Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 4.0
Civil Liberties: 4
Political Rights: 4
Georgia's political rights rating changed from 3 to 4 due to significant fraud in the April presidential election.
In an election whose outcome was widely seen as a foregone conclusion, the heavily favored incumbent, Eduard Shevardnadze, was chosen for a third term in office in the April 2000 presidential vote. However, his win and the country's efforts at democratization were tarnished by accusations of serious electoral fraud, with most observers citing his overwhelming margin of victory and inflated voter turnout figures as indications that the official election results were not credible.
Absorbed by Russia in the early nineteenth century, Georgia gained its independence in 1918, but was overrun by the Red Army three years later. 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 with 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. Nationalist leader and former dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected president on May 26, but his authoritarian and erratic behavior resulted in his overthrow in January 1992 by opposition forces, led by Mkhedrioni paramilitary group leader Dzhaba Ioseliani and National Guard commander Tengiz Kitovani. In early 1992, former Georgian Communist Party head and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze was invited by Ioseliani to return from Moscow to serve as acting head of state; on October 11, Shevardnadze was elected president with 95 percent of the vote. A concurrent parliamentary election 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 United Nations supervision. Parliamentary elections in November and December 1995 resulted in the Shevardnadze-founded Citizens' Union of Georgia (SMK) winning the most seats, while a concurrent presidential poll saw Shevardnadze secure victory with 77 percent of the vote.
The parliamentary elections of October 1999 were largely regarded as an informal referendum on Shevardnadze's seven-year presidency. Shevardnadze's ruling SMK was pitted against the opposition Revival Party led by his archrival Aslan Abashidze, the leader of the autonomous republic of Ajaria. The electoral campaign was dominated by mutual recriminations, with Shevardnadze accusing his opponent of being financed from abroad (a clear reference to Russia) and Abashidze accusing the president of vote rigging and ordering his assassination. The SMK won 132 seats in the 235-seat parliament, while the Revival Party came in second with 58 seats. Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that despite a number of irregularities, including the intimidation of precinct election commission members and the presence of unauthorized personnel in polling stations, the vote was generally fair.
In the April 9, 2000, presidential elections, Shevardnadze easily won a second five-year term with a reported 81 percent of the vote. His closest challenger, former first secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee and current leader of the parliament minority, Dzhumber Patiashvili, received only 17 percent of the vote; four other candidates secured less than one percent each. Aslan Abashidze withdrew his candidacy from the race only one day before the vote. Shortly after the election, Georgia amended its constitution to officially transform Ajaria into the Ajarian Republic, leading to speculation that Shevardnadze had granted formal autonomy to the territory in exchange for Abashidze's withdrawal from the poll.
While Shevardnadze's win was largely anticipated, the large margin of his victory led to accusations of electoral fraud. Given the country's widespread voter apathy, most analysts believe that the official voter turnout figure of 76 percent was seriously exaggerated. A Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe report concluded that "the election marked regression" compared even to the flawed 1999 parliamentary vote, and cited the "flagrant boosting of turnout totals and [Shevardnadze's] figures" as damaging to the country's efforts at democratization. Other monitoring organizations noted numerous irregularities, including the stuffing of ballot boxes, the presence of police in polling stations, a lack of transparency in the vote tabulation process, and a strong pro-Shevardnadze bias in the state media.
Georgia's already tense relations with Russia were further strained after Moscow accused Tbilisi of being lax in patrolling its border with Chechnya and of harboring Chechen rebels in its territory and expressed its opposition to Georgia's growing cooperation with NATO. In early December, Moscow introduced a visa regime for Georgians traveling to Russia, although the move does not apply to residents of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. While the decision was ostensibly aimed at impeding the movement of Chechen rebels and weapons across the border, it also represented an attempt to pressure Tbilisi to decrease its pro-Western orientation. During a November 1999 OSCE meeting in Istanbul, Moscow agreed to close two of its four military bases in Georgia by mid-2001. While Russia began its withdrawal from the Vaziani and Gudauta bases in 2000, the fate of the other two bases remained inconclusive at year's end.
