Georgia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2003

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Already-tense relations between Georgia and Russia plunged to a new low in 2002 over charges that Georgia was harboring Chechen rebels in its Pankisi Gorge region. After the Russian military conducted several bombing raids on Georgian territory and threatened additional strikes, Tbilisi responded by ordering an anticrime and antiterrorist operation in Pankisi and extraditing several Chechen rebels to Russia. On the domestic front, local elections held in June saw the long-standing dominance of President Eduard Shevardnadze's former power base, the Citizens' Union of Georgia (CUG), lose ground to several rival parties. A final settlement to the protracted conflicts in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained elusive at year's end.

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 cease-fire 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 in May. The following year, he was overthrown by opposition forces and replaced with former Georgian Communist Party head and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Parliamentary elections held the same year 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. Parliamentary elections in November and December 1995 resulted in the Shevardnadze-founded CUG winning the most seats, while a concurrent presidential poll saw Shevardnadze elected with 77 percent of the vote.

The ruling CUG repeated its victory four years later in the October 1999 parliamentary election. Election observers from the 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. His closest challenger, former first secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee and leader of the parliament minority Dzhumber Patiashvili, received only 17 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, the presence of police in polling stations, a lack of transparency in the vote tabulation process, 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 then-Parliament Speaker Zurab Zhvania and then-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 on June 2, 2002, saw mixed results in an increasingly fragmented political landscape. Just weeks before the election, a Tbilisi court had ruled that a pro-Shevardnadze faction, and not one led by Zhvania, could compete under the CUG name. In response, Zhvania launched his own party, the United Democrats, shortly after the local polls. The New Rights Party, whose members had split from the CUG in 2000 and included many of the country's most successful businessmen, won a fourth of all available seats nationwide. In Tbilisi, the Labor Party--whose socialist policies appealed to the elderly and disadvantaged--and the National Movement each received some 25 percent of the vote, while the CUG received less than 4 percent of the vote required to gain seats. International election observers noted some irregularities during the poll, including the stuffing of ballot boxes and a failure to provide up-to-date lists of eligible voters, and the official voter turnout figure of around 45 percent was questioned as being too high.

Georgia's already strained relations with Russia grew increasingly tense during the year as Moscow intensified its pressure on Georgia over Chechen rebels alleged to be hiding in its Pankisi Gorge region bordering Russia. Known as a largely lawless area, the Pankisi Gorge has a reputation as a haven for drug smugglers and criminal gangs responsible for numerous kidnappings, as well as a home to several thousand Chechen refugees. Russian military helicopters repeatedly violated Georgian airspace in May and June. Tensions escalated when Russian planes reportedly bombed the Pankisi Gorge in late July and August, killing one person. While the Georgian Foreign Ministry called the bombings acts of military aggression, the chairman of the Russian Duma's international affairs committee insisted that Russia had the right to conduct "targeted retaliatory operations" against "rebel bases outside its borders." Georgia rejected repeated Russian offers to conduct join crackdowns in Pankisi, fearing that a large number of federal troops would exacerbate tensions with its breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In early August, Georgian authorities apprehended 13 Chechens after they illegally entered the Pankisi Gorge from Russia. However, Georgia refused to extradite them on the grounds that Moscow had not provided evidence that they had committed crimes in Russia.

In an attempt to prevent a Russian armed incursion into Georgia, Tbilisi sent some 1,000 Interior Ministry troops into the Pankisi Gorge in late August to restore law and order and remove any armed separatists in the region. In contrast to Georgian claims a few days later that no rebels had been found, Russia concluded that the operation had been a failure. On September 11, Russian president Vladimir Putin issued an ultimatum that it would order air strikes in the Pankisi Gorge if Tbilisi failed to prevent future cross-border attacks from Chechen separatists. Georgian authorities yielded to Kremlin pressure on October 3 by extraditing to Russia five of the 13 Chechens detained in August. After Russia and Georgia reached an agreement a few days later to prevent Chechen militants from crossing their border, Putin rescinded his ultimatum, but demanded the extradition of the eight remaining Chechens. Although a Georgian court decided in late November to extradite three more Chechens, the Supreme Court at the end of December ordered a reconsideration of the ruling.

