About 3 thousand prisoners including political ones will be released from Georgian prisons over the next two months as part of a large-scale amnesty. The relevant law came into force on 13 January 2013 as the Georgian Parliament overcame the veto of President Mikhail Saakashvili.
“No one shall be subjected to persecution on political grounds in Georgia, and then the need for such amnesties will be gone. The new government should make every effort for this. Society, media, non-governmental and international organizations need to be more vigilant and uncompromising than under the previous government, which took those decisions on which hundreds of people were imprisoned for political reasons because of the lack of monitoring,” Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia David Usuphashvili declared.
As Georgian Dream MP Zakaria Kutsnashvili told news agency “PenzaNews,” the release of political prisoners was held in accordance with one of the points of the election program of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s party.
“In the past year, many people in Georgia were persecuted on political grounds, some were oppressed just because of their political views. We promised our voters to announce a large-scale amnesty in Georgia after coming to power. Despite all the difficulties, the Parliament was able to overcome the presidential veto, and the law went into effect. Georgia is the first country in the former Soviet Union that officially acknowledged the existence of political prisoners. We have made it clear to the community that people cannot be persecuted or arrested on political grounds because they are born free and have the right to criticize the government, not to like it and oppose it,” the politician stated.
According to him, Mikhail Saakashvili has vetoed the bill, not willing to recognize the existence of political prisoners.
“In his years of power, he [Mikhail Saakashvili] presented the situation as if sustainable democracy was established in Georgia and human rights were protected at the highest level. However, the voters elected Georgian Dream because they recognized political persecution. The people and the Parliament were on the one side and the President — on the other. But the people, as always, won this fight,” said Zakaria Kutsnashvili.
Meanwhile, the deputy noted that representatives of the Georgian Dream will remain supporters of pro-Western foreign policy.
“We are not going to adjust foreign policy. But this does not mean that we will not try to improve and normalize relations with Russia,” he said, adding that some of the issues need not only negotiation but decision-making.
“Transport, humanitarian and visa communications as well as the other areas of human relations need to be improved, and we hope that Russian authorities will take the steps towards it,” Georgian Dream MP noted.
In turn, Kakha Kukava, Chairman of Free Georgia party suggested that Georgian Government should make more effort to normalize the bilateral relations.
“For the current government the priority is the relationship with the United States, and it is a big mistake because Georgia cannot get any benefit of the US-Georgian relations in the sphere of politics, economy and security even in a theoretical sense. However, Russian-Georgian relations are vitally important for the country: Georgia’s economy is totally dependent on the Russian market and investments, the future of the Georgian territories – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – also depends on the relationship between Russia and Georgia. In addition, we belong to the Orthodox Christian Church which unites these two states in the spiritual and cultural sense,” the politician said.
“As for the US, it was just Mikhail Saakashvili’s experiment, and this relationship has brought us nothing but losses for the past 20 years. Reasons for this can be sought in both history and geography. America is far from Georgia, while Russia is a long-standing and reliable partner of our country,” he emphasized.
However, in his opinion, much is changing for the better. Thus, the main achievement of the new government, according to Kakha Kukava, is stabilization of psychological background in the country and provision of more political freedom.
“After the arrival of the new government, they do not arrest people on political grounds, do not disperse demonstrations, or ban free television. The situation cannot to be compared with Saakashvili’s regime,” the politician said.
According to him, Free Georgia party fully supports the ongoing amnesty of political prisoners and the release of “common criminals.”
“There were businessmen in prisons who simply did not want to pay Mikhail Saakashvili’s racketeers; and drug addicts, who must be treated but not arrested. We support this amnesty and find it shameful that the number of prisoners in Georgian jails was the highest per capita number of any European country,” Kakha Kukava stated.
Analyzing potential developments, he suggested that much will depend on the performance of the politicians who came to power.
