Following 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, responded to the questions fielded by the assembly members as well.
Civil.ge offers you those questions as delivered:
Aleksander Pociej (Poland, EPP/CD): “Madam President, I’m a Polish citizen and probably as you know all Polish people are the friends of Georgia. However, many of Georgia’s friends, including the U.S. Congress and European Parliament here, voiced concern over worrying tendencies in Georgia, especially after the so-called “Gavrilov night” in June.
On November 27, Mr. [Bidzina] Ivanishvili, Chairman of Georgian Dream, publicly stated that many more opposition leaders will serve in jail, and immediately, prosecutions against some opposition leaders started. As a president of Georgia, is it not worrying you, those two items?”
Frank Schwabe (Germany, SOC): “Madam President, you mentioned the situation of the LGBTI in your country, and you mentioned the difficult situation. What can you do? You – yourself, political representatives, what can we do to better the situation of those people in your country?…
…We have a very polarized political situation in Georgia and you mentioned and you described it. What is possible, what is your position, and what can you do to minimize such polarization, which is very not helpful to people and not for the democracy in Georgia.”
Martin Poliačik (Slovak Republic, ALDE): “Madam President, I have a very simple question to ask: what do you think about the importance of fighting fake news and disinformation, because in December Facebook deleted hundreds of pages and profiles in Georgia, for as they stated inauthentic coordinated behavior.
According to Facebook official statement, these pages were targeting opposition politicians and civil society organizations. According to Digital Forensics Research Lab of the Atlantic Council, Washington [D.C.], these pages, in addition, are targeting opposition politicians, and spreading anti-European propaganda and messages and might be linked with the government.
What has been done to address this concern?”
Oleksii Goncharenko (Ukraine, EC/DA): “Gamarjoba Kalbatono (Georgian for Hello Madam – editor’s note) President, my question is next: the consequences of [Vladimir] Putin’s aggression against your country – Georgia, my country – Ukraine, are awful. But the Russian Federation continues to violate the statute of the Council of Europe, to ignore the resolutions of this assembly.
What can be done by international community, in general, and the CoE, in particular, during Georgian chairmanship to make Russia fulfill its obligations. Do you support imposing a few sanctions against the Russian Federation, also for occupying your territories?”
Leonid Kalashnikov (Russian Federation, UEL)*: Georgia has always been a hospitable country receiving various international organizations. Now we will be holding (…) the Ministerial Council of the OSCE, earlier there was an Inter-parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO).
I saw the security protecting you. Unfortunately, we do not have such security, even the few parliamentarians. Nevertheless, the President of the IAO was beaten, and you as the host of a hospitable country, not only you did not judge, but, on the contrary, approved the actions of your hooligans.
Don’t you think that your country has become dangerous not only for democratic freedoms, which you have mentioned [in your address]: gays, Jews, other national minorities, women, but now also for the parliaments.
(*Leonid Kalashnikov spoke in Russian – editor’s note)
Marie-Christine Dalloz (France, EPP/CD)*: From August to December the Parliament of Georgia has proceeded with the nomination of 14 Supreme Court judges (out of 20 in total). The selection procedure of the candidates, administered by the High Council of Justice of Georgia, has come under severe criticism. PACE co-rapporteurs had deplored nomination of the persons who do not have sufficient legal knowledge and independence for this important job. What measures Georgia plans to take in order to guarantee the independence of the judicial branch.
(Marie-Christine Dalloz spoke in French – editor’s note)
Titus Corlățean (Romania, SOC): “As rapporteur on Georgia I would like to ask you what are your concrete intentions and envisaged political and constitutional actions to support divisive progress in relations with those commitments assumed 20 years ago by Georgia upon accession, especially in the field of the judiciary, electoral legislation, and the signature and ratification of the European charter for regional minority languages.
I have in mind, for instance, the political crisis generated recently by the changes of what was established after the constitutional reform on the electoral legislation, and as initial decision the proportional system to be used starting with 2024.”
Rafael Huseynov (Azerbaijan, ALDE): “Madam President, Azerbaijan and Georgia are friendly countries that contribute to the implementation of many large energy projects. Due to this exemplary unity of work and ideas, we opened the corridor, and our region as a whole has proven to be a safe, stable and accessible space for investment.
Earlier, during your visit to Azerbaijan, you said that the transport sector is very important for the world, noting that our countries have done significant work to integrate Asia, China and Europe but the opportunities of this shortest route have not yet been fully utilized.
What significant progress can be expected in close perspective?”
John Howell (United Kingdom, EC/DA): “You spoke of Georgia’s involvement in world problems, given your own background, what can you do to help the situation with Iran?”
President Salome Zurabishvili’s responses
The Georgian President responded to the questions consecutively, saying that the developments of the “Gavrilov night” should be divided into two.
“There was [the] first uproar of the Georgian society, very spontaneous one to the fact that Russian parliamentary [delegation] was present in the Georgian parliament and held some speeches that were not acceptable to a country that has 20% of its territory occupied [by Russia],” she said, adding: “I did not, and nobody accepted the fact that somebody should be beaten but somebody should also show some restraint.”