In a move that further complicated Tbilisi's relations with Moscow, the United States began sending special forces in April to train and equip the Georgian military in anticrime and antiterrorist operations. Although some senior Russian officials reacted with concern over the increasing U.S. presence in the Caucasus, Washington emphasized that its troops would not participate in combat operations in the Pankisi Gorge or elsewhere in Georgia. Some observers have maintained that Russia's focus on the Pankisi Gorge is part of a broader effort to undermine the authority of Shevardnadze, who has pursued decidedly pro-Western policies, by portraying him as incapable of controlling his country's territory.

Long-standing demands of greater local autonomy continued unresolved throughout the year. A final agreement to the protracted conflict in Abkhazia remains elusive, as leaders in Tbilisi and Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, continued to disagree on key issues, including the territory's final political status. A decade 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. Georgia's military operations in the Pankisi Gorge in 2002 heightened tensions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia; in September, the two territories signed an agreement of mutual military support in the event of Georgian aggression. In the southwestern region of Ajaria, Aslan Abashidze exercises almost complete control over the territory, which has retained considerable autonomy since 1991. In the ethnic Armenian enclave of Javakhetia, residents staged rallies during the year to demand greater autonomy from Tbilisi and to protest the anticipated closure of a Russian military base at Akhalkalaki, which they insist is vital to the local economy.

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 the incumbent, President Eduard Shevardnadze. The 1999 parliamentary vote was deemed to be generally fair, although observers cited numerous irregularities, including the stuffing of ballot boxes 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 governmental control.

While the country's independent press often publishes discerning and critical political analyses, economic difficulties limit the circulation of most newspapers, particularly outside of the capital. Independent newspapers and television stations face harassment by the authorities, and journalists in government-controlled media frequently practice self-censorship. In September, police assaulted the staff and damaged equipment at the Odishi television station in the town of Zugdidi after it had aired a report about violence committed by local law enforcement units.

Although freedom of religion is respected for the country's largely Georgian Orthodox population, members of "nontraditional" religions and foreign missionaries face harassment and intimidation by law enforcement officials and certain Georgian Orthodox Church extremists. According to the 2002 U.S. State Department Report on International Religious Freedom, police have failed to respond to continued attacks by defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest Basili Mkalavishvili against Jehovah's Witnesses and members of other faiths, including Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists. The attacks have included burning religious material, breaking up religious gatherings, and beating parishioners. In October, the Georgian Orthodox Church and the government signed an agreement giving the church a more privileged status than other religions, although it stopped short of naming it the official church of Georgia.

The authorities generally respect freedom of association. However, on July 10, some dozen assailants attacked personnel and destroyed equipment and furniture at a nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Liberty Institute. Some Liberty Institute staffers and local NGO members maintained that the attack, which Human Rights Watch described as "one of the most vicious assaults on human rights defenders" in the former Soviet Union, was ordered by members of the government.

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 inmates suffer from overcrowding and inadequate sanitation, food, and medical care. In early December, Georgian police conducted widespread identity checks throughout the country in which scores of ethnic Chechens, including many officially registered refugees and Georgian citizens, were targeted and detained for several hours or longer.

Ethnic conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as an influx of thousands of refugees from neighboring Chechnya, have led to a serious refugee problem, with repatriation efforts proceeding slowly.

National and local governments often restrict freedom of assembly, particularly concerning supporters of former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. The constitution and Law on Trade Unions allow workers to organize and bargain collectively and prohibit anti-union discrimination. Despite the strong legislative framework, unions face some interference in their activities. According to a report by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the Georgian Trade Union Amalgamation has faced harassment and intimidation, and there have been cases of management warning staff not to organize unions. Miners in western Georgia held a number of strikes throughout the year to demand payment of wage arrears.

Although the government initiated a high-profile anticorruption campaign in 2000, corruption remains endemic throughout all levels of Georgian society. The payment of bribes for university admission or during the examination process is reportedly common. In its 2002 Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranked Georgia 85 out of 102 countries surveyed. The country's economy continued to suffer from problems, including high rates of unemployment, sporadic payment of government pensions, and seasonal energy shortages.

Most women work in low-paying occupations and continue to be underrepresented in parliament and other governmental organs. Social taboos limit the reporting and punishment of rape and spousal abuse, and the trafficking of women abroad for prostitution remains a problem.