Long-standing demands of greater local autonomy continued unresolved throughout the year. Eight years of peace talks between South Ossetia and Georgia have failed to find a solution to the territorial status of the region, which has maintained de facto independence from Tbilisi since 1992. In the southwestern region of Ajaria, Aslan Abashidze exercises almost complete control over the territory, which has retained considerable autonomy since 1991. A final agreement to the protracted conflict in Abkhazia remains elusive, as Tbilisi and Sukhumi continued to disagree on key issues, including the territory's final political status.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
While Georgians can formally elect their government democratically, the most recent presidential election in April 2000 was marred by examples of serious electoral fraud, including inflated voter turnout figures and an unrealistically wide margin of victory for Shevardnadze. The 1999 parliamentary vote was deemed to be generally fair, although observers cited numerous irregularities, including ballot box stuffing and intimidation of precinct election commission members. Widespread fraud was noted in the autonomous republic of Ajaria, while no voting took place in the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remained largely outside central government control.
While the country's independent press often publishes discerning and critical political analyses, economic difficulties limit the circulation of most newspapers, particularly outside the capital. Independent newspapers and television stations face harassment by the authorities, while journalists in government-controlled media frequently practice self-censorship. Akaki Gogichaishvili, host of the television program Sixty Minutes on the independent Rustavi-2 station, claimed that he had received a death threat on May 18 from Georgia's deputy prosecutor-general after a report on corruption in the state-funded Georgian Writers' Union.
Although freedom of religion is respected for the country's largely Greek Orthodox population, members of "nontraditional" religions and foreign missionaries face harassment and intimidation by police and certain Greek Orthodox practitioners. According to Human Rights Watch, the ultranationalist Guldani Orthodox Diocese, led by defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest Father Basili, has been responsible for numerous attacks against Jehovah's Witnesses and members of other faiths. In most cases, police failed to punish those responsible or even actively participated in some of the attacks. There are no laws requiring registration of religious groups, although the Greek Orthodox Church enjoys a tax-exempt status not accorded to other faiths.
National and local governments often restrict freedom of assembly, particularly concerning supporters of the late President Gamsakhurdia. On October 28, police used force to disperse some 200 Gamsakhurdia supporters in Tbilisi who were demonstrating for the current government to resign and for the restoration of the late president's leadership group. Thousands of people took to the streets in Tbilisi in late 2000 to protest chronic shortages of electricity.
The judiciary is not fully independent, with courts influenced by pressure from the executive branch. The payment of bribes to judges, whose salaries remain inadequate, is reportedly common, while strong clan-based traditions encourage the granting of personal favors. Police frequently beat prisoners and detainees to extract confessions and fabricate or plant evidence on suspects. Prison conditions, which continue to be abysmal, suffer from overcrowding and inadequate sanitation, food, and medical care.
The constitution and Law on Trade Unions allow workers to organize and bargain collectively and prohibit anti-union discrimination, and these rights are generally respected. The Amalgamated Trade Unions of Georgia, the successor to the official Soviet-era union, is the country's main trade union confederation and has no official affiliation with the government.
Ethnic conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as an influx of thousands of refugees from neighboring Chechnya, have created a serious refugee problem and repatriation efforts have proceeded slowly. In December, President Shevardnadze declared a state of emergency in the eastern region of Kakheti, which he said was prompted by growing crime in the area. The region includes the Pankisi gorge that is home to several thousand Chechen refugee and where a number of hostage takings occurred during the year.
The government initiated a high-profile campaign to eliminate corruption, which remains endemic throughout all levels of Georgian society, by establishing an anti-corruption agency in September headed by respected intellectuals. Most women work in low-paying occupations and continue to be underrepresented in parliament and other government organs. Social taboos limit the reporting and punishment of rape and spousal abuse.
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