Freedom House on Rustavi 2, Mukhtarli and Return of Bidzina Ivanishvili

Marc Behrendt, Director for Europe and Eurasia programs at Freedom House (FH), spoke to Voice of America’s Nana Sajaia on Georgia’s worsened score in FH’s recent Nations in Transit report and the Georgian government’s criticism that followed its publication.

What were the most striking issues that you observed in Georgia during last year?

For last year, we needed to look at the consolidation of power, political processes around the constitutional amendments and change in the electoral process. Those amendments were made without full participation of all of the Parliament, which means there was less consensus for these amendments and they certainly served the interests of the ruling party.

Every time Freedom House releases a report, the Georgian government becomes defensive. This year, your credibility came under attack. Do you have the same experience in other countries?

Certainly, countries take this report very seriously. And we are very glad for that, because this is why we publish those reports. We want to stimulate conversation around the issues.

In Georgia, for instance, this year it was not only the government reactions, but it was also that the opposition took the report to attack the government. Those internal political dynamics are something that we cannot really be responsible for.

Everybody is happy to receive a positive feedback. So, when scores improve, everybody is overjoyed. And when scores decrease, oftentimes there is a reaction to challenge the results as opposed to looking into the substance of those changes.

High-profile government officials, including Parliament Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, said the report does not reflect the progress Georgia has made since 2012.

We look at what happened this year. We are not looking at what happened during last 5 years or 10 years or 15 years ago, these are very hard to compare. The judiciary score, for example, is not of any kind of comparison to what the judiciary looked like under the UNM. Instead, we are looking at what happened this year. And this year, there were some things that needed to be noted. Specifically, the kidnapping and extradition of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli to Azerbaijan. Regardless of who did what and who knew what, certainly some participation of some authority was needed for that to happen. That had to be noted in the scores, you cannot have something dramatic like that without the scores taking account of it.

One of the issues you put emphasis on is the case of Rustavi 2. Why do you think this case is so important in assessing Georgia’s democracy?

Rustavi 2 has played an oversized role in the media in Georgia since the early 2000s. It has always been a media outlet that people paid attention to. It is one of the media outlets of record in the country.

We know that Rustavi 2 changed hands many times over the course of the control of the UNM when President Mikheil Saakashvili was in power. And to figure out who owns what, is really not what we care about. But what we do care about is the process, under which that decision was made.

On a very positive note, the government of Georgia did listen to the judgment of the European court, and that is a positive thing. The fact that the court made the judgment that they made, had to be taken into account.

The score for the civil society had no change this year. Going back to the Parliament Speaker again, who said the civil society representatives had more of a neutral attitude until 2012, while today they are leaning more towards the opposition. Is it what you see from your observations as well?

I think, the civil society in Georgia has always been one of the turning lights. It has always been one of the vibrant sectors. Other aspects of the society did really come under government control or influence, certainly in the economy, certainly in the judiciary and all sorts of other areas, while civil society has remained vibrant.

It has always been politicized, however. Parts of the civil society, have always been pro and anti-government. Up until 2003, the civil society sector in Georgia was really based on principles and after that they felt the need to take the role in political processes and that has continued since.

You were also accused in partnering with the NGOs lacking “competence” to put it in the Parliament Speaker’s words. Who are the NGOs you work with in Georgia? What are the sources you rely on?

We do not actually work in Georgia right now, we do not have any partnerships with civil society organizations, so I do not know what that was referring to, honestly.

The issue of an informal governance and the role of former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili: just several weeks ago, he announced that he is returning to party politics, where do you think that put Georgia?

It is an interesting development, I view it as positive and negative. Certainly, it is better when someone with a lot of influence in a society, where politicians actually pay attention to what this individual has to say, it is much better for that person to be in a political process, that allows the society to hold him accountable for his positions.

The negative side of it, is of course, and this is true for many countries in the world, when billionaires are involved in politics; it raises the question of the role of money in politics, which is a problem over and over again. And certainly, in a country where democracy is growing or developing, as it is in Georgia, the fact that the billionaire is so actively involved in politics is going to be raising issues.

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