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Georgian Dream Tries to Steamroll CSOs, Retreats

The ruling Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (GDDG) officials have launched a coordinated broadside against Georgian civil society groups, having been irked at the statement of Georgian watchdogs  condemning “a severe crisis in the governance system, clear signs of high level corruption and informal, clan rule.”

Pressing an apparently orchestrated message, Parliament Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze and Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani have lashed out at the CSOs, saying their leadership was partisan, their objectives self-serving, and their claim to represent public opinion – unsubstantiated.

Kobakhidze told Rustavi 2 TV’s political talk show Archevani late on 2 October that “these are thirteen men and women, with some of their own politically biased views,” who are far removed from what “real civil society is”.

Speaker said,  “[what we have] in Georgia, is a political union of citizens, called ‘non-governmental sector.’ It is a distinct political union, which, if it were to run in elections, would not even gain 1% of the votes.”

Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani delivered similar messages, saying these CSOs “not only carry out partisan interests, but are indeed political parties” and thus discredit themselves “with their superficial assessments, risible statements, which fail to meet either legal or ethical standards. Therefore, their words are worth nothing.” She added with mock compassion, that “this is indeed a great tragedy of this segment of our civil society, their real problem.”

CSO retort

CSO leaders say rather than try to discredit the watchdogs, the government must focus on the real problems at hand.

Sulkhan Saladze, of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association denies CSOs have partisan affiliations or political ambitions. “If anyone has [personal] political ambitions, relevant political platforms and parties exist,” he underscores.

Mikheil Benidze of the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) also pointed out that by “attacking NGO sector with a coordinated message-box” the GDDG tries to draw [public] attention away from the recent disclosures of corruption.

“Mr. Speaker knows us and our organizations very well, and he is very well aware that we do not have any partisan interests,” Benidze stated yesterday, adding that Kobakhidze is “a very effective demagogue, who tries to mislead the society.”

The CSOs “were not silent during the previous government, and won’t be silenced now” says Eka Gigauri of Transparency International, a corruption and transparency watchdog. She advises the government to regain composure and “do what they are supposed to do by law” when it comes to tackling revelations of corruption and abuse of power by the officials.

International support

Early on October 3, Laura Thornton, Senior Country director of U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI) hailed the Georgian CSOs for their “professionalism, commitment, and knowledge.” In her Facebook post, Thornton stressed that “ISFED, TI, GYLA, IDFI, and others  have served as essential advocates, researchers, and watchdogs, calling out governments – be it Georgian Dream or UNM – when they have made mistakes and praising them for their achievements and reforms.”

Justin McKenzie Smith, British Ambassador to Georgia also fired a warning shot across the bow of the Georgian Dream posting on British Embassy social media accounts: “I think one of Georgia’s greatest strengths is diversity and energy of civil society and it is an important part of Georgia’s modern democracy”. With a round of the traditional Wardrop Dialogue, a strategic get-together of the Georgian and British officials coming up this fall, this is not the message that the government can afford to ignore.

An olive branch?

Tamar Chugoshvili, deputy Speaker from GDDG, who previously led GYLA, did strike a more conciliatory tone yesterday, largely echoing the points made by the UK ambassador.

“There might be issues where we disagree [with CSOs], where we think their claims are incorrect, but my position towards CSOs is the following: I think they are an integral part of country’s democratic development. With their pointed, perhaps at time inaccurate statements, they provide vital input to country’s democratic development”, Chugosvili argued.

It remains to be seen, whether the Deputy Speaker’s position signals lasting deescalation of rhetoric from the Georgian Dream.

 Veterans of Activism

The thirteen CSOs that signed the statement included some relatively young, but influential groups. Although several of the signatories are true veterans of Georgia’s activist and watchdog movement, born as Georgia was exiting from the throes of civil confrontation in mid-1990s.

The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a rights group, and the Open Society Georgia Foundation, part of the network of open society institutes supported by George Soros, were established back in 1994, the Institute for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), an election watchdog in 1995 and the rights defender “Article 42”, in 1997.

These organizations have actively criticized the sitting governments, but also have a track record of deep engagement in legislative reforms and landmark court cases. Most of them, like other CSOs in Georgia, are supported through foreign grants, mostly from the US and Western Europe.

A charge of being partisan and out of touch with public has been habitually leveled against them by most of Georgia’s sitting governments in times of crisis, yet they form an essential element of Georgia’s civic and political life, often working in tandem with the media to expose abuses, but also with international watchdogs to nudge on reforms.

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