Mr. Speaker, on September 24, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on democracy, human rights and security in the Republic of Georgia. Despite the progress that country has made in the development of civil society, in the last few years much of the optimism about Georgia’s future has dissipated. Last year, a Georgian official devoted a large part of his public address in Washington to refuting the notion–which was being discussed at the time–that Georgia is a “failed state.” I reject that characterization, but the hearing offered a good opportunity to discuss the serious problems Georgia does face.
Preeminent among them is systemic, rampant corruption, which has impeded economic reforms and sickened the body politic. Despite lectures from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.S. Government, the Georgian Government has proved incapable or unwilling to do what is necessary to stamp out this multidimensional problem–even though President Shevardnadze himself has called corruption a threat to Georgia’s security.
There are also grounds for concern about democratization. The last few elections have clearly not met OSCE standards, which raises questions about the important parliamentary election scheduled for 2003, and the 2005 presidential election that will usher in the post-Shevardnadze era in Georgia, with all the attendant uncertainties. Meanwhile, the media and NGOs have been under severe pressure. Last fall, a foolish ploy by the Ministry of Internal Affairs to intimidate Rustavi-2 Television backfired, resulting instead in the fall of the government. While society’s response was heartening–thousands of people came out into the streets to defend the station–the attempt to silence one of the country’s most popular media outlets indicated that some Georgian officials are still mired in Soviet patterns of thinking.
Especially appalling is the ongoing religious violence in Georgia. Since 1999, there has been a campaign of assaults against members of minority faiths, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses, which Georgian authorities have tolerated. Occasionally, policemen have even participated in attacks on defenseless men, women and children who have congregated for the purpose of worship. Attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice have foundered, as throngs of fanatics hijack the trial proceedings. If such travesties are allowed to continue, the country’s entire judicial system is at risk of falling victim to mob rule.
Though Jehovah’s Witnesses have borne the brunt of this savagery, other religious minorities have suffered as well, including Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics. Earlier this year, for example, a mob invaded a Baptist warehouse, threw the religious literature outside and burned it. How awful to think that events in Georgia today remind us of Germany in the 1930s!
Georgians have a long tradition of religious tolerance, of which they are rightly proud. It is all the more puzzling, therefore, why religiously-based violence has erupted and continued only in Georgia, of all the post-Soviet states. The leadership of the Helsinki Commission and other Members of the House and Senate have been in correspondence with President Shevardnadze about this disturbing trend. He has assured us that the problem will be corrected and the perpetrators arrested.
Georgia’s Ambassador, Levan Mikeladze, testified at the September 24 hearing and suggested that Georgia has so little experience with religious persecution that it has been difficult to cope with its sudden emergence. He too offered assurances that Georgia fully recognizes the gravity of the problem and that legal and practical actions are being taken to ensure there will be no more violent attacks.
Alas, extremists in Georgia must not have been listening. Since the September 24 hearing, more assaults have taken place. The next day, some 15 extremists of the ultra-Orthodox “Jvari” organization in Rustavi forcibly entered a private home where Jehovah’s Witnesses and their non Witness guests had gathered for Bible study. Two Witnesses and one non-Witness visitor were physically assaulted. On September 26, in the village of Napareuli, masked men with firearms burst into a private home where meetings were underway, beating those in attendance and ransacking the house. Most striking, eyewitnesses claim the attack was led by the village administrator, Mr. Nodar Paradashvili, who beat one of the victims into unconsciousness. In a third incident, on September 29, a mob gathered outside the residence of a Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tbilisi. They refused to let others enter the premises where a meeting was to be held, seized Bibles and literature from the group, verbally abusing those arriving for the meeting and assaulting at least one person. In all three cases, police reportedly refused to intervene after learning that the incidents involved attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses–as has often been the case in Georgia.
Mr. Speaker, there may be many explanations for this peculiar phenomenon but there can be no excuse for state toleration of such barbarity. It must end, and it must end now.
Though such attacks have been one reason for Georgia’s prominence in the news lately, more attention has been focused on Moscow’s campaign of intimidation against Georgia. Russia has been leaning on pro-Western, strategically-located Georgia for years, but the temperature has in the last few weeks approached the boiling point. President Putin’s request for United Nations backing for Russian military action against Georgia was not any less objectionable for having been anticipated.
I have been watching with growing alarm as Russia ratchets up the pressure on its small neighbor. Georgian parliamentarians on September 12 unanimously approved an appeal to the United Nations, the OSCE, the European Union, the Council of Europe, and NATO for protection from anticipated Russian military aggression. Georgian lawmakers should know that their American colleagues have heard their appeal and stand with them. While we are cooperating with Russia in the war against terrorism, we have in no way given Moscow leave to attack Georgia, nor will we do so.
The United States is now more than ever directly engaged in the Caucasus and is stepping up military cooperation with the region’s governments, especially Georgia. While we have many issues of concern to raise with Georgia’s Government, when it comes to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, there is no more ardent supporter than the United States. That has been the case for the last ten years, and it will be the case in the future as well.