Mafia shootouts, harassment of the opposition and media, political prisoners … it’s business as usual in Georgia.
It is nearly two years since the republic of Georgia experienced what became known as a ‘Rose Revolution’. News media around the world heralded this development as the dawn of a new era in which the impoverished former Soviet republic sloughed off a corrupt and moribund regime to embrace young, market-orientated reformers under the leadership of Western-educated Mikhael Saakashvili who was elected the country’s president in January 2004.
A year later, in November 2004, another ‘colour-coded’ revolution took place, this time in Ukraine. Again, the media pointed to Saakashvili and Georgia as the successful model for the latest spontaneous outburst of ‘people power’. The Georgian president was a regular commentator on the stand-off in Kiev offering comradeship and support to his fellow revolutionary, Viktor Yushchenko.
However, as the Ukrainians warmed to their revolutionary theme, back home in Georgia any expectation that life might improve under the post-Shevardnadze regime had long since died. Rampant unemployment, disrupted power supplies and political infighting continued as they had done since the dawn of the country’s independence. On top of this, the judicial system was in disarray and reports of torture in the country’s prisons (whose population had doubled since 2003) were widely accepted – even by government employees.
Representatives of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group conducted two missions to Georgia in 2005. In April 2005, they visited Tbilisi as the city was undergoing frenzied preparations for the forthcoming visit of President Bush on 10th May. Fences and walls were being put up and painted to hide dilapidated buildings along his route and road surfaces along which his entourage would proceed were being re-laid. People could be forgiven for recalling past imperial visits by the likes of Comrade Brezhnev.
BHHRG interviewed media representatives, NGOs, opposition politicians and government appointed officials in Tbilisi’s town hall. They visited the main prison in Tbilisi (No.5) and the detention facility (known as prison No. 7) in the Ministry of the Interior. They also travelled to Gori and met NGO representatives from Tskinvali, South Ossetia. Finally, the Group went to Batumi, capital of Adjara, one year on from the ouster of its former leader, Aslan Abashidze, where they interviewed journalists, law enforcement officials and visited the region’s main prison.
In July 2005, the Group returned to Georgia to investigate the case of Sulkhan Molashvili whose trial opened on 28th July. The proceedings against Molashvili bore all the marks of a political trial and it was widely accepted that he had been tortured while in custody. The Group attended the opening of the proceedings in Tbilisi’s Supreme Court and conducted a long interview with Mr. Molashvili in the prison hospital.
BHHRG has followed events in Georgia closely since the overthrow of the country’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, in 1991. This was the third occasion on which they had visited the country’s penitentiary system. Alarmingly, despite all efforts to improve Georgia’s law enforcement agencies, including membership of the Council of Europe, conditions have deteriorated further with corruption rife within a prison system seemingly, now run by the inmates rather than the authorities.
The New regime: Overview
A street full of decaying buildings in old Tbilisi
Elections were held in March 2004 to Georgia’s 235 seat parliament, but only for the 150 seats contested by proportional representation. Despite claims of fraud in the November 2003 poll, the 85 majoritarian MPs who won mandates then were not obliged to seek re-election. The results of the poll effectively produced a one-party state with Saakashvili’s National Movement-led coalition winning 135 seats. At first it claimed a clean sweep but, probably under US pressure, one other party, the New Conservatives, (also known as New Rights), was allowed to surmount the 7% threshold to enter parliament with 15 seats. Government ministries were filled with new blood, many co-opted from the NGO sector which had flourished in the late Shevardnadze period when it received massive infusions of Western funds. NGO operatives also took over civil service posts after a purging of the old guard. The salaries of many of these functionaries were reputedly paid from a fund set up by philanthropist, George Soros, including that of the Minister of Justice and Education.
As BHHRG has documented the new government immediately set out to settle scores with Shevardnadze era officials. Many former ministers, local administrators and businessmen associated with the former regime were arrested - often live on television - for abuse of office, with people being dragged away in their underclothes. President Saakashvili regularly appeared on television to denounce the suspects, condemning them before any charges were laid. At the same time, some of the more senior officials were allowed to buy their way out of prison by paying large amounts of the money into the state coffers. It was pointed out that this novel form of ‘plea-bargaining’ was lawful. However, as in most jurisdictions, the drafters of the Georgian legislation did not anticipate the handing over of money in exchange for freedom. Despite the obvious impropriety involved in all this, Western commentators lauded the new government for taking bold measures in the fight against corruption.
