Hook, Line & Sinker: Freedom House Reports Draws Ire of Georgian Leaders

If you weren’t already aware, last week, Freedom House released its new report “Nations in Transit 2018: Confronting Illiberalism.” The report offers a country-by-country analysis of the progress and setbacks for democratization in post-Soviet states, along with other European former communist countries.

According to the report, Georgia’s democracy score worsened in 2017 in comparison to previous years, with its overall score now at 4.68 compared with 4.61 in the 2017 and 2016 reports, and 4.64 in 2015. The ratings are from a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest and 7 the lowest level of democratic progress. The overall score comprises an average of ratings for separate categories: national democratic governance; electoral process; civil society; independent media; local governance; judicial framework and independence; and corruption. Scores for Georgia in all of these categories remained unchanged with the exceptions of independent media and judiciary, where the country experienced a decline of 0.25 in both.

Freedom House marked the announcement with a not-so-subtle plastering of Bidzina Ivanshivili on their Facebook cover photo. Predictably, the whole affair stung the incumbent Georgian Dream party who, in case you’ve been asleep for the past five years and 362 days (plus/minus a day for the odd leap year), were founded by —drumroll— Bidzina Ivanishvili.

“All the world’s a stage” as William Shakespeare once said, and indeed, it didn’t take long for members of the Georgian leadership to be baited into response and slam the report.

Prime Minister Kvirikashvili claimed that the “assessments by Freedom House are increasingly unobjective” and that the report “relies on totally disbalanced information. I think that Freedom House should think twice before disseminating such unobjective information and assessments regarding the quality of democratic developments in Georgia.” He added that many people have held the post of Prime Minister since Ivanishvili, “but the main trend is a whole different quality of democracy which has become default.”

Parliament Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze also criticized the report. He claimed that it was “biased” against the Georgian government, and was influenced by “pseudo-liberal forces” that “are challenging the governments of Georgia and the United States.”

At a special press briefing held at the headquarters of Georgian Dream last Thursday, Kobabkhidze stressed Georgia’s “fundamental progress” towards democracy, freedom and human rights since the 2012 unseating of Saakashvili’s United National Movement party.

“What preceded the year 2012 was rigged elections, zero balance among branches of government, gross human rights violations, including torture, rape, systemic practice of confiscation of property, full subordination of the judiciary to the Justice Ministry, [and] the government’s total arbitrariness,” the Parliament Speaker stated.

Consequently, Kobakhidze then emphasized that while these “problems” had been successfully addressed in subsequent years, no significant changes were reflected with respect to Georgia’s overall democracy score, nor in terms of specific evaluation categories, including independent media, judicial framework and independence, and civil society.

Kobakhidze labelled the identical scores in the media category in 2012 and 2018 “ridiculous,” demonstrating the report’s “bias.” “In 2012, the government had an absolute monopoly over the media; all three national broadcasters - Rustavi 2, Imedi and GPB – had been illegally subjected to the influence of Mikheil Saakashvili and UNM in 2004-2012,” he said.

Kobakhidze added that identical rankings in the judicial independence category were similarly “ridiculous.” “The judiciary was under the total control of the Justice Ministry before 2012, and the consequence was illegal rulings against tens of thousands of people; the court was successfully used against businesses, and as a tool for political persecution,” he said.

“The unchanged civil society score was also surprising; while civil society was largely loyal to the government before 2012, in subsequent years its attitudes became more oppositional, which should have reflected positively on the score, but the authors have demonstrated their partiality in this case as well,” Kobakhidze said.

Furthermore, Kobakhidze claimed that the report assessment that ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili’s influence remained “one of the key impediments” to Georgia’s democratic functioning, resonated with “the artificial picture drawn by Rustavi 2 and Saakashvili’s other friends.” “Speaking of informal governance without specifying its signs lacks argument,” he said.

The speaker also talked about the sources of the report, arguing that the authors were reliant on the position of the kind of Georgian NGOs “which lack competence and are biased against the authorities.”

“These are the so-called liberal, rather pseudo-liberal forces, which are challenging the governments of Georgia and the US,” he said, adding that the best example of this was “the leadership of the National Democratic Institute in Georgia, for whom criticism of its own government is an everyday thing.”

Speaker Kobakhidze also emphasized that these forces had “nothing in common with liberalism and liberal values.” “Our government is exactly a liberal government [in its classic sense], and I would even say, the most liberal government in the history of Georgia,” he said.

“We rest on values such as democracy, rule of law, human rights protection, justice, equality and tolerance, but at the same time, pseudo-liberalism and the forces which are challenging our national identity, traditions and the Georgian churches, as well as the forces which are challenging the very same values in the US, are unacceptable for us,” the Speaker said.

Vasil Maghlaperdize, the head of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, also had something to say regarding Freedom House’s assessment of Georgian media independence. “Not only Georgian residents but also anyone who’s ever passed by Georgia would not believe that media independence is the same as in the past years. I won’t elaborate on the poor condition media was in…recall the crackdowns or satellite marches, how several channels used to broadcast the same information and so on. If somebody thinks that the same situation was present in 2017 as well, they are either unqualified or mistaken,” he said.

Naturally, opposition MPs weren’t to be left out, with it being claimed that the conclusions of the report were a cause of concern to Georgia’s aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration. Salome Samadashvili from United National Movement (UNM) told RUSTAVI 2 that “if the government cannot see the extent of the strategic threat the report poses, it confirms that they cannot understand that strategic goals the country has to pursue immediately.”

Iraki Abesadze, also of the UNM, accused Georgian Dream of “desperately trying to shield Ivanishvili and his interests [from criticism] instead of discussing solutions to problems.”

On Wednesday afternoon, leader of parliamentary Georgian Dream (GD) majority, Archil Talakvadze, took to Facebook to slam Freedom House for criticizing democracy in Georgia, saying the research is based on the information provided to them by former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, wanted in Georgia for multiple charges, and his party - the United National Movement (UNM).

“Despite all this, even according to this report, Georgia still remains in the leading position in the region…Any person or organization that speaks about selective justice and political vendetta in Georgia either has no idea of the processes in this country or is biased,” Talakvadze’s post reads.

“The report contains the most tendentious assessments and approaches; it contains factual errors, makes ungrounded assumptions and repeats the UNM and Saakashvili's narrative in a number of directions,” he added.

Furthermore, the leader of the parliamentary majority underlined that “open and democratic governance, as well as the studies of international organizations, are acceptable” for the Georgian government when these assessments are based on reality.

“Freedom House is an American organization. The US is our strategic partner, and we take care of this relationship. That is why we read the report carefully and feel obliged to respond to the assessments expressed in it. Such a tendency of Freedom House cannot damage Georgian-American relations, however, this organization has to feel more responsibility in discussing such issues,” Talakvadze stated.

The Project Director of the “Nations in Transit” Report, Nate Schenkkan, was dismissive of the criticism, tell OC MEDIA that “Freedom House and Nations in Transit approach our analytical task in a nonpartisan way, as is clear through our scores for Georgia during different governments both under the UNM and GD”.

Máté Földi

19 April 2018 20:28