Georgia has been America’s darling in the Caucasus since its charismatic and telegenic young president, Mikheil Saakashvili, took over from the nasty old Russian-style despot Eduard Shevardnadze in the fall of 2003, in what came to be called the Rose Revolution (because Saakashvili carried a rose, and not an AK-47, as he and the throngs breached the doors of the country’s parliament building). All the world (well, most of it) had high hopes for Saakashvili’s reformist, democratic, anticorruption platform.
Throughout last month’s hostilities with Russia and in the weeks since, little Georgia’s stock has only risen with the Bush administration, as well as with the mainstream press and both presidential candidates. “We are all Georgians,” John McCain said. No one in the Obama campaign demurred.
Despite — or even because of — this coalescing consensus, now may be a good time to knock a few chunks out of Saakashvili’s pedestal. While Saakashvili rightly gets credit for putting the fight against corruption at the top of his agenda (in 2004, Transparency International declared Georgia one of the most corrupt governments in the world) and for combating religious and ethnic discrimination, he and his government have also committed serious human rights abuses.
For one thing, Georgia tortures people. Every year since 2004, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported on Abu Ghraib-like treatment of prisoners in Georgian jails and prisons: Suspects have been suspended between poles and beaten with truncheons or burned with candles until they hemorrhaged from various parts of their bodies; there have been threats to beat their mothers and children if they do not confess to charges against them, according to Amnesty. In 2005 and 2006, Human Rights Watch detailed “several cases of torture” and reported that in 2006 alone, at least seven detainees died in Tblisi Prison No. 5. The group noted that Georgia’s government has neither adequately investigated nor held anyone accountable for these and other deaths in detention. Indeed, Georgia’s response in 2006 to prisoner abuse claims constituted an additional abuse: It “used the plea bargaining system to cover up allegations of torture,” warning prisoners, “If you tell anyone then it will get worse for you,” and “promising lower penalties to defendants who agreed to the official’s version of events,” according to Human Rights Watch.
The most well-documented abuses, however, are those against dissent and free expression. In the few weeks between the resignation of Shevardnadze and Saakashvili’s taking office, Saakashvili exploited the euphoria of the revolution’s success by ramming through parliament changes to the constitution that vastly increased the power of the presidency, decreased its accountability and weakened the multiparty system, according to Amnesty International’s 2005 country report on Georgia.
Shortly after Saakashvili took office, the vibrant press that he had inherited from the Shevardnadze era began to erode. Amnesty International reported that it “has become increasingly concerned about… allegations of government interference with freedom of the media.” Some of Georgia’s leading intellectuals — people who had enthusiastically supported the Rose Revolution and who had opposed Shevardnadze — wrote an open letter in October 2004, expressing their concerns about the disappearance of an open press and the threat of one-party dominance.
Doubts about Saakashvili’s true colors spread. In December 2006, the Georgian parliament, at Saakashvili’s behest, amended the constitution to delay presidential and parliamentary elections from early 2008 to the end of 2009, which, according to the opposition parties, gave an advantage to the ruling party. The move (later reversed) infuriated the opposition and became its rallying cry.
In 2007, Saakashvili arrested critic (and former defense minister) Irakli Okruashvili, who had accused Saakashvili of corruption and suppression of dissent, which further spurred the opposition. In November, there began a series of peaceful opposition demonstrations, the largest of which attracted about 50,000 people. The police turned one demonstration into a violent confrontation: They used a water cannon against the front rows of demonstrators and simultaneously launched a volley of tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd. Masked riot police pursued fleeing demonstrators, kicking and punching them, and striking them with truncheons, wooden poles and other objects, according to eyewitnesses. At least 500 people were injured, some of them critically.
Later that evening, hundreds of heavily armed special forces entered the private television station Imedi — which was fiercely critical of Saakashvili — pointed guns to the heads of journalists and forced Imedi off the air (for what turned out to be more than six weeks), ejecting the staff and destroying much of the station’s equipment. A state of emergency was declared that lasted for eight days.
According to Saakashvili and the Georgian government, the demonstrators and the Imedi television station were dupes of the Russians, who were allegedly seeking to sow public disorder and spark a coup d’état. Critics, however, say the government never provided any proof for this claim (although the claim seems more plausible now than it did last year) and that the government’s conduct was in any case a wildly disproportionate response to a peaceful demonstration. Georgia’s promise to appoint a parliamentary commission to investigate the riot has never materialized and, in light of the escalating conflict with Russia, it seems to be off everyone’s agenda.
In response to these events, Saakashvili called a snap election for January 2008, which the opposition alleges he stole through voter intimidation and media dominance. International observers, however, said the election was fair. Since then, as hostilities with Russia have escalated, there have been few English-language reports of any internal opposition to Saakashvili.
Georgia, of course, has a strong claim on our sympathies. In light of recent events, the United States is legitimately concerned about preserving Georgian sovereignty. That’s why it may be tempting to cut Saakashvili a lot of slack on his government’s human rights record. But this would not be doing Georgia any favors. Americans know that cutting slack for human rights abuses does not make a country stronger. Seven and a half years of Bush administration abuses should have taught us at least that much.
Kathleen Peratis is a partner at the New York law firm Outten & Golden.