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2019: The Year in Review

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2019 has been a year of political and security tribulations. No tangible progress has been reached on occupied territories as the Georgian government’s initiatives to engage the residents of those areas economically and through social programs have been met by the increasingly recalcitrant policies of exclusion from the collaborationist governments of Tskhinvali and Sokhumi.

At home, the ruling Georgian Dream has been shedding both popular support and MPs, with its policies aimed at preserving power beyond 2020 rather than achieving any tangible progress. The concerns intensified as by the end of the year, Facebook announced its decision to remove several hundred pages and accounts linked with Georgian Dream, for running “coordinated inauthentic campaign” against the opposition, but also against Georgia’s western partners.

Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue reclaimed – in many ways regrettably for this publication – its function of the center of Georgia’s direct democracy and of a struggle for power.

Heavy handed response to protests has put Tbilisi on a collision course with its partners in the US and the European Union. There have been increasing concerns among civil society and international observers, about the government’s moves to play offense with free media, staff the supreme court bench with loyal judges, ans stifle protests through police actions.

And as we wish you all the best in 2020, we are bracing for a tense year. As always, Civil.ge team will try to bring you the important news, the relevant nuance and will put the developments in their proper historical and political context.

Now let’s focus on the most important events of 2020 selected by our editorial team:

  1. Chorchana-Tsnelisi Crisis

The Georgian government constructed a police checkpoint at the edge of the occupation line, on Tbilisi-controlled territory, between the villages of Chorchana of Khashuri Municipality and occupied Tsnelisi in late August. In a tit-for-tat move Tskhinvali announced on September 5 that “border service” crew has started works to “mark the border” in the disputed Chorchana-Tsnelisi area, by placing “border signs” and their flag on Tbilisi-controlled territory west of Tsnelisi village on height 944.8m.

Representatives of Tbilisi, Moscow and Tskhinvali continue discussing the issue of disputed posts during technical meetings, but the meetings so far prove unsuccessful. In the meantime, Tskhinvali’s Anatoly Bibilov has named the checkpoint crisis as one of the reasons for hardening his stance towards ethnic Georgian residents of Akhalgori district.

2. Closures of Crossing Points with Tskhinvali

The security service of the Moscow-backed authorities of Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia announced on September 3 that all the crossing points connecting the region to the rest of the Georgia will be closed in relation to the upcoming celebrations of the “Day of Knowledge.”

Later on September 9, the “security committee” occupied Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia announced that two crossing points – Odzisi/Mosabruni and Sinaguri – connecting the region with the rest of Georgia will be closed temporarily, citing tensions coming from Tbilisi.

The crossing points remain closed to this day, aggravating humanitarian situation in the region, in particular in Akhalgori district, that is home to approximately 2,500 ethnic Georgians, who make up 55.5% of the district’s population.

3. Doctor Gaprindashvilis Case

Tbilisi-based doctor Vazha Gaprindashvili who has been sentenced for one year and nine months for “illegally crossing the border” in Russia-occupied Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia on December 20, was released on December 28. Gaprindashvili was detained by Russia-backed Tskhinvali region’s “state security committee” near the occupation line with Akhalgori Municipality on November 9. Gaprindashvili said he was detained as he tried to pass into occupied region to visit his patient. He also said after the release that he denied charges in Tskhinvali, telling so called Russian border guards as well as occupied region’s authorities that he has not left the territory of Georgia and that he was at the moment on Russian occupied Georgian soil.

4. June 20 Events

Thousands have gathered  in front of the parliament of Georgia on June 20, condemning the Russian delegation’s presence at the session of the Inter-parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO) in the parliament’s plenary chamber earlier that day. Tensions mounted as protesters try to push through the police cordon at the Parliament.  Part of the protesters broke through the first cordon of the police, but were pushed back by the riot police. Over 200 people, including 80 police officers have been injured, as police dispersed protesters through massive use of tear gas and rubber bullets. Police said it detained over 300 people overnight.

Speaker Kobakhidze resigned following the protests. Archil Talakvadze was elected as the new chairman of the Parliament on June 25.

5. Giorgi Gakharia Tapped as New PM

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party has nominated Giorgi Gakharia, who served as the Interior Minister since 2017, to become Georgia’s new Prime Minister in early September. The Parliament of Georgia confirmed Gakharia as the new Prime Minister on September 8.

Giorgi Gakharia has become a highly polarizing figure in Georgian politics since summer, as civic activists and the opposition hold him responsible for the police crackdown on Tbilisi protests on June 20-21 in front of the Parliament building. Our publication has argued, that his promotion to PM’s seat was a harbinger for hardliner policies in the run-up to 2020.

6. Voting Down the Promised Electoral Law

Our fears were confirmed as the ruling party backtracked on its key promise to Tbilisi Protests of June 2019 on transition to fully proportional electoral system.  With 101 votes in favor, 3 against and 37 abstentions, the Georgian Parliament voted down the constitutional amendment envisaging transition to fully proportional electoral system from 2020. The amendment needed three fourths (113 of 150) of sitting lawmakers’ votes to pass the first hearing.

Georgian opposition and civic activists took to the streets to protest the downvoting of the amendment. Georgia’s international partners strongly criticized the Georgian Dream’s failure to fulfill the promise.

7. Georgian, Russian FMs’ First Meeting in a Decade

On September 26, Georgian and Russian Foreign Ministers, Davit Zalkaliani and Sergey Lavrov, respectively, held the first meeting since the two countries cut diplomatic ties following the Russo-Georgia war in 2008. The Swiss-mediated meeting was held on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. Georgia’s international partners, including the EU and the U.S. welcomed the meeting.

