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Freedom House: Georgia Remains “Partly Free” as Score Declines Slightly

Georgia experienced a two-point decrease in the Freedom in the World score, according to the new report by Freedom House, an international watchdog. In 2020 ranking,  Georgia garnered an aggregate score of 61 points (24 points in political rights and 37 points in civil liberties), which constitutes a modest decrease compared to last year’s result (63 points). As in previous years, Georgia was classified among the “partly free” nations.

Freedom in the World index annually measures the degree of political rights and civil liberties on a scale of 0 to 100 in 195 countries and 15 disputed territories (100 points denoting “absolutely free”). The aggregate score is calculated by adding points in political rights (ranging from zero to 40) and civil liberties (from zero to 60). Notably, the scoring in political rights and civil liberties categories was calculated in the same way, but shown in the reports as a rating on a scale of 1 (highest) to 7 (lowest) before, which makes the 2020 data difficult to compare.

In 2020, out of 210 countries and territories around the globe, 84 were marked as “free”, 67 as “partly free” and 59 as “not free.”

Political Rights

The Freedom House assesses that electoral laws in Georgia are “generally fair,” and the bodies that implement them have typically done so “impartially.” However, the report adds, after the 2018 presidential election, the OSCE monitoring mission highlighted “important gaps” in the electoral legislation. According to the report, the law should provide stronger safeguards against campaign finance violations, abuse of administrative resources, and voter intimidation.

The report mentions mass protests in June 2019, which prompted government to promise holding fully proportional elections in the year of 2020 (instead of 2024). As necessary constitutional amendments failed to pass in November, protests renewed. Subsequently, Georgian Dream mounted general opposition to fully proportional elections, “casting doubt” on whether even the 2024 balloting would be held under the proposed system, the international watchdog notes.

The Freedom House designates Georgia as “a dynamic multiparty system”, where new political parties are able to form and operation “without major obstacles.” Nevertheless, reads the report,“a party of single-party dominance since the 2000s has inhibited the development and stability of competing groups, and conditions appeared to grow worse in 2019.”

The Freedom House highlights the case of Mamuka Khazaradze, founder of the TBC Bank, who was arrested together with his business partner on a money laundering charge. The arrest came two weeks after Khazaradze stated his intention to form a new political party “inspired by the June protests,” and this prompted statements of concern about “politicized prosecutions” from the U.S. embassy and a host of human rights groups.

While discussing domination by forces that employ extrapolitical means, the respected watchdog singles out Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder and incumbent chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, „The ability of elected officials to determine and implement government policy is impaired by the informal role of Ivanishvili, who holds no public office but exerts significant influence over executive and legislative decision-making,” notes the report. It draws attention to the fact that Ivanishvili’s policy influence is also visible in the “generally favorable treatment of his financial and business interests” by state authorities, and in particular the multibillion-dollar Georgian Co-Investment Fund (GCF), which was unveiled in 2013 and is active in large real-estate development projects in Tbilisi.

The Freedom House reckons that various segments of population (including ethnic, religious, gender LGBTI and others) are underrepresented at all levels of government. Although a woman was elected president in 2018, women hold just 21 of 150 seats in Parliament, the report says.

The Freedom House recognizes “significant progress” that Georgia has achieved in combating pretty corruption, but underscores “corruption within the government” as a main problem. With this regard, it mentions ineffective application of anticorruption laws, nepotism and cronyism in government hiring.

Civil Liberties

The international watchdog depicts Georgia’s media landscape as “pluralistic but frequently partisan.” It notes that Georgia’s Public Broadcaster has been accused of “favoring the government in its coverage.” The Freedom House calls attention to the controversial case of opposition-leaning Rustavi 2. As a result of the ECHR judgment on the long-running ownership dispute, control of the station was transferred to Kibar Khalvashi, “a former owner who was more sympathetic to the ruling party,” says the report. It further mentions complains by several independent media outlets about “political pressure in the form of trumped-up charges and selective enforcement of tax laws.”

The report mentions relatively recent announcement by Facebook that it had taken down hundreds of Georgian accounts and pages involved in disinformation and smear campaigns, which were traced to ”the entities to a Georgian advertising agency and the Georgian Dream government.”

With regard to freedom of religion, the watchdog cites that Georgia’s religious minorities have reported “discrimination and hostility, including from Georgian orthodox priests and adherents, and are insufficiently protected by the state.” It mentions a court decision in September 2019, which ruled that the denial of a construction permit for a new mosque in Batumi was “discriminatory,” though it did not instruct the mayor’s office to issue the permit.

The Freedom House reckons that Georgians “generally enjoy freedom of expression, including in their online communications.” However, adds the report, “watchdog groups have expressed concerns in recent years that various security-related laws empower state agencies to conduct surveillance and data collection without adequate independent oversight.”

The report says that “freedom of assembly is often respected, but police sometimes respond to demonstrations with excessive force.” It mentions the peaceful protests in June and November during which the heavy-handed policing left “hundreds injured, including more than 30 journalists, and at least two protestors were permanently blinded in one eye.” The report also notes that in June the government “declined to guarantee protection for a planned LGBT+ pride rally in Tbilisi.”

As for the rule of law, the Freedom House deems that “Despite ongoing judicial reforms, executive and legislative interference in the courts remains a substantial problem, as does a lack of transparency and professionalism surrounding judicial proceedings.” The report notes that Georgian CSOs objected appointment of 14 justices to the Supreme Court in December, while opposition members refused to participate in the vote. International observers from the Council of Europe and other Institutions, the report reads, “criticized the appointments, concluding that the candidates had failed to demonstrate the requisite legal knowledge and impartiality for their lifetime appointments.”

The Freedom House calls attention to the concerns voiced by watchdogs and the Public Defender’s Office about “the physical abuse of detainees during arrest and in police custody, and have noted the lack of an independent system for supervising police conduct and addressing claims of mistreatment.” The new office of the State Inspector, tasked with investigating police abuses, went into operation in November 2019, says the report, but violence and harsh conditions in prisons still “remain a problem.”

The international watchdog mentions ongoing restrictions on travel to and from the occupied Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/ South Ossetia, adding that individuals who approach the dividing lines can face short-term detention.

As for social rights, the Freedom House stresses that “unsafe conditions and inadequate legal protections for workers continue to contribute to a high rate of workplace deaths and injuries, notably in the country’s mines.” The number of workplace deaths reached 59 in 2018 before slipping to 38 in 2019, the report notes.

Georgia’s Russian-Occupied Regions in Freedom House Ranking

Freedom House has also assessed two of Georgia’s regions currently occupied by the Russian Federation. According to the 2020 index, Abkhazia stands as a partly free territory amassing 40 points, which is one point short of last year’s result (or, if broken down, 17 points in political rights and 23 points in civil liberties). Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia was given 10 points (2 points in political rights and 8 points in civil liberties), which corresponds to the “not-free” category.

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