BHHRG

About BHHRG

The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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Georgia post rose revolution government: mixed revues
HITS: 2460 | 21-12-2005, 23:20 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
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The new presidential palace in Tbilisi now under construction

“For the first time in our history, our police have discovered you don’t have to torture people to keep crime in check” [Mikheil Saakashvili, Knight Ridder Newspapers, 9th March, 2005].

Police reform: This is hailed as one of Saakashvili’s success stories. The president’s admirers point to the abolition of the traffic cops and their replacement by a new patrol police as one of his major achievements since coming to office. Since then, it is claimed, the practice of regularly stopping motorists for bribes has ceased and the force is able to do more useful work. The police are properly paid (400-500 lari per month), new Volkswagen Passats have been donated and officers wear smart, American-style uniforms. In the process “16,000 good for nothing, corrupt policemen were fired”, according to former Minister of the Interior, Irakli Okruashvili.[1] Only 15% of former police officers remained in the force. This meant that if only some of these men had families, at least 34,000 people were deprived of a bread winner - something that obviously left Mr. Okruashvili and his associates untroubled.

Only regular visitors know that Georgia is a country sorely in need of traffic control. There are no pedestrian crossings and few traffic lights in the capital Tbilisi. Crossing the road is a major, life-threatening decision. Meanwhile, on the few main cross country highways, there is a permanent free-for-all as buses Mercedes and lorries vie for control, often overtaking, three at a time, on the brow of a hill. Soon after the sackings, in August 2004, even an enthusiastic American reporter had to admit that “Georgia ..needs traffic cops”.[2] The new patrol police does nothing to control this traffic or help pedestrians negotiate the maelstrom. BHHRG regularly passed new police Volkswagens, parked by the side of the road, inside which sat several officers reading newspapers.

As for taking bribes, by 2001 BHHRG noted that it had ceased. In 1996, it was impossible to go for more than a few hundred yards before being stopped by the police whistle. Shevardnadze brought this formerly ubiquitous practice to an end, no doubt, as his regime came under repeated criticism from Washington. Therefore, it is untrue for the new government in Georgia to claim credit for stopping it. On the subject of bribes, BHHRG was told that aspiring police officers still paid handsomely for a place in the force.

Even the US Department of State is sceptical about the efficacy of the new force. “Despite much progress in the Georgian Government’s efforts to reform police and fight internal corruption, the police remain generally ineffective in deterring criminal activity or conducting effective post-incident investigations”.[3] Others, like the Human Rights Information and Documentation Center have criticized the new recruits lack of professionalism - they only receive a fortnight’s training which might explain their reluctance to do anything but drive around in their shiny new cars.

Corruption drive

“I can now say with a clear conscience that Georgia has the cleanest government in the former Soviet Union” [(Saakashvili – Knight Ridder Newspapers, 9th March, 2005)

A professional, non-party civil service still seems an unattainable goal in most former Soviet republics despite over 12 years of Western guidance and funding to achieve a functioning civil society; a change of regime usually heralds a change of personnel in all departments of state as well as local administrations. No doubt, in a poverty-stricken society like Georgia, patronage is easily secured. So, when Saakashvili became president and his party took over the reins of government personnel changes took place both in Tbilisi and around the country. Regional governors who are personally appointed by the president were replaced ( no criticism from the West, unlike Russia, where Putin has been lambasted for a much less direct system of appointing officials).

Those dismissed were often replaced by former NGO activists, several of whom became government ministers – for example, Gigi Bokaria who founded the Liberty Institute and Alexander (Khaka) Lomaia, Minister of Education were both associates of George Soros. Large amounts of Western funding had enabled the NGO sector in Georgia to mushroom in the three years leading up to Shevardnadze’s overthrow and now it was payback time. BHHRG’s representatives visited the Ministry of Culture in July 2005 where many new employees were former NGO activists. The public defender, Sozar Subari, was also a member of the, the Liberty Institute, the former mayor of Tbilisi, Zurab Chiaberashvili was director of the Fair Elections NGO. His replacement Gigi Ugulava was a member of the Association for Legal Public Education (ALPE). By 2005, all local government posts in Georgia’s second city, Kutaisi, had been taken over by former civil society activists. Locals were reported to be “disappointed”.[4]

Immediately, the president set about punishing members of the old guard in what was called “a robust publicity campaign of symbolic aggression and bullying”. Using the mantra of the ‘fight against corruption’ opponents were smeared as “counter-revolutionaries”. No doubt, the lucky ones got away with a dismissal notice - if without a pay cheque. The more unfortunate victims were arrested and thrown into prison. On many occasions, Saakashvili himself berated the accused on television compromising, at the very least, their chances of a fair trial – his favourite media outlet being the TV station Rustavi 2 which formerly supported the opposition but had now become a regime mouthpiece.

