Testimony :: Dr. Gia Nodia
Director - Institute for Peace, Development, Democracy
My initial understanding was that I would testify on human rights situation in Georgia. I now realized, however, that the situation of grave crisis in relations between Georgia and Russia over Pankisi Gorge requires some comments and analysis with regards to what this crisis is about. Therefore my remarks will start with that subject. Later I will also analyze the latest internal political developments in Georgia and its implication for the human rights situation.
Pankisi Gorge is a small mountainous region in Georgia, on the border with Chechnya. It is populated by the ethnic group of Kisti, who are Muslims and ethnic kin of Chechens, but also fairly integrated into the Georgian society: they speak Georgian, have Georgian-sounding names, etc. The Kisti population in the Gorge is estimated at 7-8 thousand. Until the second war in Chechnya, Pankisi was a remote area of which many Georgians probably had never heard. In the period of struggle of independence, when ethnic relations aggravated in several parts of the country, Pankisi was not mentioned as a region that was problematic for any ethnic tensions. In periods of Dudaev’s and Maskhadov’s rule in Chechnya, many young Kisti went to Chechnya since even extremely volatile situation there promised them better economic and career opportunities than their native region. We did not hear much of Pankisi also during the first Russian-Chechen war in the first half of the 1990s.
Pankisi was propelled to international fame since 1999, after the second Chechen war started. The war brought an estimated 4-5 thousand refugees to Pankisi. Many of them were actually Kisti who had moved to Chechnya several years ago.
The Georgian public met this inflow of refugees with understanding. These refugees, however, included not just women and children (although these were the majority) but also young and often armed males, who could be described as “fighters”. I am not in a position to claim any first-hand knowledge on the number of such “fighters” or their activities. But based on the sources that I have I can say that certainly there existed groups of Chechen fighters who that used Pankisi Gorge as safe haven for regrouping and, probably, venturing back over the border for military/subversive operations. I also know that there were some Arabs who went to Pankisi, married local girls and settled there. I can’t say how much their agenda was religious or military (probably, both) and whether they were linked to any international terrorist organizations. The emergence of Chechens and Arabs led to tensions within the Kisti society based on differences between more traditional Islam characteristic for the the region and the new, more radical Wahhabi version of it professed by the newcomers and - under their influence - by some young Kisti.
Such developments led to creation of a set of problems in this tiny region. The main problem was that the Georgian authorities failed to establish any kind of state control in the region. The main reason of that was institutional weakness of the Georgian state. But it was probably not less important that Georgian authorities were wary of any possible incidence of violence that any such attempts might lead to, as they thought that such incidents could eventually take on ethnic coloring and implicate Georgia as some kind of a party to the war. Naturally, Georgians did not want to fight the Russians’ war. I also believe that the syndrome of military failures in Abkhazia and South Ossetia also influenced the Georgian failure to act in Pankisi adequately on the first stage.
The Chechen presence in the region created two sets of problems. One was internal: Pankisi soon became a lawless area, a safe haven for illicit business such as drug and arms trafficking as well as kidnaping of people. It soon also became obvious that Pankisi could not play such a role without cooperation with Georgian criminal groups and, most importantly, with Georgian law-enforcement, in particular the police and security forces. Numerous investigative reports in the Georgian media, as well as elite opinion suggested that high level leadership of the law-enforcement agencies were implicated in this illicit business.
Numerous instances of kidnaping people, both Georgians and foreigners, caused great public indignation and even prompted the creation of paramilitary groups in the nearby regions who threatened to enter Pankisi and act on their own if the government continued to do nothing. In the eyes of the Georgian public, Pankisi thus became a major metaphor for general inefficacy and corruption of the Georgian government. Its failure to tackle the Pankisi problem contributed a lot to sharp drop of popularity of President Shevardnadze during the last two years.
