In her 47-minute address to the winter session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on January 28, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili said that “for centuries Georgia was the eastern frontier for Europe, bridging east and west, Asia and Europe.”
“For centuries Georgia has shared and defended the very same values of freedom, tolerance that we have put as the guidelines of our organization,” the Georgian President said, adding that “Georgia succeeded to turn itself from a post-soviet state into an emerging ever stronger and vibrant – sometimes some would say too vibrant – democracy.”
Georgia “has turned into a modern European state with stronger institutions, free economy, sustained economic growth, developing social and healthcare systems, all in an environment of stability. This is a country that managed to pave its way towards its ultimate aim – the European Union and NATO, despite conflicts frozen and open war, occupied territories, threats and attempts to destabilization,” Zurabishvili stated.
In her address to the PACE, the Georgian President spoke of a wide range of issues, including the Russian occupation of Georgian territories, human rights, upcoming parliamentary elections and other current issues.
Zurabishvili said that twelve years since the Russia-Georgia war, the human rights situation in the occupied territories “is deteriorating constantly.” “The administrative boundary line (ABL) is being shifted continuously and crossing points closed for mundane reasons obstructing freedom of movement for the population living in Abkhazeti and Tskhinvali Region,” President Zurabishvili stated.
According to Zurabishvili, Georgian citizens on the ground “suffer human rights deprivation, lack of adequate health services, prohibition of education in native Georgian language as well as restrictions to teachings in Abkhazian or Ossetian languages through the policy of Russification.” Georgian leader also spoke of “intensified ethnically-targeted violations” against “what is now a very small Georgian minority in the enclave of Gali” in Russian-occupied Abkhazia.
“Citizens living on our side of the ABL [administrative boundary line] in villages that have been partitioned, are kidnapped, ransomed, in some cases tortured or even killed for not having respected a border that has no legal existence and that from one day to the other suddenly appears in their backyard or goes through the village and its traditional graveyards,” Zurabishvili said, highlighting hardships that the citizens face as they live near the line of Russian occupation in Georgia.
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However, she noted that Georgia remains committed to its peace policy, supporting “fostering confidence building among divided communities to the benefit of all people.”
The Georgian President again suggested that the existing negotiation formats, including the Geneva International Discussions (GID), and its Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism meetings (IPRM) “are marked with constant walk-outs, as soon as important issues are raised.”
“The GIDs are politically stalled. The IPRMs are rarely successful in solving technical issues,” she said, adding that “no progress or perspective seems to be expected from the existing formats,” and that “they have to be reinvigorated, to receive a new political input in order to become a format for solving the conflict, not merely managing it.”
Georgian President @Zourabichvili_S tells the @CoE Assembly of her goal of "equal opportunities and equal treatment, at every level, in every part of Georgia". Watch live: https://t.co/3IhvfMJ3xf pic.twitter.com/SBDhDGfr47
— PACE (@PACE_News) January 28, 2020
Zurabishvili called on all the partners “to restore the Georgian issue in all their bilateral or multilateral talks with Russia,” and to remind it of its commitments under the ceasefire agreement, “in particular deescalation on the ABL,” allowing the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) “to monitor the whole region as the first step for deoccupation and reunification of territories, but moreover of the people.”
“Beyond the tragedy that the boundary line of the occupied territories represents and a moving division line that places Russian forces at some 30 kilometers from our capital city, or the multiplication of military bases on both occupied territories, the main issue is that ordinary citizens deserve a better free life,” she stated.
Speaking of human rights, she referred to Georgia’s steps towards defining and prohibiting sexual harassment, recently adopted Code on the Rights of the Child, newly adopted law on occupational safety, and underlined significance of the Law on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination, that envisages protecting minority groups from discrimination. In this context, president Zurabishvili hailed Georgia’s place of “traditional tolerance and coexistence.”
Zurabishvili also spoke of ethnic minorities, saying “these minorities enjoy full rights to their language, culture and traditions to such an extent that a majority of the national minorities living in the regions of Samtskhe-Javakheti [with ethnic Armenians] and Kvemo Kartli [with ethnic Azerbaijanis] do not speak the state language, an obstacle to promotion and integration.”
The Georgian President also noted that “one sensitive issue that remains in our society concerns the rights of sexual minorities to promote their rights in the public space.” She said that “both maybe the religious traditions, but maybe also the weight of soviet puritanism explain the adverse reactions to public demonstrations of the LGBT community, such as the pride.” She stressed that “the authorities have been taking necessary measures to protect these rights and that of freedom of expression while preventing conflicts between different social groups.”
Parliamentary polls and other issues
In her remarks, President Zurabishvili spoke of the upcoming parliamentary elections in Georgia as well, saying that “the path of democracy goes through free and fair elections.”
“But we should not forget that the biggest challenge to holding free and fair elections and to democracy in general is the progressive and extensive polarization in the political life, which in the end affects all aspects of the society as cancer invades all healthy cells of the body,” President Zurabishvili said.
She further added that “nonacceptance of different opinions, aggression and hate speech divide our societies, antagonize individuals, fuel distrust and division,” and that “coupled with fake news and disinformation, polarization becomes a fertile ground for outside influence during election campaigns and beyond.”
According to her, freedom of speech and expression is “fully enforced” by the state constitution, “all media outlets enjoy full freedom,” while “social media where free expression does not go necessarily hand in hand with responsibility and is often accentuated by anonymity, is adding to the existing tensions of an already polarized society.”
Zurabishvili also touched upon the recent appointment of Supreme Court judges, saying that “following the Venice Commission recommendation, the Parliament refrained from appointing all 20 judges” and appointed only 14 (2 current sitting judges and 12 new judges), “leaving for the next Parliament to complete the task.”