (Development, Democracy and the Independent Georgian Media) (Tbilisi, Georgia)
During the years of independence—from the very first parliamentary elections of 1992 to the local elections of June 2002 that should have taken place nearly a year earlier—Georgia has accumulated enough electoral experience. Political perturbations of the last decade suggest that the parliamentary elections of fall 2003 will decide the country’s political future at home and create a new or correct the old foreign policy course. The future of Georgia in the post-Shevardnadze era that started in 1972 in the Georgian S.S.R. and lasts (with a short interval in 1985-1992) in the Republic of Georgia and the Georgian state will depend on the winners of the coming elections. In spring 2005, Shevardnadze’s second, and last according to the Constitution, presidential term will come to an end.
Significance of the coming parliamentary elections can hardly be overestimated, therefore the pressure on the NGOs that started mounting in summer 2002 is quite understandable: the nongovernmental organizations and alliances are developing into a force to be reckoned with.
The Union of Citizens of Georgia (UCG), the brainchild and the main pillar of President Shevardnadze’s, suffered a crushing defeat at the 2002 municipal elections. The hardest blow came from the capital where the voters preferred the opposition: the National Movement, the Labor Party, the United Democrats, and the New Right.
Numerous violations registered nearly in all constituencies, the fact that municipal elections in Rustavi, Zugdidi, Kharagauli and elsewhere took place later and other digressions from the law came under critical fire of the media, the NGOs and the international organizations actively involved as observers (the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, the nongovernmental Free Elections organization, and others).
Having lost the municipal elections, the Union of Citizens of Georgia lost parliamentary majority after a grave crisis in the party ranks.
The Finance Ministry Instructs and Bans…
The authorities responded in an inadequate way to the fact that the NGOs and other public organizations shaped public opinion: the state tried in earnest to infringe on their activities and channel them in the desired direction. Officials at all levels never tired of repeating that “too independent” structures should be forced to toe the line.
In summer 2002, Finance Minister Mirian Gogiashvili signed a decree that obliged all public organizations to seek his ministry’s permission when receiving any cargoes or grants from abroad. This was the first legal document designed to bridle the NGOs. From that time on the Finance Ministry could monitor all financial flows and the way the NGOs spent the money they received. It was also planned to start registering all grants in addition to the already functioning measures of this sort. The public response was a stormy one: the minister had to annul his decision after a meeting with members of NGOs and other public organizations. The decree, however, had remained implemented for some time: a cargo for one of the evangelical organizations was detained and reached the addressee only when the decree had been annulled. The media suggested that certain documents had been written ad hoc.
In September 2002, the finance minister issued another decree that introduced state control over all the NGOs’ bank accounts under which the money could be used only after the organization had accounted for the previous period. According to the ministry, this was dictated by alleged misuse of foreign grants the total amount of which reached millions of dollars. At that time it was rumored that an up to 20 percent tax on grants would be introduced. The state opted for democracy while the government pledged to monitor the observation of democratic norms. Together with this the state started mastering so-called democratic methods to put pressure on “unreliable” individuals and organizations. One should admit that money is the best tool.
One can say that the state will increase its pressure as the civil institutions, the NGOs among them, will be building up their influence. Today, the developing and strengthening civil institutions respond more and more vehemently to corruption, smuggling, violations of human rights, massive unemployment, and other sores of Georgia. The state does absolutely nothing to heal them, which is explained by its absolute corruptness. It is satisfied with the state of affairs while the NGOs and other public organizations are closing ranks with the opposition fighting for the victory in the coming elections and for regime change. Naturally, the authorities refuse to encourage civil institutions—they are trying to control them.
Today the NGOs and other civil organizations are steadily scoring and force the authorities to annul their legal acts. The above-mentioned decree of the Finance Ministry was functioning for four days; it was annulled under strong pressure from the democratically minded public. This fact should not be overestimated, yet power has missed the turning point when all civil organizations could have been reduced to obedient tools with a stroke of the pen.
The state bodies have not yet abandoned their attempts. Another document, prompted by the Ministry of State Security, followed a notorious decree six months later. It was not so much a financial as an antiterrorist document that warned all structures concerned that financial irregularities and crimes would be regarded as sabotage and investigated by the Ministry of State Security.