Another set of problems was related to Russia. It is fully understandable that the presence of Chechen armed groups on Georgian territory who could use this territory as a base for attacks against Russia raised legitimate security concerns of the latter. However, from the onset of this situation Russia posed demands to Georgia that it could not accept. Namely, Russia demanded a right to pursue Chechen fighters into Pankisi Gorge and fight them there. This effectively meant enlarging the theatre of the Chechen war into Georgia - and there was no guarantee that this enlargement would be limited to the Pankisi Gorge, or that Russian military engagement in Georgia would be limited in time. No Georgian political leader in his right mind would accept that. Russia responded to the Georgian refusal by introducing visa regime with Georgia. This was obviously intended to be just a punitive measure against Georgia, since it was obvious that the visa regime would be no deterrence for terrorists (or ‘freedom fighters’ - whatever term one prefers) who tend to prefer mountainous passes to official checkpoints.
Russia’s visa regime did not prove to be an effective punishing measure. Some people in Georgia actually welcomed it as strengthening the country’s independence. However, Georgia protested strongly against exempting from this regime the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia considered it a creeping annexation of those territories by Russia. This year, Russia made the next step in the same direction by introducing some simplified procedures for people leaving in breakaway territories to obtain Russian citizenship.
Now, to the recent crisis. I would argue that the new stage started with by the announcement of the US “Train and Equip” program. Officially, the Russian president accepted this American initiative since his previous rhetoric did not allow any rational justification for opposing it: through this program Americans were to help Georgians to do what Russia wanted them to do. However, the first reaction of the Russian political elite across the political spectrum was an outrage: It was seen as the US squeezing Russia out of yet another zone of influence in its immediate neighborhood. On the evening when the news broke out, Russian politicians and commentators went on TV publicly saying that this would dearly cost Georgia and might even lead to the end of Georgian state - a hardly concealed threat implying that Russia would and should use its vulnerabilities to destroy it. Shevardnadze personally, of course, took a lot of flak as the major promoter of western interests against Russia.
The real crisis started in late August. On August 23rd, Russian military planes bombed Georgian territory hitting a group of peaceful civilians, killing one and injuring several others. However, Russia disowned this attack despite the fact that OSCE monitors saw planes coming from the Russian territory and returning there.
Two days later, on August 25th, Georgia moved troops into Pankisi Gorge in what it pointedly called anti-criminal rather than anti-terrorist operation. Soon after this, on September 11 Putin issued an ultimatum, in which he threatened Georgia to militarily invade it unless it solved the Pankisi problem. The most paradoxical aspect of this is, of course, that Russia toughened its stance after Georgia actually started doing what Russia had asked it to do.
What kind of sense can we make out of this? I will sum it up in several points:
v The Georgian government carries blame for not addressing the problem of Pankisi adequately and in a timely manner. It should take blame primarily for failing to curb rampant corruption in its law-enforcement agencies that led to aggravating the problem. However, change of leadership in police and security agencies, as well as the US “train and equip” program allowed considerable progress with regards to Pankisi that expressed itself in the current anti-criminal operation. One cannot rule out instances of corrupt activities also in the course of the current operation, but it seems to me that this time the Georgian forces are really motivated to achieve some success.
v Russia has legitimate security concerns about Pankisi and natural expectations that Georgia will cooperate with it in addressing this issue. However, so far Russia has been proposing cooperation on the terms that no Georgian government could accept. Russian behavior vis-à-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia also suggests that Russia is hardly oriented towards genuine cooperation with Georgia on security issues if the term “cooperation” implies recognition of mutual interests.
v What is the real Russian motivation then? I have three complementary considerations. First, I believe that the Russian strategy was to transfer the war, at least in part, outside Russia’s territory. More recently, taking into account the reality of the protracted war in Chechnya and the difficulty of selling the failure to end it to the Russian public, Putin and his military are in a need of a scapegoat. It seems that the entity to blame is found in Georgia.
