Top officials from the ruling “Georgian Dream” party have recently stepped up the campaign of accusations against Georgia’s leading civil society organizations. Civil.ge asked the executives of several of those CSOs, that were directly targeted by the attacks, for their comments.
We spoke to Eka Gigauri, who served as the Executive Director of Transparency International – Georgia, a leading watchdog, since 2010.
Civil.ge: The “Georgian Dream” officials have repeatedly criticized CSOs since their coming to power. Are we seeing a qualitative difference today?
Eka Gigauri: We can say without exaggeration, that attacks on civil society organizations and against our organization in particular has been the mainstay of this government’s rhetoric since its coming to power. Let me remind you, that Bidzina Ivanishvili, the informal ruler of this country, was the first to instill such an approach: he has personally targeted us several times, and so did the leaders of his party throughout these years. This was accompanied by orchestrated discreditation campaigns in social media. There were times, when the attacks intensified, there were also times of relative calm. Now we are seeing the intensification of attacks, which, against the backdrop of anti-Western actions of the government, becomes much harsher, closer in character to what we have seen in Russia and general, from those government that are inclined towards authoritarianism.
- Read Civil.ge report from 2018: Georgian Dream Tries to Steamroll CSOs, Retreats
I would say, this is an admission of their weakness – when they can’t find the arguments against our criticism, have nothing to say that would dissipate the doubts about corrupt dealings that we enumerate in our reports, when they do not want to act on clear violations and have no will to implement the recommendations aimed at better governance – then, of course, their best defense is the offense.
On a human level, it is not easy to deal with such unjustified attacks, but professionally, they make us stronger, gives us assurance that we are on the right path and motivate us to continue fighting for enhancing democracy, for securing better future of our citizens. Their policy objective is to silence us, but they should have seen throughout these years, that this is impossible – more than that, their attacks backfire. By and large, these attacks are an aberration for democracy and only serves to damage the standing of the government.
Rhetoric aside, in what practical ways, if any, has the space for civil society organizations been shrinking?
Against the background of aggressive rhetoric, civic space has been shrinking in several specific directions. For instance, CSO participation fell in several consultative formats, our requests are ignored, the governmental media orchestrates black-PR campaigns.
They are trying to foment negative attitudes towards CSOs in society, which has an impact on our personal security, too. When the attacks on CSOs intensify, we are getting more aggressive messages and comments. I have personally received threats on social media in 2018, and asked law enforcement agencies to investigate, but the request was shelved and, so far, four years down the road, no action has been taken.
Since the ruling party actively engages its hired “experts”, as well as the social media trolls and bots on an industrial scale in its campaign, perhaps it is achieving some results in terms of public opinion. But I doubt that those approximately two thousand people that we are personally assisting every year in various ways, or those communities whose problems we are trying to bring to public attention, could ever be influenced by the discreditation campaigns.
How are you planning to respond to the ruling party’s rhetoric and what, in your opinion, should Georgia’s international partners do?
The best way of reacting to the ruling party attacks is to double down on our work, to be more active and to disclose even more corrupt schemes. That is precisely what we are doing – because one of the objectives of such campaigns is to shift the attention from real problems and to entangle us in a mediatized bickering match. But we should not take this bait, we should get on with our work. There are so many cases, when people who were attacking us, came to us after the change in their political fortunes, and we have defended their interests. So we don’t have a luxury of being guided by our emotions.
We are trusted inside the country and outside of it, and this motivates us greatly. Even the government, which attacks us regularly, does not miss the opportunity to show off by country’s standing in TI’s ratings reports – when it suits their interests. Generally, this abnormally antagonistic environment in the country should change. Healthy criticism should become acceptable for all – but we don’t see this happening from the government’s side yet.
Even more so, attacks on CSOs are not happening in the context of open attacks on our country’s real friends, our Western partners, which is completely unacceptable, it goes beyond all limits. By doing so, the government is repeating the Russian trajectory and damages country’s pro-western orientation, which is the choice of the absolute majority of our people. Gracefully, we always feel that our Western partners continue to stand by the side of the Georgian people.
I think they should redouble their support towards the most active and critical civil society groups, stand beside them so that the effort of so many years does not go to waste, so that the democratic reforms continue, and so that our country stands firmly by the civilized world. Such strong demonstration of support would also help deter negative trends – civil society should see that it has its defenders.