Draft Law on Suspending Activities of, Liquidating and Banning…
On 18 February, 2003, the Ministry of State Security published a draft Law on Suspending Activities of, Liquidating and Banning Extremist and Other Organizations Controlled from Abroad that invited a barrage of protests from the Georgian media and NGOs.
NGOs described the document as the “utterly brazen and unceremonious document that by its message and content surpassed all earlier initiatives of the government.”1 The Republican Association of the Young Lawyers initiated a meeting between NGOs and parliamentarians also attended by people’s defender Nana Devdariani. The meeting issued a statement which said that the law had put up high barriers for all NGOs, the popular media and the parties, which would have to suspend their activities for at least six months. “The draft law materialized the government’s dream about defeating its opponents whom it called ‘enemies of the nation’ and ‘traitors’,” said Nana Devdariani.2
Director of the International Conflicts and Negotiations Center Georgi Khutsishvili believes that “the draft law of the Ministry of State Security is directly related to the coming elections and aims at establishing control over political organizations, especially over the opposition parties. If adopted, the law may serve as a tool of infringement on all sorts of organizations: NGOs, political parties, etc. I am convinced that the draft law will not be adopted in its original form since NGOs, the media, and political organizations are protesting against it. They all are very much concerned.”3
One of the points of the draft says: “Any organization can be banned or its activities suspended if it receives financial support from a foreign or international organization or if it cooperates with such organizations.” Spokesman for the Ministry of State Security Nika Laliashvili explained why the draft law appeared at all in the following way: “Theoretically the terrorist al-Qa‘eda organization may register and start functioning in Georgia.”
The public started suspecting the ministry that presented an absolutely unacceptable draft law of double game. Art 9.3 of the draft law says: “The organization should be banned if its head or any of the members publicly opposes any of the ideological groups.” There is an opinion that this infringes on the freedom of speech in the country and goes contrary to the Constitution. The draft obviously contradicts the principles of democracy the authorities claim to be supporting. According to Gia Nodia, Director of the Caucasian Institute, it is strange that the draft was made public in this unacceptable form. It looks still stranger if we take into account that the ministry preserved certain leeway for itself, that is, a possibility of changing some of the draft’s provisions. He thinks that it is designed to create legally justified instruments to put pressure on the local NGOs and concludes: “The draft law obviously has nothing to do with democracy.”
This stormy response forced Laliashvili to assume responsibility for it: “I am responsible for the NGOs strong reaction to the draft’s publication. I showed a rough copy printed out of my computer to journalists of one the TV companies. Regrettably, the rough copy was taken for a final copy that had not been in existence at that time since many of the provisions had not received their final wording… The legal department of our Ministry is still working on the document according to recommendations of Western experts; the document has been compiled from similar documents existing in other countries. It is our intention to invite NGOs and politicians for joint work on the project. I am convinced that the result will be acceptable for all… We want it to be adopted as soon as possible.”4
Radical suggestions were voiced at a meeting held in the office of the people’s defender. Deputy of the parliament Koba Davitashvili declared that if the authorities wished to use their “legal” right, then the nation could exercise its right to topple down the government which acted against the nation. It should be added that the meeting did not support the idea.
By way of justifying the law the ministry insisted that so far religious extremists could not be called to account in criminal courts, at best they could be sentenced for petty offences. The ministry expected that the law would allow the state to fight efficiently against extremism and violence.
The absolute majority of the Georgian NGOs is convinced that this and similar efforts threaten society. Georgi Khutsishvili has said: “The very fact that this draft appeared at all says that the ruling circles ordered the Ministry of State Security to prepare legal acts that will establish control over society… Placed under governmental control, contacts with foreign countries will become another source of corruption. Bureaucrats will use their right to ban organizations, and corruption will reach still greater dimensions.”5
This shows that the authors of the law and the organizations covered by it are of different opinions about the draft. The Ministry of State Security insists on the need for an adequate legal basis to stop extremism and terrorism. “The submitted draft has nothing to do with criminal responsibility of individuals. It concerns the NGOs, societies with limited liability, and political parties. When terrorism is acquiring more and more urgency, it is necessary to set legal protective mechanisms in place,” said the ministry’s press center.
