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Freedom in the World 2005 - Georgia

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 20 December 2004
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2005 - Georgia, 20 December 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473c54f523.html [accessed 21 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political Rights: 3
Civil Liberties: 4
Status: Partly Free
Population: 4,500,000
GNI/Capita: $650
Life Expectancy: 72
Religious Groups: Georgian Orthodox (65 percent), Muslim (11 percent), Russian Orthodox (10 percent), Armenian Apostilic (8 percent), other (6 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Georgian (70 percent), Armenian (8 percent), Russian (6 percent), Azeri (6 percent), Ossetian (3 percent), Abkhaz (2 percent), other (5 percent)
Capital: Tbilisi

Ratings Change
Georgia's political rights rating improved from 4 to 3 due to the holding of free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections.


Overview

Following Georgia's "Rose Revolution," in which President Eduard Shevardnadze stepped down in November 2003 in the face of a popular uprising against his rule, Mikhail Saakashvili was overwhelmingly elected to replace him in January 2004. Elections for a new parliament held in March saw Saakashvili's party capture the majority of seats. While Saakashvili received praise for trying to rein in the country's rampant corruption, there were concerns over new constitutional amendments that increased the powers of the president at the expense of parliament and of judges and over possible growing restrictions against the country's media. During the year, the new president sought to reassert central government control over a number of regions and territories, including Abkhazia, Ajaria and South Ossetia, that have operated outside the reach of Tbilisi.

Absorbed by Russia in the early nineteenth century, Georgia gained its independence in 1918. In 1922, it entered the U.S.S.R. as a component of the Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Republic, becoming a separate union republic in 1936. An attempt by the region of South Ossetia in 1990 to declare independence from Georgia and join Russia's North Ossetia sparked a war between rebels and Georgian forces. Although a ceasefire was signed in June 1992, the territory's final political status remains unresolved.

Following a national referendum in April 1991, Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union, which then collapsed in December of that year. Nationalist leader and former dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected president in May. The next year, he was overthrown by opposition forces and replaced with former Georgian Communist Party head and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Parliamentary elections held in 1992 resulted in more than 30 parties and blocs gaining seats, although none secured a clear majority.

In 1993, Georgia experienced the violent secession of the long-simmering Abkhazia region and armed insurrection by Gamsakhurdia loyalists. Although Shevardnadze blamed Russia for arming and encouraging Abkhazian separatists, he legalized the presence of 19,000 Russian troops in Georgia in exchange for Russian support against Gamsakhurdia, who was defeated and reportedly committed suicide. In early 1994, Georgia and Abkhazia signed an agreement in Moscow that called for a ceasefire, the stationing of Commonwealth of Independent States troops under Russian command along the Abkhazian border, and the return of refugees under UN supervision. In parliamentary elections in November and December 1995, the Shevardnadze-founded Citizens' Union of Georgia (CUG) captured the most seats, while Shevardnadze was elected with 77 percent of the vote in a concurrent presidential poll.

The ruling CUG repeated its victory four years later, in the October 1999 parliamentary election. Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that, despite some irregularities, the vote was generally fair. In the April 2000 presidential poll, Shevardnadze easily won a second five-year term with a reported 81 percent of the vote. While Shevardnadze's win was widely anticipated, the large margin of his victory led to accusations of electoral fraud. Election monitors noted numerous and serious irregularities, including the stuffing of ballot boxes, inflated voter turnout figures, and a strong pro-Shevardnadze bias in the state media.

Following the parliamentary elections, various competing factions developed within the CUG, which had dominated Georgian politics for much of the 1990s. Shevardnadze himself faced growing opposition from prominent members, including Speaker of Parliament Zurab Zhvania and Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, who criticized the president's failure to contain widespread corruption throughout the country. While Shevardnadze resigned as CUG chairman in September 2001, Saakashvili left the CUG to form his own party, the National Movement, and a formal party split was ratified in May 2002. Local elections held in June saw the CUG lose its long-standing dominance to several rival parties, including the New Rights Party, which was formed by many prominent businessmen, the National Movement, and the Labor Party. Subsequently, Saakashvili was named to the influential post of chairman of the Tbilisi City Council.