Such public denunciations have continued. On 11th April 2005, the president promised to “break the noses” of the mafia alleged to control Georgian football.[5] And, on 28th June, 2005 “special unit officers wearing black masks launched their operation” to arrest the chief of the Tbilisi tax department, Temur Dvali and associates, “and, as usual, television reporters were there to show the arrests”.[6] However, it seems that not all members of Mr. Saakashvili’s team are singing from the same song sheet, so to speak. On 3rd August 2005, Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili criticized the press for naming several Georgians arrested in Dubai on suspicion of robbery, saying: “It is not ethical to report the names of people who have not even been charged yet. I would have sued you if I was their [arrested citizens’] relative”.[7]

On 13th March, 2005, Rustavi 2 filmed a live session of the Georgian Security Council meeting to discuss yet more allegations of smuggling in the region around South Ossetia. According to the report: [Saakashvili] “publicly scolds his acolytes for ignoring their political responsibilities. Mikheil Kareli, in particular. Their heads lowered, the accused try to avoid his gaze”. The writer of this article is obviously discomforted by this reminder of the way a former Georgian politician treated his underlings, observing that “this media coup, taking place on a background of personal debasement, does not really fit in with the political traditions of the western democracies that he is aiming to emulate”.[8]

A law was passed soon after the ‘rose revolutionaries’ came to power enabling the authorities to confiscate the property and assets of criminal suspects, before trial. Between January and November 2004 $309 m. including bank accounts, houses, flats and personal belongings was confiscated. No one knows what has happened to this money. However, the president has , unilaterally, decided how to spend some of the bounty, promising students of the law faculty at Tbilisi Sate University that “money from former high ranking officials accused of corruption would be used to pay 10 students to study abroad”.[9] The IMF implicitly condoned the process by congratulating Georgia for its “impressive turnaround in the fiscal position that was underpinned by a decisive attack on corruption”[10]

But, allegations of corruption are now being turned on the new government. For example, the state budget provides the president with a legal fund over which there is no control. In 2004, expenditure from this fund was three times more than originally envisaged. The Georgian Young Lawyers Association criticized the government for irresponsible spending from the presidential fund and government reserve funds. On 25th July, 2005, The Georgian Times claimed that Saakashvili himself had initiated corrupt land deals when he was mayor of Tbilisi. The article also alleged that the president-to-be took a bribe of $150,000.[11]

The Military: No visitor can fail to notice the militarization of Georgia since Saakashvili came to power. Giant posters of soldiers straddle the main highways and troops in US-style combat gear are a regular sight on the streets of Tbilisi. Georgian forces participated in NATO’s Train and Equip programme under Shevardnadze and have served in Kosovo as part of the KFOR peacekeeping mission. The first contingent of Georgian troops to go to Iraq was authorised by the former president. The number has doubled in the past year. However, in the past, rumours abounded of a persistent lack of professionalism in the training process with recruits pocketing their daily allowances before disappearing into the night.

Georgia receives a staggering amount of military support from the United States. In 1997, it was awarded its first foreign military financing (FMF) grant of $700,000. The next year, Washington granted $5.3 million in military aid—a sevenfold increase. Since then, Georgia has received a total of $107.7 million in FMF grants and the Bush administration requested an additional $12 million for Tbilisi in the 2006 budget.

Georgia has bought weapons and military hardware from the United States for some time —a total of $21.9 million between 1999 and 2003. Additionally, it has been a recipient of the State Department’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds since 1994. In 2003, the funding increased another 33% to $1.2 million—similar amounts were granted in 2004 and 2005. President Bush has requested another $1.2 million in 2006, an almost 2,000 % increase in IMET aid to Georgia over the past decade.

