Georgia: Sliding towards Authoritarianism?

Tbilisi/Brussels, 19 December 2007: The West must press Georgia to adopt genuine reforms and democratic openness, to stop creeping authoritarianism.

Georgia: Sliding towards Authoritarianism?,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the increasing intolerance of dissent, which became evident when a state of emergency was declared in the small republic in November. It calls on Tbilisi to engage in a dialogue with political opponents and make its reform process transparent and accountable. The presidential election, which has been moved forward to 5 January 2008, will be only a first test of whether the worrying trend can be reversed.

President Mikhail Saakashvili inherited a failing state when he came to power with the 2003 Rose Revolution and soon came under increasing pressure from Russia. He committed his government to democracy, liberal reform and pursuit of membership in the European Union (EU) and NATO and has had significant success in rebuilding institutions and reforming the economy. However, checks and balances have been stripped back, justice arbitrarily applied, human rights abused and freedom of expression curtailed. The public was protesting precisely those failings, as well as perceived widespread corruption, in late October and early November 2007, when the government responded with violence.

“The government’s repressive and disproportionate response to peaceful demonstrations shocked Western capitals because they had seen Georgia as a beacon of democracy”, says Magdalena Frichova, Crisis Group’s Caucasus Project Director. “But it shouldn’t have. Sadly the Saakashvili administration has become increasingly authoritarian over the years”.

Western friends of Georgia, notably the U.S., the EU and NATO, need to re-evaluate their interpretation of what is happening and press Saakashvili and his administration to correct their course. Neither the frozen peace processes with the conflict regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia nor the serious bilateral strains with Moscow, which firmly maintains its influence in these breakaway territories, justifies the trend toward authoritarianism.

The U.S. in particular should make clear it supports democratic principles, not a particular leader. It is not enough to say that if the January elections are free and fair, Georgia will be back on track. Deeper problems relating to the rule of law, corruption, lack of media freedoms, weak checks and balances and growing economic disparities can no longer be overlooked. Genuine reforms and democratic openness are mutually reinforcing necessities.

“After the January elections it should not be business as usual”, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “Georgia’s friends in the West should insist that the newly elected leadership recommit to democracy and the rule of law, reversing the government’s slide towards authoritarianism”.

Contacts: Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) 32 (0) 2 541 1635
Giulia Previti (Washington) 1 202 785 1601
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The International Crisis Group (Crisis Group) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation covering some 60 crisis-affected countries and territories across four continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.