v Russia also appears to be looking for a pretext to punish Georgia for allowing the West, especially the United States, to play active role in the Caucasus. In the words of Russian politicians and the media, this is spelled out as “squeezing Russia out of the region”. Public reactions of the Russian public to projects like Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and, more recently, the “train and equip” program, convinces me that the Russian political elite is far from being reconciled to these developments. In this sense, Russian policies with regard to Georgia have the same root as its opposition to NATO enlargement. Russia singles out Georgia rather than, say, Azerbaijan, because the former is more vulnerable and - in the Russian view - more likely to crack down under its pressure. Scenarios are often discussed in the Russian media that this pressure would eventually help ouster of President Shevardnadze, who is especially hated by the Russian political establishment, and his replacement by a more pro-Russian political figure.
v Russia seems to be using the Pankisi issue as a bargaining chip with the US in relation to the Iraq issue. Russian politicians and strategists systematically link the two issues. On Russian talk-shows, almost all Russian politicians representing different political groupings agree that in the event USA attacks Iraq, Russia will certainly be justified in attacking Georgia - and should do this. Whether Russia is justified to do this even if USA does not attack Iraq, opinions differ. This means that in reality the issue of Pankisi is related not so much to Russia’s immediate security concerns vis-à-vis war in Chechnya, but rather to a wish to strengthen Russia’s standing and bargaining position on the global arena.
Naturally, there is lots of talk about possible trade-off between Russia and the US: the US would accept Russia’s invasion in Georgia in return to Russia’s acceptance of the US attack against Iraq. More conspiracy-oriented minds may mean an explicit back-door deal with Russia supporting certain resolution in the Security Council. This, however, seems too unlikely in modern policies. What is more plausible, however, is a some kind of de-facto trade-off: Russia would issue some grudges about US actions in Iraq without any consequence, US would criticize a Russian invasion in Georgia, but will not be able to do much because its hands will be tied by a war in Iraq. This is the scenario that Russians seem to hope for (and openly discuss) - and the Georgians are afraid of.
v Under the circumstances, Georgia pins its hopes mainly on Washington, because Georgians think - I believe, rightly, - that nobody else has any negotiating power with Russians with regards to this issue, and because Russia, while issuing her threats against Georgia, certainly and explicitly links these threats to American political behavior, whether in the South Caucasus or against Iraq. This means that it would be difficult for the Americans to stay dispassionate about the affair. Georgian military capabilities would hardly allow her to hold off a Russian attack, and Georgia can hardly do in Pankisi qualitatively more than Georgia already does. Moreover, no Russian military involvement, whether in the form of air strikes or ground troops are likely to actually put an end to the Chechen conflict - it will just extend it to the Georgian territory and allow the Russian authorities to buy time by saying to their public that the conflict just entered another phase - this time having moved outside Russia.
The Russian-Georgian problem caught Georgia in the middle of quite tense internal political situation. In order to explicate the major dimensions of these internal tensions, I will give first some background information on the political development of the last 2-3 years.
The period since 2000 has been notable for dramatic drop of popularity of President Eduard Shevardnadze. The reasons of this are a slow down of economic development, the government’s inability to do anything about rampant corruption, and continuing inefficacy of the government in virtually all the areas in which the state is supposed to serve the society. Of course, these trends were building up earlier, but before the government lived off the credit of trust that had been gained by successfully overcoming the period of turmoil and warlordism of which the first half of the 1990s consisted. In the second half of the 1990s, the government was also seen as doing something for reforming the economy and the political system, and there was a brief period of high economic growth, albeit against the very low starting point following dramatic decline. This all stalled after 1999 -- no visible attempts to improve the situation were made any more, and it became obvious that extremely notorious and obviously corrupt figures like Minister of Internal Affairs Kakha Targamadze were gaining political ground.
The weariness of the figure of Eduard Shevardnadze who has been dominating Georgian politics since 1972, and the context of the struggle for succession is also to be taken into consideration. According to the Georgian constitution, 2005 is the year when Shevardnadze’s last term expires. Given the Russian example of Yeltsin-Putin succession and Shevardnadze’s domination of power politics, many people assumed that handpicking a successor by the incumbent president would be the formula of power transfer in Georgia as well. Therefore, immediately after the 2000 presidential elections, an intense power struggle within Shevardnadze’s camp for the position of a successor started. Since Zurab Zhvania, then chairman of parliament and in control of the machinery of the government party, the Citizen’s Union of Georgia (CUG), was considered to be the frontrunner in this race of succession, he became the primary target of the struggle.
