Republican Reference - Area (sq.km) 69,700 - Population 4,585,874 - Capital Tbilisi - Currency Lari - President Mikhail Saakashvili - Principal ethnic groups Georgians 83.8%, Armenians 5.7%, Russians 1.5%, Azeri 6.5%, Other 2.5%

georgia

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Key Economic Data
 
  2009 2008 2007 Ranking(2009)
GDP
Millions of US $ 10,737 12,791 10,172 116
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 2,530 2,500 2,110 139
Ranking is given out of 213 nations - (data from the World Bank)

  

Background:
Georgia was absorbed into the Russian Empire in the 19th century. Independent for three years (1918-1921) following the Russian revolution, it was forcibly incorporated into the USSR until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Russian troops remain garrisoned at three military bases and as "peacekeepers" in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  They also have a base in Batumi in Adjania, the latest defector from Tbilisi's control. Despite a badly degraded transportation network - brought on by ethnic conflict, criminal activities, and fuel shortages - the country continues to move toward a market economy and greater integration with Western institutions. But Russia has skilfully manipulated the situation so that it could, if it chose to do so, rapidly make Georgia totally ungovernable.  In effect therefore, Russia now has ultimate sanction over Kazak and Caspian oil flowing through to western markets by pipeline and by Black Sea tankers.

Update No: 387 - (26/06/13)

Since the election of 'Georgian Dream' founder Bidzina Ivanishvili to the role of Prime Minister in October 2012, there has been a period of uneasy cohabitation between the tycoon and his arch rival, President Mikhail Saakashvili. The Prime Minister recently told the Jerusalem Post than he and the US educated reformer 'have the bare minimum of cohabitation'. Whilst Ivanishvili has pledged to maintain the Euro-Atlantic oriented, reformist, youthful bent of Saakashvili's tenure, there have certainly been concerns in recent months that the new government of Georgia is leading a witch hunt against its political foes, and a whole set of new allegations relating to both the use of torture and surveillance under the previous administration have amplified this dynamic. With the presidential elections coming up in October, there have been accusations that the ruling party is being particularly aggressive in attempting to calumniate Saakashvili's United National Movement. Meanwhile relations with Russia, which initially improved under Ivanishvili, have taken a turn for the worse as Russia has staged some provocative "borderisation" in South Ossetia and complaints relating to food health standards regarding food and wine imports from Georgia, have multiplied on the Kremlin's part. An attack on a gay rights parade in May was widely condemned throughout the European Community, but perhaps not sufficiently by the government, observers say.

The month of June saw the final knotting of one strand of the political tapestry which has thickened over the past year. On June 14, the trial against 17 former prison officials accused of overseeing and performing acts of torture at Gldani prison No.8 in Tbilisi concluded. The scandal first emerged in September 2012 when leaked videos emerged showing horrifying cases of abuse against inmates at the jail. When the images were broadcast, it prompted public outcry and there were a number of demonstrations in support of the abused detainees. It was believed that the scandal certainly affected the result of October 1 parliamentary elections in which President Mikhail Saakashvili's UNM party was defeated. The Georgian Dream coalition was quick to make clear that the Interior Ministry of the UNM had routinely overseen such practices. All of those on trial were found guilty and received prison sentences. Only one, Vladimer Bedukadze, who actually filmed the images, was spared jail, as a result of plea-bargaining.

Just three days later, it was reported by the Interior Ministry that the state security service had unearthed a large cache of weapons, drugs and videotaped tortures in Samegrelo, western Georgia, a cache allegedly hidden by high-ranking ministry officials under the previous government. The discovery reportedly includes an archive of photographs and personal files of opposition members "who were to be framed and arrested if the pro-presidential United National Movement won the October 1, 2012 parliamentary elections." Georgian Dream MP made it clear that the discovery would tarnish the reputation of the UNM. Tina Khidasheli told TV talk show Positsia that "society will get a really unfortunate surprise". On June 19, several individuals, among them three acting and one former law enforcement officers, were arrested.