The ministry quoted the names of several armed groups registered as limited liability societies; it also pointed to the so-called detective agencies the activity of which is not regulated by law. Minister of State Security Valery Khaburdzania made a statement in which he said that illegal armed formations were the main threatening factor together with “visiting financial oligarchs and leaders of the criminal community.”
Still, the majority of the observers believe that this draft was tailored to the coming election struggle. Tinatin Khidesheli, board member of the Association of Young Lawyers of Georgia, said: “To recognize an organization as an extremist one that undermines the state foundations one needs weighty evidence of such activities and corresponding facts. Organizations cannot be branded as terrorist on the strength of its cooperation with foreign investors or representatives of other countries. I think that the draft is directly associated with the parliamentary elections coming this fall. If adopted, the law will become an efficient instrument in the hands of the authorities wishing to deal with their political opponents.”6
On the same day, 18 February, the Association circulated a statement that said in part: “The draft cannot even theoretically be adopted to become a law, though the frequency with which the authorities undertake similar initiatives and their increasingly brazen tonality call for a serious response from the Georgian public and international community.”
The Party of Power—Grass Root Initiative
At the parliament’s plenary session of 25 February Chairman of the UCG faction Vitaly Khazaradze invited the colleagues to discuss a draft describing the procedure of identification of illegal armed formations and of measures against them. Said he: “Time has come to know for sure whether there are illegal armed formations in the country, how they are funded and whether they are connected with any of the political parties.” He continued by saying that the ministries of the interior and state security, the Public Prosecutor’s office and the auditing chamber should be instructed to submit corresponding information to the parliament within a month.
Since the UCG has been from the very beginning the main pro-governmental faction, one should not be amazed by the fact that the opposition objects to all its initiatives. This time, too, the opposition factions objected to the document in its original form. Khatuna Khoperia from the United Democrats Party said that the document failed to clarify the methods by which such illegal formations and the funding sources would be identified: “This is a political intrigue. The party of power is out to create an impression that it wants to sort out the situation in the country so that to relieve itself from any responsibility for attacks on opposition members.”
Vitaly Khazaradze suggested that an inter-faction group be set up to check the finances of all parties. The deputies agreed, yet refrained from passing a corresponding decision.7
I have already said above that observers tend to associate the efforts to tighten the NGO-related laws with the coming elections. This is indirectly confirmed by the provision found in the February draft originating from the MSS under which activities of any organization can be suspended by the Constitutional or Supreme courts. To overrun the decision the organization will have to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg—a time-consuming operation. This excludes the unwanted organization from the election struggle.
Gocha Tskitishvili, Director of the Institute of Public Opinion Studies and Marketing, expressed his fear: “The recent municipal elections were a dress rehearsal for the coming parliamentary elections. Approximately three months later (probably in June.—Z.B.) shooting will start in Tbilisi and will never subside until the election day.”8
The draft authors insist that the country needs mechanisms of interaction between the authorities and NGOs—yet these mechanisms are already in place: the Criminal Code regulates the activities of all public organizations. Nana Kakabadze, Chairwoman of an NGO called “Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights,” believes that the very fact that the MSS-initiated draft had been made public at all is used to achieve certain aims. This intentionally unacceptable document was used to detract public attention from the transfer of functions of the interior ministry to the MSS. “The very fact of rare honesty when the law was published as a draft suggests that the authorities are nurturing other plans,”9 says Kakabadze.
The initiatives of the ministries of finance and the interior never reached the adoption stage, yet there is an opinion that the special services do not need legal basis to discredit opposition parties and put pressure on their leaders.
David Gamkrelidze, one of the New Right leaders, made a statement about the special services collecting information on heads of opposition parties to compile their files. He informed the public that there had been attempts to intimidate those who worked with his party in the province to force them abandon the New Right.10
Gia Nodia is convinced that the only way out of the present confrontation is cooperation between the authorities and public organizations. “Cooperation is difficult but necessary. The coming elections are the most important subject of a dialog. We all want to avoid escalation of violence and chaos. I speak to foreigners fairly often and know that they connect their worst fears about Georgia with the elections. Will they trigger another round of chaos and lawlessness in the country? Cooperation is the right answer to the problem. The sides have to find adequate forms of such cooperation in disregard for their mutual dislike. Criticism and revelations can go on, yet these forces should cooperate for the sake of peaceful elections.”11
Many observers agree that this is the correct approach which does not rule out harsh election struggle and mutual invectives, yet it gives hope that the country will avoid chaos and another wave of crime irrespective of the elections results.