These two trends led to open rifts and an eventual break-up within the ruling coalition. On the one side stood the so-called “reformist” part of the CUG who were in control of Parliament, took credit for most legislative reforms of 1995, and were some kind of a visiting card of Georgia demonstrating that this was a reform-minded country oriented towards western values. Against the backdrop of obvious lack of progress in Georgia, their supporters, especially those from active civic groups, pressured them to openly distance themselves from Shevardnadze. This prompted them, specifically Zhvania and Mikheil Saakashvili, who became first the leader of the CUG faction and then the minister of justice, to take more a aggressive position in pushing Shevardnadze to support reforms and, especially, to get rid of his most notorious ministers. They thought - correctly, I believe, - that being associated with increasingly unpopular Shevardnadze without having real power would eventually undermine their political prospects, so they aimed at gaining ground in the executive. Namely, they wanted introduction of a position of a prime minister and the creation of a cabinet under the prime minister rather than directly under the president, with Zurab Zhvania taking that position. However, the respective constitutional amendment failed, and what they got was several ministerial positions. This only led to open divisions within the existing cabinet under the president and weakened the “reformist” group. Their opponents represented a motley coalition of different forces all of whom had a common interest in not allowing Zhvania to become too powerful. The most important of them were heads of law enforcement agencies, different Tbilisi-based or regional elite groups, and, most conspicuously, the New Faction (later New Right) group, that consisted of defectors from Zhvania-Saakashvili camp. The strategy of the opponents of the “reformers” seemed to be to discredit them and at the same time to widen a rift between them and President Shevardnadze.
The fall of 2001 became a turning point. First the CUG formally broke up in September 2001 (although legally the process continued until May 2002, when the court finally gave victory to Shevardnadze’s supporters in a battle for the CUG brand name). In late October, the government attempt to raid the most popular independent TV station, Rustavi-2, was followed by student protests who demanded resignation of the heads of law enforcement agencies at a minimum and of Shevardnadze himself as the maximum. Shevardnadze had to sacrifice the former - thus he actually did under the public pressure what Zhvania and Saakashvili had been demanding for a long time. Lastly, the new opposition also split into two groupings that had different strategies though were not mutually antagonistic. The charismatic Saakashvili created the more radically oppositionist National Movement and actually positioned himself as the main opposition candidate for presidency, while Zhvania took more conciliatory stance and tried to continue negotiating with Shevardnadze until the above-mentioned court decision. Later, he created the more moderate New Democrats party. The government, on the other hand, decided to recreate the CUG as the party of the ruling bureaucracy, headed by Minister of State Avtandil Jorbenadze, the number two in the president’s administration.
The nadir of Shevardnadze’s popularity so far may have coincided with the June 2002 local elections, when the CUG took a pitiful 2% in elections for Tbilisi city council (and did not show any better in most other regions). That may be considered not sufficiently indicative since the CUG, which resolved its internal legal struggles just two weeks before elections, did not have time to put up a serious campaign. Most importantly, however, the campaign developed into a competition for the harshest way to denounce Shevardnadze, with the two parties that demonstrated most radical rhetoric, the National Movement and the Labor party, emerging as winners in Tbilisi. Outside Tbilisi, two business-oriented parties, the Industrialists and the New Right, were most successful. They also considered themselves oppositionist, though were much more timid about attacking Shevardnadze personally. In any case, distinctly distancing oneself from the government was a mast for any electoral success.
