Tension with neighboring powerhouse Russia, debates about succession, and major charges of corruption have dogged Georgia and attempts to stabilize it. Chairman of the Georgian Parliament Dr. David Usupashvili gave an overview of the challenges his country faces at his lecture “Building Institutional Foundations of Democracy in Georgia” on Feb. 13 at CEU.
“We need to be more focused,” Usupashvili said. “The situation in Georgia is quite complex. It's been 20 years and we're trying to do the same thing that Hungary did. When Georgians were fighting for independence – fighting Russian rule, imperialism – we were not fighting against something but for something: a country where our citizens could feel freedom.”
After the 2003 Rose Revolution, during which former President Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted, a new government was formed and, as Usupashvili said, “we hoped that a new life would start.” It was then that Usupashvili and others “got the sense that the democratic foundations were actually being constructed.” In the years following, though, the promise of 2003 seemed to fade.
Taking over from Shevardnadze, President Mikheil Saakashvili served two terms, both of which were marked by controversy, including the 2008 Russia-Georgian War that pitted the country against Russia and two separatist areas of Georgia. There were also accusations of election corruption and human rights violations including severe abuse of prisoners. In October 2013, President Giorgi Margvelashvili was elected as part of the Georgian Dream party, of which Usupashvili is a member.
Although Usupashvili freely acknowledges that there is a lot of work to do, he says not everything has to be destroyed and built again. Earning the people's trust is a top priority and it is seen as a big challenge due to the poor reputation of some government institutions. “This process is painful and will continue to be,” he noted. “For example, court independence. After the regime change, many judges just started looking for 'new masters' to give them direction. There is temptation to find shortcuts. It is easier, for example, for a prosecutor to just take one bit of evidence to the court and hope that the judge 'behaves in the right way'; it's easier than doing thorough investigations with the proper procedures.”
Other priorities include automating some bureaucratic procedures to reduce the possibility of corruption, restoring citizen property rights, balancing the media, and guaranteeing the rule of law.
For many years, reports from international NGOs described Georgian media as “polarized,” with 90 percent of media coverage being pro-government and only 10 percent in opposition. “This polarization has reinforced the most dangerous disease which we carry from communist times: black-and-white mentality,” said Usupashvili. “There are so-called heroes and enemies of Georgia. In media and society, there is this kind of question: just tell me, is this guy a hero or villain? We have to work on the balance. We need free media.”
Respect for the rule of law was absent under the last administration, he said. And it seems that some politicians seemed to embrace the idea that, if leaders at very high levels are engaging in corruption or abuse, it would be acceptable for them to do so on a smaller scale. Usupashvili underscored the importance of setting the proper precedent. “The political wheel must be subordinate to the legal and constitutional frameworks must be established.”
Usupashvili highlighted the tug-of-war between Russia and Europe over Georgia, a story that is echoed in the coverage of Ukraine's similar struggle.
“All of these reforms are meant to happen in this very challenging time period,” he said. “The instability in Georgia can change life in a day. We cannot forget that there are occupied territories of Georgia (by Russian soldiers); we cannot forget the ambitions of Russia: keeping complete control of the South Caucasus. Georgia is coming closer to NATO integration and EU membership goes against Russia's wishes. We need to increase the speed and quality of changes. Georgia always needed Europe and I think Europe needs us too.”
The lecture was sponsored by CEU's Center for EU Enlargement Studies and chaired by the Center's Director Peter Balazs.