Under Saakashvili military costs have escalated. In July 2005, the Minister of Defence, Irakli Okruashvili admitted that “Georgia has the highest budget across the South Caucasus this year; it is equal to the entire state budget under Eduard Shevardnadze”.[12] Defence spending in Georgia increased from 79 m. lari in 2004 to 324 lari (2005).The US has spent $63 m. in a 14-month programme to train the 23rd light infantry battalion for service in Iraq as well as the fight against “terrorism”. 70 US instructors are work at the Krtsanisi base: “We want to prepare Georgians to be well trained in western style military operations” they say.[13] Difficulties with language are brushed aside “We teach them English and they teach us Georgian. I can speak enough Georgian to be able to communicate with soldiers” pretends the US officer.[14]

But, is all this “training” for Iraq and the “fight against terrorism” ? According to one US soldier, it is hard to say how much weaponry Georgia has received “because its so much”. And why should “crate after crate of Kalshanikov assault rifles”[15] be necessary for an army, allegedly, updating its weaponry to accord with NATO’s requirements? It also transpires that “most deals are signed with new NATO member states desperate to sell of their old Soviet small weapons”.[16] Suspicions arise that such caches of Soviet-era armaments, including the Kalashnikovs, end up in the hands of terrorist groups fighting the Russian state in the North Caucasus.

There is criticism in Georgia of the lack of transparency in defence spending. The former defence minister, Giorgi Baramidze, admitted that the Georgian authorities had been using money not specified in the state budget for military purposes. His successor, Irakli Okruashvili has said that some expenditure should not be open to public scrutiny as it could compromise state security. Okruashvili has been accused of “spending without any advance planning or conducting any feasibility studies” on offensive weapons purchases. “There is no acquisition or procurement process”.[17]

During the same period the social sector received less money. Unemployment continues unchecked and spending programmes to combat it have been reduced from 2.4 m. lari in 2004 to 1.7 m. lari (2005).[18] Back payments of wages estimated to be in the region of 100 m. lari ($55,5 m.) has been suspended until 2006.

Education reform: Sweeping reforms to the educational system in Georgia began in 2005 aiming at “breaking with Soviet tradition”. So, for example, time spent studying core subjects like science and maths will be reduced. Although the entire system is to be revamped, the initial stages were devoted to stopping corruption in the entrance procedures to both state and private universities. The main thrust of the reforms was the introduction of standard tests to enter institutions of higher education using exams based on US SATS testing procedures. These exams involve answering simple, multiple choice questions which test a student’s basic grasp of language and reasoning skills.

At the same time, the number of students has been reduced and faculties at Tbilisi State University (TSU) have been cut from 22 to 6; 600 members of staff have been sacked. BHHRG was told that people were dismissed without any warning – a notice was posted with what turned out to be the last pay cheque. Some students were also sent home without finishing their courses. To ensure an untroubled passage of these changes, the rector of TSU was dismissed and replaced by government loyalist, Rusudan Lortkipanidze. Meanwhile, the university’s autonomy was remove and over all control handed to the Minister of Education, Alexander Lomaia.

In August 2005, the results of the first tests were announced and hailed to be a great success. Parents who were quoted as being happy that cheating in the examination halls had been prevented by closer supervision nevertheless remained uneasy about the transparency of the marking procedures. The whole process was organized and overseen by the US NGO, Transparency International, and, no doubt, a private company in the US will have profited from preparing and printing the examination papers. Those sacked from their jobs will watch, ruefully, as new people are hired to staff approximately “100 so-called resource centers, designed to oversee reform implementation”.[19]

However, even if cheating is abolished, the underlying problem with US-inspired educational reform is the lowering of standards implicit in the system. Although Soviet teaching methods were hidebound and failed to encourage independent thought, they did give a grounding in basic subjects like mathematics, science and languages. Now ,the number of subjects studied has been reduced and the emphasis is to be on ‘life skills’. In other words, education in Georgia is being ‘dumbed down’.

Reuniting the nation: This is one area where Saakashvili’s rhetoric has, so far, proved particularly hollow. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain resolutely opposed to rejoining the ‘motherland’. In July, an Abkhaz resident told BHHRG that no one in the province wanted to be reunited with Georgia and the same applies in South Ossetia. People have not spoken Georgian in both regions for nearly fifteen years, adding to the difficulties of reintegration. A botched military operation in summer, 2004 led to the deaths of both police and soldiers in the region. This is not to say that a further attempt won’t be made, but even the president’s Western friends have underscored the need for a ‘peaceful’ resolution to the stand off. As this report is written, negotiations continue between the parties and their international interlocutors.

The South Ossetian question is complicated by allegations that the region is a major transiting point for smuggling between Russia and Georgia. The hub of this activity is the province of Shiva Kartli and its capital Gori. There have been numerous shoot outs and arrests there and the present Minister of Defence, Irakli Okruashvili, is widely thought to be involved in the smuggling business.[20] In fact, some people suspect that the closed borders suit the serious smugglers.