The last summer partly diluted the sense that Shevardnadze’s government is in a grave crisis. The government took credit for the “Train and Equip” program that is quite popular and approved even by the most radical opposition, and starting the recent operation in Pankisi is also to its benefit. Not less importantly, the opposition demonstrated its weaknesses. First, this weakness was exposed by a growing rift between Zhvania and Saakashvili. A misguided move by Saakashvili who demanded recount of the vote although he was poised to become the chairman of Tbilisi City Council, confused people about his real motives and his real political skills. His not well calculated remarks about his plans to start a campaign of public protest in the fall helped Shevardnadze to present him as a dangerous radical who is after destabilization of the country - a prospect that most Georgian citizens dread, however much they may dislike the incumbent government. Zhvania, on the other hand, presented himself as somebody more sophisticated than the public politics require, and his different political maneuvers were not convincing about his ability to create a strong political force on his own.
But most importantly, it was Putin with his airstrike and ultimatums that really came to rescue for Shevardnadze’s sinking support. Having an obviously threatening external enemy is always a wonderful resource for any unpopular government, and Shevardnadze’s is no exception. The Russian pressure put the opposition into a difficult position: Putin’s attacks were targeted not just against Georgia but against Shevardnadze personally, so it became easy for the government to say that the opposition and Russia has one goal in common. This is only one step short of alleging that opposition is really secretly allied with Russia - allegations that some government supporters were fast to issue. Most opposition forces (including Zhvania) decided to suspend or weaken anti-Shevardnadze rhetoric for the time being. Conversely, Saakashvili (who recently held the founding congress of his National Movement as a political party) decided to keep up pressure on Shevardnadze, though he no longer talks of any plans to organize Ukrainian-style public protest campaign demanding the president’s early resignation.
However, the Pankisi situation will help Shevardnadze internally only until the tension continues - it may continue for some time, of course. We cannot say what will happen then - or will a possible Russian invasion lead to a greater consolidation of the public around him or that he eventually be blamed for it. Having an external enemy only helps when the leader is strong and decisive - and we cannot be sure that Shevardnadze shows such qualities in face of Russian danger.
Implications for Democracy and Human Rights
What do these developments mean for the situation in democracy and human rights in Georgia? I think, here we have a mix of positive and negative trends, although I believe on the balance bad news clearly outweigh good news.
v The main good news is, I believe, the return of public politics and, as a result of that, a somewhat higher rate of political participation. After several years of extremely Byzantine power politics that mostly consisted of maneuvering and back-stage deals between different groups within the ruling oligarchy, there is some political completion in the public space. The level of cynicism towards the political elite as well as towards the electoral process that most Georgians consider full of irregularities and fraud continues to be high. However, the last local elections demonstrated that people have some belief in public politics, that they consider political participation as meaningful to some extent, and are even ready to fight for their right to vote when attempts were made to deny them this right.
v More open political competition, however, also increased the level of tension in the society and fears that these tensions would allow political competition to stay within constitutional limits. The opposition parties are often quite populist in their rhetoric and do not move far beyond denouncing their opponents. But most disturbingly, since the government is extremely unpopular and appears to have slim chances of success in open political competition, it reverts to forbidden tactics. The trend that is most threatening to the prospects of democracy is a mounting trend towards use of violence in the political process. Georgia was notorious for warlordism in the early 1990s, but in the mid-90s Shevardnadze managed to overcome it, and this is deservedly considered to be his greatest success. Now, however, different paramilitary or purely criminal groups are trying again to openly disrupt the political process, and the government either is not doing anything to punish and curb this violence, or, most probably, directly or indirectly encourages it as much as it is targeted against its political opponents.
This trend started in November 2001, when Mikheil Saakashvili, who ran on a radically oppositional ticket, very convincingly defeated his opponents in by-elections to Parliament. At the end of the day, groups of thugs (most probably from the National Democratic Party) tried to steal ballot boxes from precincts, and succeeded in four of them. The aim was obviously to invalidate elections by the party whose candidate did not win. No attempt was made to punish the culprits. In spring 2002, during the local election campaign, this violence took a more systematic character. In Zugdidi, western Georgia, a paramilitary group headed by one Badri Zarandia, disrupted Saakashvili’s pre-election meetings several times, and Zarandia said on television several times that he would not allow people like Saakashvili to “deceive people”. Other thugs in other parts of Georgia then made similar statements. Again, no attempts were made to punish anybody. Rumors are circulating that some groups close to the government are creating other paramilitary groups. This allows a plausible assumption that while the government does not want to be seen openly restricting political opposition, it uses its criminal proxies to intimidate the opposition or disrupt democratic political process altogether.
