NGOs Talk with Government ‘Bittersweet’

President Mikheil Saakashvili met with leaders from the Georgian NGO sector on July 6 amid increased concerns over human rights violations in the country, particularly by law enforcement agencies. However, President Saakashvili himself cast doubts in regard to the non-governmental sector, stating that it “is in a crisis.”

Legal expert and leading civil activist Davit Usupashvili, who was at the meeting with the President, says that problems relating to the establishment of democratic institutions, supremacy of law, cases of political pressure exerted by members of the judicial system and human rights abuses by police are all main concerns for the non-governmental sector at the moment.

“The President [Mikheil Saakashvili] said that reforms are being implemented in the law enforcement agencies and these violations, that are occurring right now, will be gradually wiped out. But this answer by the President did not satisfy us,” Davit Usupashvili told Civil Georgia.

One particularly interesting result of the meeting, which aimed at boosting cooperation between the non-governmental sector and the authorities, was the nomination of Sozar Subeliani, a human rights activist and journalist, for the position of Public Defender (Ombudsman), which has remained vacant for the past ten months.

Subeliani, whose candidacy is also supported by the leading Georgian non-governmental organizations, currently leads the human rights Liberty Institute’s “Rule of Law” direction and is also a long-standing journalist with Radio Liberty.

Subeliani says that being an Ombudsman is not an easy task in Georgia. “We really did not expect that after the new government took over power, we would have so many reasons for concern in terms of human rights violations. Today, police do not behave better than before the revolution. In some cases they are even more terrible than before,” Subeliani told Civil Georgia.

“First of all, it is necessary to restore trust towards the ombudsman’s office; this should be achieved through principled positions and adequate reaction to each instance of human rights abuse,” Subeliani said.

However, he added that the situation has improved in other spheres, such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

A few days before the meeting between the President and the NGO leaders, riot police broke up a group of protesters in front of the Tbilisi Municipality who were demanding the authorities make good on a previous promise to provide residents with livable apartments. Several protesters were injured.

At the meeting with the NGO leaders, President Saakashvili condemned this incident by saying that “excessive use of force by the police is inadmissible.”

“We will not permit disorders and the blocking of roads. However, excessive use of force is absolutely inadmissible. I have already given a warning to the Interior Minister [Irakli Okruashvili] to this effect,” Mikheil Saakashvili said.

Subeliani says that the President’s reaction to the break up of a peaceful rally “gives hope that our criticism will not remain unheeded by the authorities.”

President Saakashvili called on the NGO leaders for “transformation, in order to cope with new realities.” He urged the non-governmental organizations to “embrace all of Georgia,” hinting particularly at the Adjara Autonomous Republic, which, unlike the rest of Georgia, has not had the benefit of a third sector during the past decade.

The civil society leaders admitted that non-governmental organizations currently face peculiar difficulties, deriving from the fact that the former opposition, which was a close ally of the third sector before the Rose Revolution, is now the leading power in the country.

“The major problem faced by the non-governmental sector is that they lost Saakashvili as an opposition activist and received him as a President. Until the current opposition becomes stronger, the efficiency of the non-governmental sector’s activities will always be low. But I think this is a matter of time and will be settled soon,” Davit Usupashvili said.

Another large problem that NGOs are struggling to cope with after the Rose Revolution is an outflow of staff into governmental positions. Several cabinet members and many high-ranking officials in the different ministries are former NGO representatives.

“On the one hand, this process [outflow of staff] is favorable, because cooperation with our former colleagues, who are now in the government, is much easier,” Subeliani of Liberty Institute says.

Representatives of the non-governmental organizations say that President Saakashvili is open to cooperation. One particular instance showing this willingness to cooperate was the President’s offer to include the NGO sector in helping to monitor the spending of assistance funds pledged to Georgia by international donors.

“We [authorities] want the entire non-governmental sector to become involved – all of its representatives – to think how the money should be spent, to monitor the spending of these funds, and to ensure full transparency in spending this money,” Mikheil Saakashvili said.


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