8. Rustavi 2 Case and Launching of Mtavari TV

In its judgement of July 18, the seven-member Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) declared there has been no breach in fair trial guarantees in Rustavi 2 ownership dispute. The Court also ruled “to discontinue” suspension of the enforcement of the Supreme Court’s decision of March 2017, which granted the ownership rights of Rustavi 2 TV, to its former co-owner Kibar Khalvashi. Khalvashi has been registered as the new owner of Rustavi 2 TV.

Decision of late August by new Director General of the TV, Paata Salia to dismiss the head of TV’s News Department Nodar Meladze, news producer Giorgi Laperashvili, hosts of political talk shows Eka Kvesitadze and Giorgi Gabunia as well as Nanuka Zhorzholiani, the host of entertaining program, resulted in the team of “Kurieri”, the main news program of Rustavi 2 TV, quitting the channel in protest.

On September 9, television “Mtavari Arkhi” (Main Channel), was founded by Nika Gvaramia, former director general of Rustavi 2 TV, and went on the air with a news program “Mtavari at 9.” While Rustavi 2 has maintained a cautiously critical editorial policy, Mtavari Arkhi strongly supports the opposition and another new channel, Formula TV has joined the critical media channels, the polls show that neither has managed to acquire the viewership numbers of erstwhile Rustavi 2 yet. In the meantime, concerns about the government’s efforts to stifle TV media remain, as several independent TV channels were sanctioned – critics say, selectively – for outstanding debts.

9. TBC Bank Case and Launching Lelo for Georgia Party

The Prosecutor’s Office announced on January 9 that TBC Bank, the leading Georgian banking company, would face criminal investigation over money-laundering allegations involving a USD 17 million transaction that took place in 2008.

Tbilisi City Court ruled in July that the founder and former Board Chair of the TBC Bank, Mamuka Khazaradze and his Deputy Badri Japaridze are to post a GEL 700,000 bail each after being charged in a money laundering lawsuit. Khazaradze and Japaridze also won’t be able to leave the country without the prosecutor’s permission. Khazaradze and Japaridze deny charges, speak of political persecution.

On September 12, Khazaradze held a presentation of a new public movement “Lelo” that later was transformed into “Lelo for Georgia” party in late December. The latter was established as a political union together with former Parliament Speaker Davit Usupashvili’s Development Movement and the New Rights party.

10. Tensions alongside Azerbaijani border/ Davit Gareji Monastery Issue

The issue of Davit Gareji medieval monastery complex, located about 70 kilometers southeast of Tbilisi, that has been one of the major stumbling blocks in the Georgian-Azerbaijani border talks, resurfaced again in 2019. On April 21, Azerbaijani border guards closed access to the parts of David Gareji Monastery located on the south-eastern slope of the mountain range.

Several hundred Georgian civic activists and local residents gathered in the premises of Monastery on May 5 to protest against developments surrounding the medieval Orthodox monastic complex sitting on the border with Azerbaijan.

On December 9, two months after Georgian and Azerbaijani leaders reached an agreement, according to which the churches of David Gareji Monastery Complex located on the disputed section of the Georgian-Azerbaijani state border would reopen for Georgian clergy, the Georgian Orthodox Church expressed regret that the issue of Udabno and Chichkhituri churches “remains unresolved.”

11.Impromptu Tbilisi Pride

In early July, activists held impromptu Tbilisi Pride Parade, that was postponed number of times. Organizers said around 40 activists and supporters of non-governmental organization Tbilisi Pride gathered outside the Interior Ministry on July 8, demanding Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s resignation and holding a small scale march in front of the Ministry.

12. Lifetime Appointment of Supreme Court Judges

On December 12, the plenary session of the Parliament of Georgia has confirmed 14 judges out of 20 candidates for the lifetime tenure at the Supreme Court. The judges were supported by the parliamentary majority as the opposition parties, including the United National Movement (UNM), European Georgia and former ruling party lawmakers, refused to participate in voting.

A lengthy process of judicial selection, which started in May 2019, aimed at increasing number of the Supreme Court judges from eight to 28.

Interviews with the candidates at the Parliament’s Legal Issues Committee was strongly criticized by opposition, civil society organizations and non-judge members of the High Council of Justice. December 12 voting was also held amid protest.

13. Presidential Pardons Scandal

In August 2019, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili pardoned several inmates charged for grave offenses that triggered strong outcry from the ruling party, opposition and society. Responding to criticism, President Zurabishvili self-imposed “moratorium” on pardons on September 18. Later on September 20, the Prosecutor’s Office launched investigation into alleged abuse of power over the August presidential pardon of convicts.

On November 26, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili signed a decree on approving the new rule of inmate pardoning developed through the consultations with the Georgian Parliament and the Justice Ministry.

14. Strikes, Social Discontent and Labor Rights

Hundreds of social workers launched a collective dispute against the Social Service Agency on February 8, 2019. The process of mediation, which lasted for a month-and-a-half, yielded no results prompting a nationwide strike of the social workers. They went on strike on March 25, but after a few days, on April 2, they went back to work, citing their “responsibility to the beneficiaries.”

About 2,500 miners in the western Georgian town of Chiatura have been on a strike for a few days in May, demanding pay rise and better working conditions from their employer – the Georgian Manganese Company.

25 miners launched a strike in the Mindeli and Dzidziguri coal mines in Tkibuli on September 24, demanding September wages. They were refusing to get out of mines until their demands were met. Miners ceased to strike after Georgian Economy Minister Natia Turnava arrived in Tkibuli upon the Prime Minister’s instruction. Turnava said after the meeting with miners that the negotiations yielded “positive results.”

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)

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