Interestingly, on June 20, the Interior Ministry took the decision to screen the torture videos at its headquarters to a group of political analysts and media figures, as well as representatives of civil society. It has been argued that the principal reason for showing the videos was to ensure that the public would identify the former government with a system of torture, as opposed to providing any clarity about how it planned to tackle these issues. Some members of civil society, among them representatives from the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, Transparency International Georgia and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, were unsure as to whether there was a real unbiased objective in showing the videos, and chose to walk out without watching the footage. They argued that it was unclear what the purpose behind screening these videotapes was and that the Interior Ministry should instead have called a meeting to discuss with how the investigation into these crimes would be undertaken.

Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili has certainly made it very clear that the discovery will be used to render the previous administration synonymous with malpractice, corruption and violence, arguing, "Society should know who was behind it. I want to remind everyone that Vano Merabishvili was the [interior] Minister at the time; all those high ranking officials should be held responsible during whose tenure such terrible things were happening." UNM countered this with a statement on June 20 that it was "such a grave crime that it should be stated unambiguously and without any political speculation, that each and every person who was involved and who was planning torture and inhuman treatment and who was disseminating videos showing [this crime] should be punished with the fullest extent of the law." They added that, "the evidence obtained in the course of this investigation" should be used "not for carrying out a campaign against political opposition, but for identifying and punishing real perpetrators."

If the UNM fears political persecution, it has, many say, good reason. A number of members of the former ruling party have been investigated or imprisoned since the Georgian Dream coalition came to power, which has landed the coalition with accusations of democratic backsliding. On June 20, the former Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Georgia, Nika Dzimtseishvili, who is also the husband of former Deputy Minister of Justice Tina Burdzhaliani, was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison after being found guilty of abuse of power. Georgia's former deputy chief of military police Malkhaz Bokhua was also detained on corruption charges on May 29, on suspicion of being complicit in the misdirection of some $300,000 of military police funds in 2012. On May 21 Former Prime Minister Ivane Merabishvili was arrested and charged with abuse of power, embezzlement and bribing of voters. Many would argue that these are acts of political payback, as opposed to the actual cleansing of the political system. It has even caused some commentators to compare the events in Georgia to those in Ukraine, where Viktor Yanukovych has overseen the imprisonment of his arch-political rival Yulia Tymoscheko and allies.

The discovery of more torture footage ties in to another issue, that of excessive government surveillance, which has been considered worrying for a number of years. On May 24th a conference was held in Tbilisi on secret surveillance, organized by Transparency International Georgia; the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association; and the Innovations and Reforms Centre. These groups are calling upon the Interior Ministry to remove what are called "black box" devices from telecommunication companies. This apparatus provides the security services direct access to communication networks which allows them to survey, unchecked, text messages, phone calls and internet traffic. The concern rebounded when, in May, a compromising video of the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Gela Khvedelidze was leaked and Khvedelidze was subsequently arrested. In January, three high-ranking ministry officials were arrested for the illegal filming of gay sex videos apparently involving high-profile individuals with the intention of using them for blackmail

The routine use of wire tapping to gain information on political opponents has been severely criticized and yet the legislation on the matter remains slack. To install a wire tap requires a court authorization, but this is rarely denied. For example, in 2012, during election season, Georgian courts were asked to consider 5,951 requests for permission to tap phones or trace other forms of communication and only 12 of them were denied. 14,000 wire taps have been approved in the courts of Tbilisi since 2011. Current legislation is a violation of European human rights law. Transparency International Georgia says that, "judges are typically not informed in depth about the subject matter of the investigation and are not told the results of the surveillance." Thomas Hammarberg, the former Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, now serving as the EU's special adviser for legal reforms in Georgia, is unwavering in his criticisms of the current situation. "The principle must be that such recording is criminal [.] To use them for the purpose of blackmailing is criminal. To keep them -- to just have them -- is also criminal. And, of course, to disseminate them, to leak them to others, is also criminal." One of the government's current challenges is to work out how to destroy the colossal archive of recordings drawn from surveillance activities of this sort.

