Post-Soviet Georgia struggles to find democracy

An attack this month on a leading human rights group is seen as signaling a clampdown on dissent.

An attack on the most prominent human rights organization here has some observers wondering whether this former Soviet republic is moving any closer to democracy.

A dozen youths stormed into the offices of the Liberty Institute, an NGO funded by the US government and the Soros Foundation, and beat up several staffers earlier this month.

"This is one of the most vicious assaults on human rights defenders we have ever seen in the former Soviet Union," says Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "This attack shows that human rights defenders are at serious risk in Georgia."

Observers here are interpreting the attack last week as a broader signal from forces within the government that it plans to clamp down on dissent. Opposition parties made a strong showing in recent local elections.

Through its exposure of widespread corruption, the Liberty Institute has stoked discontent with the government of President Eduard Shevardnadze. The institute is a also a prime player in promoting an array of Western-style reforms.

"We are now witnessing a fight between entrenched corrupt interests and forces for ... establishing democracy, and the Liberty Institute is a major watchdog for this process," says Archil Gegeshidze, a senior fellow of the independent Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. "This is a life and death struggle, a critical moment for Georgia's future. We either progress or regress."

In response to the July 10 attack, Mr. Shevardnadze said: "Such things do not happen in a normal country." He also asked authorities to investigate. And in a radio broadcast last week he struck a conciliatory note, calling for greater dialogue among political parties. "Dialogue is the only way to avoid confrontation," said Shevardnadze, adding later that "it seems that the society is not ready for normal dialogue yet." His comments came after nine political parties issued a statement after the attack that criticized the government for being at least indirectly responsible for the incident.

The incident dealt the latest blow to a still fragile network of mostly youthful, Western-oriented institutions that is Georgia's embryonic civil society. "You hit the Liberty Institute, you hit all NGOs ... the message is the same for everyone," says Mark Mullen, director of the National Democratic Institute's office in Tbilisi.

By promoting a broad spectrum of reforms – and monitoring government performance, and widespread corruption – NGOs are a critical factor in whether Georgia evolves into a genuinely democratic, pluralistic society. But in recent years there has been mounting evidence of both the government's intolerance of criticism and its reluctance to defend human rights.

Last fall, state security ministry officials, angry after programs were broadcast alleging government corruption, stormed independent TV station Rustavi-2, with which the Liberty Institute has close ties. Only after massive street protests did Shevardnadze jettison several of his closest officials.

The Liberty Institute, which functions something like the American Civil Liberties Union, had been instrumental in pass ing a freedom of information law. But media freedom is under threat from recent government initiatives, institute staffers and other NGOs say. They point to proposed amendments that would recriminalize libel, with penalties running up to five years for injuring the "honor and dignity" of government officials.

The NGOs also point to a push by the government to get more legal control over NGOs and their funding sources, which would allow the government to vet and approve funding from overseas sources. Shevardnadze has publicly promoted this as a way of making sure there are no terrorist links with NGOs. When the minister of finance refused to go along with the plan, he was sacked, although he had been praised by leaders of international financial institutions, which are critical in sustaining the Georgian budget.

Another battleground is religious freedom.

For the past 2-1/2 years, as more than 100 documented attacks were carried out against various religious minorities, the government did nothing to stop the violence and has made no arrests. The attacks – most of them against Jehovah's Witnesses – have been the subject of numerous human rights reports and a May 15 letter of protest to Shevardnadze from 15 US senators.

The Liberty Institute accuses the government of staging the attack on it as an assault by Georgians angry at the institute's defense of religious freedom.

"Religion is just a pretext to attack us.... Of course, the government cannot say this, or appear to be going after us for exposing corruption, so they have manufactured this controversy over religion to beat us with," says the Liberty Institute's Levan Ramishvili, who was among those injured in the assault. "This is very convenient, because most Georgians – almost all of them Orthodox – don't care about these Jehovah's [Witnesses] and don't understand the importance of defending everyone's rights, even those of the Jehovahs."

"Of course I blame government inaction for [the July 10 attack] because recently there have been many attacks ... and nobody has been punished, " says Elene Tevdoradze, head of the Georgian parliament's human rights committee, referring to attacks on religious groups and the Liberty Institute's staff. "I fear that this attack may be the beginning of attacks on the opposition parties."

Giga Bokeria of the Liberty Institute says Western countries must pay attention to human rights issues in Georgia.

"We hope now – not just because of this [most recent] incident but everything else that has happened in the last two years – that the international donor community will have a clearer diagnosis about this regime, that it is not moving in the right direction," he says.

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