“But the second part that happened after the departure of Mr. [Sergei] Gavrilov from Georgia after the fact that the Chair of the Parliament of Georgia [Irakli Kobakhidze] resigned because there was this incident and he took the responsibility for this incident,” President Zurabishvili said.
(Speaker Kobakhidze announced resignation on June 21 after developments in front of the parliament, when a peaceful demonstration turned into a clash between the demonstrators and police, injuring at least 240 people. However, none of the Russian MPs have been beaten – editor’s note)
According to Zurabishvili, radical opposition leaders were leading attempts “to seize parliament” on the night of June 20, which, she said, endangered the legislative body. “I do not know any European country that would accept that the parliament is seized by force,” she said, noting that “this young democracy has protected itself quite well.”
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Speaking of the LGBT rights in Georgia, President Zurabishvili said “I do not think that we should overstate the issue.” To prove her stance, she mentioned that “there is no central[ized] discrimination, both in my administration, or in any other administration, there are no issues individually.”
The issue that has been set in Georgia that of public demonstrations by some parts of the society are taken as promotion. And I think we have been progressing in ensuring security, and in preventing violence by some different extremist groups,” she said.
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Zurabishvili touched upon the issue of fake news as well, saying that even she, personally is “constantly under the pressures of fake news, distorted information” about what she has said. “Yes, social media are totally full of different accounts, and my personal social media is infested with attacks from ‘bots’ and other forms of attacks as I am sure you all know and have in your countries,” she said.
The Georgian President further noted that here is a choice either “to respect the freedom of expression in social media, or to start restricting.” However, she said, “we are not among the countries that have started to restrict anyway.”
But I’ve been myself as one of the promoters of platform in the presidency to try to tackle the issues of disinformation, of fake news, of hate speech, because all of that goes together and we are entering a phase of parliamentary elections that are coming in October. We have a very strong neighbor that can use and is using […] disinformation or fake news, so we need some form of regulation while respect the freedom of expression, that’s a difficult task,” she said.
In her remarks, President Zurabishvili said that “Russia has not been fulfilling its commitments, as been violating the resolutions, and that is a long story, that we have been experiencing.” She then called on the CoE “to ensure as much as possible the same standards for all the countries.” “Because, we have been respecting all the agreements that have been taken,” she said.
Calling the question of a Russian delegate “very interesting,” President Zurabishvili said that “Georgia is the country that is going to host the parliamentary assembly of the CoE in May, and Georgia is going at this occasion to go over and bypass its own national legislation, which prevents people that have been visiting the occupied territories without our authorization, and without entering through our territory, prevent them form re-entering the territory of Georgia, and that would preclude the main members of the Russian delegation to enter.”
But since we are the country that unlike what has been declared policy by the Russian President lately, we are country that respects its international commitments and all of them – we are going to respect our international commitments and receive the parliamentary assembly as we are dictated by the rules and regulations of the parliamentary assembly and our adherence to the principles of this organization,” the Georgian President said.
She then added that this “is not easily accepted by the population. But it’s something that we will do, because we are faithful to our principles and to our guidelines and to this organization.”
In response to Dalloz’s question, President Zurabishvili brought up a common expression of a half-empty, half-full glass, saying that on the one hand, selection hearings were televised and open to public scrutiny, which added to transparency of the entire process, while, on the other hand, questions were raised about the criteria of selection and competence of certain candidates.
In this case, President Zurabishvili stressed, we should consider the fact that Georgia stems from the Soviet Past, when the judiciary was “completely discredited.” “This cannot change in a matter of a day,” she said. According to Zurabishvili, ODIHR’s recommendations have been taken into account as the selection process had been temporarily halted. The President expressed hope that the quality of selection criteria and all that is “in question” shall be refined by the time selection process resumes.
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Here Zurabishvili drew parallel with the electoral reform in Georgia. She refused to comment about the details because the issue “was partisan” and she had to uphold impartiality as the guarantor of Georgia’s Constitution. However, she noted that there was a lively discussion regarding the amendment in the electoral Code of Georgia which involved parliamentary parties and other stakeholders alike.
She also cited the Constitution that “from 2024, elections shall be carried out through proportional voting.” Zurabishvili expressed confidence that most, if not all of the OSCE/ODIHR recommendations would be implemented until the forthcoming elections.
The President put a special emphasis on the importance of friendly relations with Georgia’s close neighbor, Azerbaijan as well. She highlighted that international transport and energy projects, like TRACECA or new gas pipeline, contribute to the peace and stability in the region. Zurabishvili mentioned developing Anaklia Deep Sea Port, as a means to exploit Georgia’s maritime and commercial capabilities.
The President stressed that recent escalation in the wider region [Iran-U.S. crisis] negatively affected Georgia, as the country was susceptible to regional tensions. She further noted that Georgia, over the course of centuries, had striven to uphold friendly relations with all its neighbors. However, “in recent years due to Russia’s actions Georgia has lost the capacity to maintain dialogue with Russia”, the President concluded.