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Can Georgians expect a halt to creeping authoritarianism?

M. Alkhazashvili
Translated by Diana Dundua
Monday, December 24

Two prominent international NGOs, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group, have slammed the Georgian government in the last week for its crackdown on anti-government protestors on November 7.

The HRW report documented numerous incidents of police violence against the November 7 protestors, and government officials’ almost farcical counterclaims and explanations.

The watchdog’s representatives condemned the Georgian government for crossing a line that day by beating peaceful protestors and threatening journalists, and lamented the “serious damage” done to the country’s international reputation.

ICG, meanwhile, warned of a creeping authoritarianism seeping out of Tbilisi, and emphasized that simply reelecting incumbent presidential candidate Mikheil Saakashvili through democratic elections isn’t enough to prove that the country is “back on track.”

Both NGOs called on Georgia’s Western allies to demand that Tbilisi demonstrate a commitment to human rights and the rule of law.

The reports are being released just weeks before the presidential election, and Georgian officials criticized, with some justification, the timing. HRW is only damaging its own reputation by releasing a politically charged report in the middle of an election campaign, the justice minister said, taking pains to coyly mention the NGO’s “bias” against the Bush administration.

The release of the reports certainly won’t help Saakashvili’s reelection effort, but nor will they change the dynamics of the debate: voters haven’t forgotten what happened on November 7. The question is whether they can forgive.

The international community, meanwhile, is perfectly willing to both forgive and forget. NATO and its members have their own set of concerns, and potential investors aren’t put off by a spot of authoritarianism if it keeps a lid on things.

But the Saakashvili administration isn’t making it easy to move on. The government has yet to give observers reason to believe its truncheon-happy ways are firmly in the past. There have been no prosecutions, or even suspensions, of riot police who overstepped the bounds in front of cameras.

There are three plausible explanations for that, all of which give pause.

The first is that the executive is too weak to move against the men in charge of the power ministries. The second possibility is that the authorities need to maintain the loyalty of the army and the police, even if it means giving them free rein to beat unarmed demonstrators in the future. The third explanation is that they fully intend to do the same thing again.

The Saakashvili administration has brought stability to Georgia, if not yet prosperity. But if the government wants voters to forgive the occasional authoritarian misstep, it will need to give some sign that those will be the exception, not the rule.