In July 2004, the president embarked upon a mission to retake South Ossetia, one of the regions which had broken away from Georgia as the Soviet Union collapsed. The manner in which this campaign was conducted and its manifest failure humiliated Saakashvili: several policemen and soldiers were killed in the operation and the Georgians had to retreat empty handed. Television stations were banned from showing the funerals. At the same time, Saakashvili upped the tension with Georgia’s other breakaway province, Abkhazia, again, without any tangible results . Not everyone was happy with the president’s approach to reintegrating the renegade provinces. It was reported that the prime minister Zurab Zhvania supported a more nuanced approach to this and other government policies. Many regarded Zhvania as a moderate influence on the excitable president. In February 2005, Zhvania died in mysterious circumstances allegedly poisoned by the fumes from a faulty gas heater. Most Georgians assume he was murdered even though an investigation carried out by the authorities, and aided by the FBI, supported the official version of accidental death. In the aftermath, opposition to the government has grown both from Zhvania’s associates in parliament and from other parties. Although the New Conservatives are the only opposition party in parliament, both the Republican and Labour parties have started to co-operate to fight future elections.
As the infighting continues, Georgia’s economic plight has failed to improve with the change of regime even though foreign aid and assistance has doubled since November 2003; Georgia is the second largest recipient of US assistance after Israel. $1 billion was pledged at a donors’ conference held in Brussels in 2004 and on 16th August 2005, the US Millennium Challenge Corporation announced a 5-year grant of $295.3m. for infrastructure programmes and to eliminate poverty. The MCC specifically targets “poor countries with proper governance and realistic prospects of economic reform”. On top of this, the IMF approved a three-year, $144 m. loan.
Privatization was going to be the engine of future prosperity. “Everything is for sale” said former Economics Minister, Kakha Bendukidze. But after nearly 15 years of economic collapse, there are few entities attractive to foreign investors and the programme has been deadlocked for some time. By summer 2005, 2 large enterprises and 35 medium to small enterprises have been sold.
Unemployment continues to grow. In the aftermath of the ‘revolution’ 80, 000 people were rendered jobless. Large numbers have been sacked from municipal jobs while a recent educational reform has led to the dismissal of numerous university teachers. The only job creation noted by BHHRG is in the booming construction industry presently underway in Tbilisi where large parts of the historic city are being demolished. In Adjara, all enterprises associated with the former president Aslan Abashidze have been closed and workers sacked, including tile making and boat building factories.
The quality of life for ordinary people has continued to deteriorate. Power supplies are regularly disrupted and demonstrations have taken place all over the country in protest. It seems clear that Georgia probably has plenty of electricity, but, much of it is sold to neighbouring Turkey rather than provided to the locals.
As the morlochs scrambled for a living, Saakashvili listed the regimes success stories, beginning with the opening of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline in May 2005 which is predicted to bring Georgia valuable transit fees. Otherwise, according to one of BHHRG’s Georgian acquaintances, there is little to show for the ‘Rose Revolution’ other than the upgrading of the Georgian army. People wonder, against whom is all this military paraphernalia directed? And, the answer from the government and its tame media is always the same: ‘Russia’. Accusations of plots, sabotage and evil imperialistic designs are regularly directed against Georgia’s former colonial master, even as the Russian army pulls out of the country, well ahead of its original plans for departure. Russia’s obvious complicity in removing Shevardnadze and, after him, Abashidze, is brushed aside.
Another example of Russia’s waning influence is the steady erosion of the Russian language. Russian street signs are being removed and visitors are left grappling with the impenetrable script of the Georgian language to steer themselves around the country. There is even talk of ‘Georgianizing’ the architecture in Tbilisi which has already begun with the construction of several new churches in the Georgian style, including the massive (and many think unnecessary) new cathedral. Older Tsarist buildings are crumbling and are unlikely to be restored. New text books give, according to Russian historians, a completely distorted account of Russia’s 250-year involvement in the Caucasus. Yet, behind the scenes, Russian businessmen manoeuvre, and sometimes succeed in gaining a foothold in the scramble for the few remaining attractive businesses. However, it is proving difficult for Russian companies to get hold of strategic assets in Georgia. In May 2005, the government stopped the privatization of Georgia’s main gas pipeline after Gazprom expressed an interest in its purchase. Instead, the US Millennium Challenge Fund came up with funds to ‘repair’ the facility. Privatizations of the Chiatura Manganese Plant and the Vartsikhe hydroelectric plant to Russian companies, failed.
 “Georgia, The ‘Rose Revolution’ ploughs on” www.oscewatch.org,
 Included in amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure passed in 2004,
 Robert McMahon, “Georgia: U.S. 'Challenge' Aid For Tbilisi Seen As Catalyst For Development” RFE/RL, 29th April, 2005,
 Gennady Abarovich: “Georgian Business Boost”, IWPR, www.b2b.ge, 25th July, 2005,
 M. Akhazashvili, “Georgian Russian gas pipeline not to be sold” Civil Georgia, 11th May, 2005 http://www.civil.ge/eng/.