A development that has had observers of the regime concerned about its political direction were the events surrounding May 17's gay rights march timed to coincide with the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. Activists peacefully rallying were dispersed and assaulted by a crowd of thousands of people consisting of clerics and parishioners. Twenty-eight people were injured as a result of the unrest in Tbilisi and taken to Ingorokva hospital. The United States condemned the attacks, with Acting Deputy Spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, Patrick Ventrell, commenting, "Such acts of intolerance have no place in democratic societies." The anti-gay tendencies are led in the public domain by Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II and his cohorts, who sympathize with the Kremlin's view that anything that could be considered gay propaganda cannot be accepted. Whilst acknowledging that some of the clerics involved in the attack on the march were "impolite", this seems like an understatement given that many of them beat and chased activists. Interestingly, as in many regimes, gay rights activist have turned to social media such as Twitter and Facebook 'to rally the troops' against anti-gay sentiment. A Facebook campaign to bring to justice those who took part in the attack on participants in the May 17 anti-homophobia demonstration, is a salient example of this trend. A question to emerge has been to what extent the government sanctioned the activities of the anti-gay mob. It took the Interior Ministry four days to finally arrest four members of the group and Giorgi Gabedava, who became a key organizer of the May 17th anti-gay rally, was one of the men released as part of Ivanishvili's political amnesty; he was in fact one of the 190 "political prisoners" the Georgian Dream founder made a point of freeing. In a positive sign however, on June 17 it was announced that the Georgian government was planning to introduce a law aimed at protecting the rights of religious, sexual, ethnic and other minorities in the country and avoid discrimination. The goal of the draft is 'to provide equality under the law despite the views of different religious, ethnic or other minorities'.

Relations with Russia have certainly become more clement since Bidzina Ivanishvili became Prime Minister. This, however, might have been derailed in the months of May and June. After Georgia reiterated its plans to attempt to receive a North Atlantic Treaty Organization Membership Action Plan by 2014, Russia, in an apparent tit-for-tat measure, began to construct a fence within Georgian territory that borders on breakaway South Ossetia. The fence is ostensibly to protect the region of South Ossetia from the threat of Georgian farmers. "We condemn the 'borderisation' process as it directly undermines security and stability on the ground," Kakhaber Kemoklidze of the Interior Ministry's department of information and analyses stated. According to the Interior Ministry 'borderisation' has directly affected up to 18 families, whose plots of land "partially or completely", and in some cases several houses of locals, appeared beyond the dividing wire fences. Nothing akin to this has occurred in the other controversial breakaway territory of Abkhazia, where the river acts as a natural border, but it was noted that troops were blocking pathways to prevent the "illegal" movement across the border.

The state of food relations has been a barometer of political relations between the two sides and it was noted in the last report that, in a sign of warming relations, imports to Russia of Georgian wine and the mineral water Borjomi had resumed after a long standing embargo on all wine, water, fruit and vegetables. However, after Tbilisi's complaints about the Russian decision to build a fence within the Georgian territory that borders on breakaway South Ossetia, Russian food security tsar, Gennadiy Onishchenko, recently told a news conference that: "They [the Georgians] are destroying grapes by making wine from it. "Grapes are a holy fruit, a fruit from God, worshipped by pagans and Christians alike, and they make alcohol from it!"

At the start of June, Onishchenko claimed that in a deliberate act of premeditated bio-sabotage, an African swine fever epidemic spread to Russia from Georgia. The Russian news agency, Rospotrebnadzor, seized the occasion to take aim at Washington, and its close ties with Tbilisi. "The existence of a US-run military lab that studied hazardous germs in a country adjacent to Russia, raised concerns and was a stumbling stone in the Russian-Georgian cooperation to stave off any sanitary or epidemic threats,"

Some of the developments seen in Georgia in the past two months are very disquieting. Some have wondered if in Georgia we are seeing the resurgence of a Shevardnadze-era corrupt intolerant regime, before the youthful vigour of the Rose Revolution swept away a lot of traditional practices and introduced sweeping reforms. With an apparent tolerance of homophobic practices and a hazy appreciation of political pluralism, there are many who worry that the Georgian Dream is tending towards nightmarish elements. The next months, as the elections loom, will prove crucial in drawing out the rivalries between Saakashvili and Ivanishvili. One can but hope that the climate remain as tolerant and fair as possible.


 

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