The bureaucrats are irritated—they do not like the fact that NGOs consistently reveal the facts of corruption, inadequacy, and other vices of the state machine, passivity of the powers that be and their inability to observe the law and follow the values they themselves have proclaimed. No wonder, bureaucrats try to attack: they accuse NGOs of misusing their grants, serving the interests of foreign countries, etc. Modest effects of these efforts force the bureaucrats to set up pro-governmental public organizations and to lure the already existing NGOs to their side. Officials turned their attention to the alliances of ethnic minorities that comprise nearly a quarter of the country’s population. In response to this attention their leaders announced that they would support the UCG at the coming elections. Observers are convinced that diaspora members will follow the example of their leaders.
This shows that the elections of the fall of 2003 will be the most important in the country’s post-Soviet life. Georgia’s future in the post-Shevardnadze era will depend to a great extent on the voting returns. While recognizing that the incumbent president has done a lot to develop civil society and the democratic institutions (of which the NGOs are one of the elements), to formulate a new foreign policy course, and to initiate the Freedom of Speech Law, one should never forget that during 12 years of his rule he failed to resolve any of the socially important problems, to raise the standard of living of the common people. There is a widely shared opinion that this will affect election results. It seems that the president is also fully aware of this: “If we fail to win the parliamentary elections this fall, we shall invent something. I shall not divulge the secret right now.” Similar pessimistic statements have become more frequent.
In apprehension of the authorities’ unpredictable actions the opposition is doing its best to prevent falsifications, disruption of the voting procedure and postponement of elections. Recently the public was very much agitated by the statement coming from the New Right Party to the effect that a possibility of the state of emergency was discussed in the corridors of power with an aim of canceling the elections. The top crust and the president weathered by political intrigues managed to present the rumors as a storm in a teacup. Still, it played its role in the election struggle.
All sorts of international organizations and many countries have already demonstrated that they wanted democratic elections in Georgia: in May 2003 Eduard Shevardnadze met with the ambassadors of the United States and the leading European countries at which the diplomats expressed their hope that the elections would follow all democratic principles. This played in the opposition’s hands in the same way as the meeting of its leaders with the NATO Secretary-General during his one-day Georgian visit in May 2003. His words that he understood quite well the opposition moods in Georgia because for many years he had been in opposition to American policies were taken if not for support then for encouragement.
The president of the United States has not ignored the election issue either. In his letter of greeting on Georgia’s Independence Day (26 May) addressed to President Shevardnadze George W. Bush used the chance to say: “The parliamentary elections scheduled for this year will give Georgia a chance to demonstrate its regional leadership in democratic developments.” The letter also said: “I expect that you personally, your government and the Georgian nation will continue to cooperate so that to accelerate the democratic and market reforms in the nearest future.”12 Obviously, the U.S. Administration that staked on strategic cooperation with Georgia wants democratic elections in it. President Bush’s letter says this in so many words.
The international community’s close attention to the coming elections gives hope that they will not become another source of gloom in Georgia’s recent history despite numerous contradictions in the country’s political life and the attempts of the authorities to tighten the laws to put pressure on public institutions.
1 G. Tsetskhladze, “Ataka na demokratiu,” Kavkazskiy aktsent, No. 5 (78), 1-15 March, 2003.
2 Z. Baazov, O. Baachi, “Tbilisi nameren ustanovit’ nadzor nad NPO,” Issue 169 [IWPR.net].
3 Author’s archive, February 2003.
4 Author’s archive.
7 Civil.ge, 25 February, 2003.
8 “V Tbilisi nachnetsia strel’ba i prodlitsia do vyborov,” 24 saati, 7 March, 2003. P. V6.
9 Z. Baazov, O. Baachi, op. cit.
10 Nochnoy kur’er program, TV Rustavi-2, 8 May, 2003.
11 “Raz Shevardnadze ne dumaet ob ukhode, my dolzhny dumat’ o vyborakh,” Versia, No. 84, 24 February-2 March, 2003.
12 BS-PRESS, Information Bulletin, 23 May, 2003.