In order to stop the smuggling and the illicit trade – anything from cigarettes to cooking oil – the Georgian government closed the Ergneti market, a sprawling conglomeration of stalls and lorries used by traders from both Tskinvali and neighbouring Georgian villages; it was reopened in August 2005. BHHRG visited the Ergneti site in April which, then, was a deserted, windswept place. Locals said that closing the market hadn’t stopped the smuggling which went on via various clandestine routes but it had damaged the local economy “they have taken the simple people’s business” – fragile at best – and also abolished a place where the two communities could meet.

Saakashvili is always hinting that the revamped Georgian army will retake South Ossetia, sooner rather than later. But, with Russian, passports, the inhabitants are likely to flee if Tbilisi regained full control of the province.

Adjara: In April 2005 BHHRG visited Batumi, capital of the autonomous republic of Adjara. The removal of its former president, Aslan Abashidze, in May 2004 was hailed universally as a ‘good thing’. The Human Rights Information and Documentation Center’s report on human rights after the rose revolution writes that the residents of Adjara “have been given the opportunity to enjoy democratic principles and general freedoms which they lacked” under Abashidze’s regime.[21] Journalists regularly described Adjara as another ‘breakaway region’, like South Ossetia and Abkhazia, congratulating Saakashvili on bringing it (peacefully) back under central control.

Most of these assumptions are untrue. Abashidze never claimed independent status for Adjara: all appurtenances of the Georgian state were in place, including the state flag. However, he had been a thorn in Tbilisi’s side for some time. In 1999 his party, Revival, contested parliamentary elections in the whole country and many felt that in the absence of fraud it would have been the overall winner. Abashidze feared Shevardnadze, telling BHHRG in 1999 that the former president had tried to have him killed. So, he installed armed guards at Adjara’s border with Georgia proper as a precaution. There were precedents for his unease – in 1991-2 Jaba Ioseliani’s Mkhedrioni rampaged through Adjara destroying property and killing innocent people.

Adjara under Abashidze was not perfect. The infrastructure – roads, the exteriors of public buildings – was in a poor state, but unlike other parts of Georgia, there was work in local factories and enterprises and the place was clean. Abashidze also encouraged cultural activities and there were excellent opera and ballet companies in Batumi. Shevardnadze had left him alone for some time and even sought his support in the dying days of his presidency but after the November ‘revolution’ a full scale assault took place to overthrow Abashidze helped along by NGOs and opposition youth activists from Tbilisi. Despite being an ‘autocrat’ he was toppled easily. Local people understood that power was drifting away and positioned themselves behind the new regime. Abashidze did not help matters by spending his last months in power entertaining groups of Western visitors, no doubt, in the forlorn hope that they might protect him. Local people only resented the lavish attention paid to these seemingly superfluous guests.

In April 2005, Adjara seemed far from the newly liberated paradise so eloquently described by the media. BHHRG was approached by numerous beggars on Batumi’s sea front, many of whom were obviously respectable people desperate for a few lari on which to subsist. There were no beggars in Abashidze’s time. During an extended power cut on the night of 29th April, BHHRG observed armed thugs attacking a passer by outside the television station. Drunks wove their way home in the dark.

Batumi’s central food market was closed down on 2nd September 2004 and the whole structure (solidly built in concrete) smashed apart to prevent anyone returning. Market traders were treated brutally when they protested. Now, people have to trek to the outskirts of town to buy food. Factories have shut, especially those connected with the former president. Ordinary people told BHHRG they wanted Abashidze back. Last year two juveniles were arrested for scrawling messages calling for his return on the walls of buildings in Batumi. Those who betrayed him – BHHRG interviewed a former aide to the president – tried to put on a brave face pointing to upcoming projects, like the proposed construction of a new sports centre on the ruins of the central market. But, few can afford such luxuries nowadays in Adjara.

The head of government, Levan Varshalomidze, is an old crony of Saakashvili and business partner of Prime Minister, Zurab Noghiashvili. He and other regime insiders have moved from Tbilisi to run Adjara whose autonomy was effectively removed soon after Abashidze was deposed. Complaints from the Council of Europe have fallen on deaf ears. Varshalomidze talks of beautifying Batumi and building new hotels, – already the cost of property has spiralled. Mass dismissals of former regime employees have also taken place in the civil service.

BHHRG interviewed the new deputy Minister of the Interior, who said that there had been a 100% change in the local administration. 1500 people had been dismissed in his department but only 600 rehired – the accent now was on ‘youth’. The Group also called in on Adjara TV where there had been a mass walkout of staff on 3rd March, 2005 after complaints of political interference. The girl said that the new staff was content to work for “the government”.

