A 47-page report released by the US State Department on 13 March offered a bleak view of the current human rights and rule-of-law situation in Georgia under the informal rule of the country’s un-elected national leader and most prominent pro-Russian oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Washington has become increasingly concerned, according to the report, about Georgia’s highly politicised law enforcement and security services – now wholly controlled by Ivanishvili and his ruling Georgian Dream party – which operate with impunity and are not subject to any form of independent oversight.
The State Department said that the current Georgian government and its agents have been involved in unjustified killings or random arrests that have gone unpunished. Specifically, Washington made references to the murder cases of Temirlan Machalikashvili, David Saralidze, and Archil Tatunashvili, saying both were particularly worrying examples of the government taking extraordinary measures to interfere in investigations that they deem politically sensitive or potentially damaging.
Machalikashvili, a teenage ethnic Chechen from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, died after being badly injured in what authorities said was a counterterrorist operation. An investigation into the excessive use of force by the State Security Services was, however, handled by the agency itself, and who had not formally accused Machalikashvili of a criminal offence before he was killed.
Saralidze and another boy were fatally wounded in December 2017 after being involved in a brawl that followed an argument in the courtyard of a Tbilisi school. The ensuing investigation has been plagued by allegations of misconduct since its launch after Mirza Subeliani, the father of one of the participants of the brawl and a former high-ranking employee of the Prosecutor General’s Office, was caught on CCTV destroying evidence.
A former soldier, Tatunashvili died after being tortured by pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway region of South Ossetia in February 2018. Tatunashvili’s body was handed over to Georgian authorities 26 days after his death, which prompted only a feeble protest from the Georgian Dream and no concrete efforts by either Ivanishvili or the Georgian government to request that the international community put pressure on Moscow to bring the perpetrators to justice.
More worrying, the report noted that although civilian authorities continue to maintain effective control over Georgia’s defence ministry, there are ‘growing indications that they did not maintain effective control over the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the chief intelligence directorate – the State Security Services.
The State Department cast doubt over the effectiveness of Georgia’s investigative bodies to properly look into cases that involve law enforcement officials and security forces who abuse their positions of power, which the report said was the case regarding the 2017abduction and ilegal deportation of Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azeri opposition figure.
“The government’s investigation into the reported kidnapping of Mukhtarli by government officials in May 2017 appeared stalled. Concerns remained that the government was involved in Mukhtarli’s disappearance from Tbilisi and arrest by Azerbaijan authorities on the border with Georgia,” the State Department’s report says.
The State Department noted that there were several indications of interference in judicial independence and that the courts’ impartiality was hindered by influence from Ivanishvili loyalists. This highlighted Washington’s growing concerns about the professionalism of Georgia’s judges and the transparency of their decisions, saying that the “Judges were vulnerable to political pressure from within and outside the judiciary.”
The report also said that there is little-to-no criminal accountability for those who are associated with the Georgian Dream, including individuals who allegedly carried out a number of attacks on opposition figures before the second round of the presidential election in November 2018.
The State Department’s damning review of the situation in Georgia comes less than six months after the controversial election of Salome Zurabashvili as president, a French-born former diplomat for Jacques Chirac who was handpicked by Ivanishvili but who came under intense criticism for her patronising attitude towards voters and her noticeably poor Georgian language skills.
Despite the Georgian Dream’s repeated proclamations that they have the blessing of Ivanishvili to continue pursuing a pro-Western path that would lead to eventual NATO and EU membership, the State Department’s conclusions about the independence and the competence of the current Georgian government should be a major cause for concern as they more closely resemble those of Russia, Belarus, or Kazakhstan – other former Soviet republics with autocratic governments.