A flawed parliamentary vote on November 2, 2003, served as the catalyst for the civic action that ultimately led to the Shevardnadze resignation from office. According to official Central Election Commission results, the For New Georgia pro-presidential coalition – led by Shevardnadze and composed of the CUG, Socialist Party, National Democratic Party (NDP), and Great Silk Road movement – received 21 percent of the vote. The Union of Democratic Revival (UGR), a party led by Aslan Abashidze, the leader of the republic of Ajaria, won almost 19 percent of the vote. Saakashvili's National Movement came in a close third with 18 percent, followed by the Labor Party with 12 percent. The only other two parties to pass the 7 percent threshold to enter parliament were the opposition Burjanadze-Democrats alliance formed by Zhvania and Speaker of Parliament Nino Burjanadaze, which captured almost 9 percent of the vote, and the New Rights, which secured 7 percent.

A domestic monitoring organization, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, conducted a parallel vote tabulation, concluding that the National Movement had won the election with nearly 27 percent of the vote, with For New Georgia placing second with about 19 percent. Monitors from the OSCE reported that the elections fell short of international standards for democratic elections. Among the violations noted were ballot-box stuffing, inaccurate voter lists, biased media coverage, harassment of some domestic election monitors, and pressure on public employees to support pro-government candidates.

A series of mass public protests took place in the aftermath of the flawed vote. On November 22, protesters led by Mikhail Saakashvili broke into the parliament building and forced Shevardnadze, who was addressing the new legislature's opening session, to flee the building. Shevardnadze resigned the following day, and Burjanadze was named interim president. Meanwhile, the supreme court cancelled the results of the parliamentary election.

Snap presidential elections were called for January 4, 2004, with Saakashvili effectively facing no opposition. Capitalizing on mass dissatisfaction with corruption, cronyism, and poverty, Saakashvili won the poll with an overwhelming 96 percent of the vote. In new parliamentary elections held on March 28, 2004, the National Movement-Democrats bloc (composed of Saakashvili's National Movement and the Burjanadze-Democrats) captured about two-thirds of the seats, followed by the Rightist Opposition bloc (composed of the Industrialists and New Rights Party) with nearly 10 percent; seven other parties received 8 percent or fewer of the total number of seats.

Saakashvili took office amid extremely high expectations that his political program would help solve Georgia's considerable challenges, including entrenched corruption and a weak economy. Over the course of 2004, Saakashvili attempted to rein in corrupt officials, bring in the rule of law, and make a dent in the oligarchic system that had long dominated the country. At the same time, the constitution was amended to further strengthen the powers of the executive at the expense of the legislature and judiciary, a move criticized by international and domestic observers.

In the southwestern region of Ajaria, Saakashvili in May engineered the overthrow of Aslan Abashidze, the president of the semiautonomous region, who until that time had exercised almost complete control over the territory. Saakashvili's party won a decisive victory in pre-term parliamentary elections in Ajaria, which solidified his position in the autonomous republic after the ouster of pro-Moscow leader Abashidze the month before. The president's party, Saakashvili – Victorious Ajaria, gained 77 percent of the vote in the June 20 balloting.

On November 26, 2004, Abkhazia's parliament officially decreed the October 3 Abkhazian presidential elections valid "despite certain electoral violations" and declared Sergei Bagapsh president-elect. This was the latest development in an ongoing political battle in Abkhazia that pitted the two candidates from the breakaway region's presidential election, Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba and Bagapsh, against each other. Some 80,000 voters took part in the polls. The two candidates were separated by only several hundred votes.

In South Ossetia, which has maintained de facto independence from Tbilisi since 1992, Saakashvili has sought deeper involvement of the OSCE in resolving the conflict.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Georgia can change their government democratically. The November 2003 parliamentary elections, which led to President Eduard Shevardnadze's ouster, fell short of international standards for democratic elections. According to the International Election Observer Mission, the January 2004 presidential and March 2004 parliamentary elections represented "commendable progress in relation to previous elections." The report went on to say, however, that "the consolidation of the democratic election process will only be fully tested in a more competitive environment, once a genuine level of political pluralism is re-established."