BHHRG visited Batumi’s main prison where there were 430 inmates in April 2005 – twice as many as under Abashidze when the highest number was 200. The deputy governor, Yuri Dirbarian (who was appointed post – Abashidze) claimed that “no one was arrested under the former president”, surprising behaviour for a ‘tyrant’. Now, the regime was registering more crimes. He said that “robbery” was the main offence because of the bad “social conditions”. The average period of pre-trial detention is 3 months but he admitted that sometimes people waited a year to go to trial. Again, few suspects are acquitted. There were also several Abashidze regime insiders in the prison including the former mayor of Kobuleti, Taril Khalvashi. Plea-bargaining - or ransom depending on your point of view - has also taken place over the past year and money extracted paid into something called the Adjara Development Fund although details are sparse about how much and what has happened to it.[22]

Conditions in this prison were a considerable improvement on those seen in Tbilisi although for how much longer remains to be seen – some cells were already overcrowded. But, there were proper showers for the inmates and a functioning kitchen and exercise area. The governor admitted that all these facilities had been introduced by the Abashidze regime. Although there was no work for the prisoners, some ‘trusties’ were employed by the authorities. The mafia/former regime prisoners were held in superior conditions as was the case in Tbilisi. Again, the staff complained about their poor pay and working conditions. The deputy director earns 360 lari per month, his deputy 200. for working, they say, 7 days a week.

Although Aslan Abashidze fled to Moscow in 2004 and has not been heard from since, his future must remain uncertain. BHHRG was told that the former Adjaran president is being ‘investigated’ for the 1991 murder of a political opponent. When Vladimir Arutyunian, the grenade thrower, was arrested much was made of the fact that he was a member of Abashidze’s political party, Revival, although, according to observers, the party has effectively collapsed.


[1] Mary Makharashvili “Georgia’s finest go on patrol” http://www.amcham.ge/index.htm

[2] C.J.Chivers “Georgia’s road revolution: law-abiding police” International Herald Tribune 24th August, 2004,

[3] http://www.state.gov/g/drl/hr/,

[4] Natia Kuprashvili, ”NGO Activists Take Control”, Civil Georgia, 7th June, 2005,

[5] M.Alkhazashvili, “A new round of arrests?”, The Messenger, 11th April, 2004, www.messenger.com.ge,

[6] Nino Shubitidze, “ Arrests of Senior Tax Officials Causes Cabinet Reshuffle” Georgian Times, 4th July, 2005, www.geotimes.ge,

[7] “Foreign Minister Calls on Media for Ethical Reporting” Civil Georgia, 3rd August, 2005,

[8] Francois Gremy “Saakashvili is using strong-arm tactics. Is this the right way?” www.Caucaz.com 14th March, 2005,

[9] Anna Arzanova “Saakashvili lauds Tbilisi makeover” The Messenger, 21st April, 2005,

[10] “IMF approved disbursement of the third tranche of PRGF credit to Georgia” Georgia Business Week, 25th July, 2005, www.b2b.ge,

[11] Sopo Ediberidze, “Buy Everything From the Government Dirt Cheap!” Georgian Times, 25th July, 2005,

[12] Yevgeni Sidorov, “Georgia a delayed-action bomb” RIA Novosti, 24th July, 2005,

[13] Nino Patsuria, “US Marines Train the 23rd Light Infantry battalion for Deployment in Iraq” Georgia Today, 22-28 July, 2005 www.georgiatoday.ge,

[14] ibid.,

[15] Richard Rousseau, “Georgia’s soldiers learn from US Marines – and come to their help”, Georgia Today, 22-28 July, 2005 www.georgiatoday.ge,

[16] Sidorov, ibid.,

[17] Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian” Georgia: Why Should the Country Need a Larger Army?”, RFE/RL, 19th July, 2005, www.rfere.org,

[18] M. Alkhazashvili , “Unemployment among Georgia's most pressing social problems” The Messenger, 10th August, 2005 www.messenger.com.ge,

[19] Molly Corso, “Education Reform Rocks Georgia” Eurasia Insight, www.eurasianet.org 13th April, 2005,

[20] Nana Vilanishvili, “Smuggling Row Hits Georgian Town” IWPR, 21st April, 2005 http://www.iwpr.net/caucasus,

[21] “One Step Forward Two Steps Back” www.hridc.org, 2004,

[22] Whit Mason “Trouble in Tbilisi” National Interest Spring, 2005 http://www.nationalinterest.org/.

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