Detailed Freedom House ‘Nations in Transit’ Report on Georgia

The October 2020 parliamentary elections “put tremendous strain on Georgian democracy,” reads the Nations in Transit 2021 narrative report on Georgia, published today by the U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House.

“While the preelection period was comparatively free and competitive, cases of voter intimidation, misuse of administrative resources, as well as instances of violence and political pressure intensified as election day approached,” highlighted the report, according to which, Georgia’s Democracy Score declined from 3.25 to 3.18, keeping the country in the transitional or hybrid regime category.

The overall score decline owes to the Electoral Process rating diminishing from 3.25 to 3.00, reflecting that despite positive amendments to the electoral code, the 2020 elections were “marred by instances of vote-buying” and the second-round boycott by the opposition; and the Independent Media rating declining from 3.75 to 3.50, to reflect Adjara TV dismissals as well as the new law enabling the National Communications Commission (GNCC) to interfere in broadcasters’ operations.

Regarding the press, the report said, “2020 was also a challenging year for media freedom in Georgia.” It highlighted that “the country’s pluralistic media environment continued to be plagued by political polarization and the influence of party affiliation,” adding that “ongoing pressure on Adjara TV continued to challenge its independence and caused large-scale staff changes, as well as fears of a gradual government takeover of the public broadcaster.” The report also said the “government pressured media during the electoral campaign with pejorative statements, referring to independent or opposition broadcasters, such as Mtavari Arkhi, Formula TV, and TV Pirveli, as ‘fake news’.”

Referring to the elections, the report said the ruling Georgian Dream party “capitalized on the [OSCE/ODIHR] report’s positive opening line,” which stated that elections were “competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected.” The GD interpreted this as “international recognition of the elections,” despite the assessment also outlining several shortcomings, noted the Freedom House document.

Judicial Framework and Independence rating remained at 2.75. Nevertheless, the report said, “the crisis in Georgia’s justice system further solidified in 2020.” According to the document, “the lack of procedural transparency” in selecting Supreme Court judges, and enduring shortcomings in the Law on Common Courts, “remain extremely problematic,” despite some reforms adopted by the government.

The report also took note of the Prosecutor’s Office under the ruling Georgian Dream government launching “several investigations directed at former government officials that some observers suspect are politically motivated,” including the cases of ex-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, UNM Chairman Nika Melia, pro-opposition Mtavari Arkhi TV shareholder Giorgi Rurua, and former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava. It also took note of the controversial TBC Bank case. State institutions have been accused of “selectively applying justice, particularly by failing to adequately punish police officers suspected of overstepping their powers,” added the report.

National Democratic Governance and Local Democratic Governance scores both remained at 2.75. Regarding local governance, the report said “the concentration of power at the center continued to challenge the independence of local governments in Georgia.” According to the document, the “Decentralization Strategy 2020–25” suffers from important limitations, including because of its vague consideration of diversifying independent municipal income and transferring state or unregistered property to municipalities.

As for the National Democratic Governance criteria, the report highlighted that police measures used during November 8 protests over alleged rigged elections in front of the Central Election Commission headquarters “were evaluated as disproportionate and inhumane.” Regarding the government’s handling of the pandemic, the report underscored the unequal treatment of religious groups, as the Georgian Orthodox Church was exclusively not prevented from holding services.

The corruption score also remained at 3.50. “Corruption was an ongoing issue in Georgia in 2020, further heightened by the management of the COVID-19 crisis as well as the parliamentary electoral campaign,” noted the report.

According to Freedom House, “there were a number of cases in the preelection period where state procurement contracts were awarded to companies with high donations to the ruling party.” This gave the Georgian Dream “a considerable financial advantage” when campaigning for the October parliamentary polls, the report said. The report also noted that alleged corruption cases rose with the “increased number of pandemic-related simplified procurements,” as many of the companies supplying medical equipment and services were donors to the ruling party.

The Civil Society rating remained at 4.25, which is the highest score among the seven parameters. Noting that “Civil society in Georgia remained vibrant and diverse in 2020,” the report said nevertheless that “the sector’s financial sustainability and public image were still major challenges, along with the rise of illiberal groups on the social and political scenes.”

The document also stated that despite the CSO number being notably high, and their involvement in a range of areas in political and social life, “they still lack influence on key decisions and changes in the country.”

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