In February, parliament passed a number of constitutional amendments that strengthened the power of the executive relative to the parliament and judiciary. The amendments also gave the president power to dismiss parliament if it fails to approve the state budget, or the appointment of the prime minister or other ministers or in times of crisis. The constitutional amendments themselves and the fashion in which they were adopted were problematic, according to local watchdog groups and international observers. For example, authorities ignored the constitutional provision for a 1-month debate period prior to adoption.

Although the former government initiated a high-profile anticorruption campaign in 2000, corruption remains endemic throughout all levels of Georgian society. Given the profound levels of corruption, President Mikhail Saakashvili has made anticorruption efforts a centerpiece of his administration. Over the course of 2004, a number of officials accused of corruption or embezzlement during the Shevardnadze era have been arrested. In a number of these instances, these former officials have paid substantial fines as part of the adjudication of their cases. More than $50 million is believed to have been collected in this fashion. This approach has raised questions about the soundness of a process by which lump-sum contributions paid by a suspect can simply be transferred to the Georgian treasury, or if criminal charges can actually be dropped on the basis of this sort of payment. Georgia was ranked 133 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Before the Georgian leadership change, the country's independent press was able to publish discerning and critical political analyses, although economic difficulties limited the circulation of most newspapers, particularly outside Tbilisi. During 2004, some critics of the new government leveled charges that media outlets unfriendly to Saakashvili were pressured and that a new round of self-censorship had begun. There were also some indications that a wider effort to manage news media was being undertaken by the authorities, in instances as part of an effort to establish financial order and fight corruption. The authorities do not restrict access to the Internet.

In July, the government passed a new law on defamation. It provides that statements made in parliament, in the courts, and during political debates are not considered libel. The law also moves the burden of proof to the accuser, and places entire companies, rather than individual reporters, as defendants. The authorities did not use libel laws to inhibit journalism in 2004.

Freedom of religion is respected for the country's largely Georgian Orthodox population and some minority religious groups traditional to the country, including Muslims and Jews. However, members of nontraditional religious minority groups, including Baptists, Pentecostals, and Jehovah's Witnesses, face harassment and intimidation by law enforcement officials and certain Georgian Orthodox Church extremists.

Although the government does not restrict academic freedom, the quality of the country's educational system has been compromised by widespread corruption. Students frequently pay bribes to receive high marks or pass entrance examinations. In 2004, the government proposed draft education legislation designed to move away from a Soviet model to one more in line with European structures.

The authorities generally respect freedom of association and assembly, although the government dispersed several peaceful demonstrations and arrested participants for disrupting the peace in 2004. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including human rights groups, are able to register and operate without arbitrary restrictions. In the absence of a strong political opposition, the NGO community began to fill this void during the year. In October, 14 prominent legal experts and journalists published an open letter that stated that Saakashvili was marginalizing all forms of opposition or alternative opinion. The authors of the letter said that "intolerance towards people with different opinions is being implanted in Georgian politics and in other areas of political life."

The constitution and the Law on Trade Unions allow workers to organize and prohibit anti-union discrimination. The Amalgamated Trade Unions of Georgia, the successor to the union that existed during the Soviet period, is the principal trade union confederation. It is not affiliated with, and receives no funding from, the government.

The judiciary is not fully independent, with courts influenced by pressure from the executive branch. The payment of bribes to judges is reported to be common. As part of the effort to reduce corruption and improve the performance of law enforcement, the government dismissed half of the police force in August. Despite recent reform efforts, the law enforcement community continues to face accusations of torture. Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili and the general prosecutor, Zurab Adeishvili, promised to work to eradicate human rights abuses within law-enforcement agencies. They announced that monitoring groups would be created under the ombudsman's office to control the activities of the police and other law-enforcement bodies.

The government generally respects the rights of ethnic minorities in nonconflict areas of the country. Freedom of residence, as well as the freedom to travel to and from the country, is generally respected.

Societal violence against women was a problem. While there are no laws that specifically criminalize spousal abuse or violence against women, the Criminal Code classifies rape, including spousal rape, and sexual coercion, as crimes. Georgian law prohibits trafficking in persons; however, the country was a source, transit point, and destination for trafficked persons.

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