v One more disturbing trend of the last two years consists of playing ethnic card in politics - something we also have not seen since the early 1990s. [Ethnic Armenians and Azeris are the two largest ethnic minorities in Georgia] This card is mainly used against same Zhvania and Saakashvili: Zhvania’s mixed ethnic ancestry (his mother is half-Armenian and half-Jewish) is increasingly used by his opponents to discredit him. Articles are being concocted in the media that argue they are part of some “Jewish-Armenian conspiracy”. Rumors are spread among the Azeri community that these will be pro-Armenian forces therefore hostile to the Azerbaijani diaspora in Georgia. All this is openly discussed not just in tabloids, but by politicians close to the government. Naturally, ethnic Armenian citizens of Georgia take offense: Armenian-ness is seen as something demeaning. While these attacks are immediately motivated by a desire to discredit political opponents rather than by ethnic nationalism, it clearly encourages greater ethnic tensions.
v The issue of religious violence, that constitutes an especially dangerous trend in today’s Georgia, can also be considered in this aspect. In the last several years, different religious minority groups - most often Witnesses of Jehovah, but also others - were attacked by groups of religious fanatics. The group of a defrocked Orthodox priest, Basil Mkalavishvili, was the most active in this, but sometimes also some other groups, including people associated to the mainstream Church, took active part. There has been no single precedent of such attacks being punished. Moreover, police officers sometimes encouraged the attacks or even took part in them.
The roots of this violence are not only political. Unfortunately, public opinion is especially hostile towards so-called new sectarian groups (especially, but not only them), whose proselytizing activities are largely seen as a threat to Georgian identity. Most people think the state should do something to curb activities of these “sects” by introducing more restrictive legislation in religious matters. However, while legislation stays fairly liberal, many people think that Mkalavishvili does (even in an unseemly way) what the state should be doing. Therefore, the failure of the state to act against Mkalavishvili may be interpreted as the fear of a weak and unpopular government of undermining its popularity even more. Even many police officers are open admirers of Mkalavishvili. This, of course, cannot justify inaction, but provides somewhat more sympathetic explanation of it. However, there are also signs that the government - again, indirectly or through its proxies - is trying to discredit its political opponents by saying that their advocacy of western-style democratic values also implies defense of Jehovah’s witnesses. I have heard more than once casual remarks made by the president’s supporters and addressed to the opposition representatives like “but you support Jehovah’s witnesses.” This is an indirect but unambiguous indication by high-level politicians associated with Shevardnadze that defending rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a bad thing in itself, while attacks against them may be justified. Thus religious card is played by the government alongside the ethnic one and this obviously contributes to religious tensions.
v Not only religious groups are victims of violent attacks, but also media and NGOs who in one way or another come to the defense of civic rights. This summer’s violent attack against the Liberty Institute, that is both the most vocal and well-known defender of religious freedoms, but also extremely critical of President Shevardnadze personally, was the most dramatic expression of this trend. Several staff members of the Institute were hospitalized as a result.
v On the “good news” side, it should be noted that of late the government appears to have recognized the influence of the media and NGOs and has chosen a policy of engagement rather then alienation or repression towards them (of which there had been some signs before this summer). Soon after the attack on the Liberty Institute the Minister of State Avtandil Jorbenadze visited this organization in person and proposed cooperation. After that, several meetings between NGOs and high-level government representatives - such as law enforcement agencies and education - took place where plans were discussed about reforming those agencies and increasing public control over them. Most recently, on September 14, a large meeting lead to signing a pledge that the government and the leading parties would support a new legislation strengthening freedom of the media. Mr. Jorbenadze also held a meeting with representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses and proposed them help in defending their rights. Whether this is just a temporary appeasement of the human rights groups that could create trouble by supporting opposition, or some genuine actions will result from this, remains to be seen.