“If they quickly achieve certain results, Saakashvili will not be able to take revenge. If the new government cannot achieve any tangible results, there may be a sort of “nostalgia” for the previous government. However, I think that Ivanishvili’s government, first of all, should concentrate on Georgian economy and the social promises that were made during the election campaign,” the politician said.
Meanwhile, James Nixey, Head of Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House stressed that this interim year between parliamentary and presidential elections in Georgia is extremely important. However, it is yet impossible to evaluate the effectiveness of the new government.
“The initial words of the Saakashvili regime were also extremely promising; but once a new government is still being built we do not really know the extent to which its policy will be implemented. Moreover, we still do not know enough about the true character of Ivanishvili’s vision and what are his instincts. Instincts are quite important in politics,” the British expert said.
In his opinion, Georgia’s relations with Russia will not be easy.
“Ivanishvili’s probable instincts are pro-Western whereas Vladimir Putin’s instincts are Eurasian. And these two things will come to clash at some point, I suspect. But for now, the matter is if Ivanishvili is ready to negotiate and if he can be mollifying,” James Nixey said, adding that the harder work is down the road.
In turn, Uwe Halbach, Senior Research Fellow at German Foundation for “Science and Politics” drew attention to the emergence of political competition in Georgia.
“Before October 2011, i.e. before Bidzina Ivanishvili’s entry into Georgia’s domestic politics, there was practically no real challenge to President Saakashvili’s monopoly of political power and the exclusive position of his party United National Movement (UNM). Now after the parliamentary elections the situation changed dramatically with the former party of power in a minority position in the new parliament and in opposition and the former oppositional coalition of the Georgian Dream in a majority position in the parliament, where it was not represented at all before October 2012, and in the position of building the government,” the expert reminded.
Whether this more competitive situation means more political freedom will be dependent on whether it will develop within a framework of “fair play” or will derail into dirty political power games and an uncompromising polarization of political forces in the country, Uwe Halbach said.
“As for amnesty, though there are acceptable juridical arguments for the release of political prisoners I’m afraid that the dispute on amnesty is part of a political game. The topics of the large-scale amnesty on the one side and the current detentions of former government figures because of the abuse of power on the other side seem to be highly politicized,” the analyst explained.
In addition, he expressed confidence that relations between Georgia and Russia will continue to be quite complicated.
“Saakashvili’s and the UNM’s accusation that Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream are bringing back the country into the past and into Russia’s post-imperial orbit of power has accompanied the whole election campaign since October 2011. The new government is not at all changing Georgia’s foreign policy vectors fundamentally. It tries to invent a more pragmatic and realistic feature into the policy towards Russia and the coping of the problems with the “breakaway territories” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, there are “red lines” which will not be passed. Georgia’s territorial integrity will not be put into question by the new and more pragmatic government personal for foreign and security policy and conflict resolution like Alasania, Zakareishvili or Panjikidze. Development of the relations between Georgia and Russia will depend on how much Russia is ready to respond positively to Tbilisi’s new approaches beyond the “red lines” i.e. approaches on the field of economy, “people to people” contacts and culture,” Uwe Halbach said.
The independent Georgian publicist and the political scientist, the editor-in-chief of the information agency “Gruzinform” Arno Khidirbegishvili also sees no factors indicating a change in foreign policy.
“Ivanishvili speaks about improving relations with the neighboring country; he is sane in this respect. But he and his team are the same pro-Americans as representatives of the Saakashvili regime. No political forces advocating foreign policy change – for example, Kakha Kukava’s Free Georgia party, party led by Nino Burjanadze – were allowed to coalition, Parliament or election,” the analyst stated.
He also added that this situation became possible due to the deep influence of the US.
“America has invested huge resources in Georgia and will “break the arms” of anybody who will act at his own discretion. Whatever it takes, the US will continue to advance its interests, while Saakashvili and Ivanishvili will follow the specified path because one day the United States swept the incumbent president into power and at some period of time replaced him with Ivanishvili just because they need a leader of Georgia who can control the electorate,” he explained.
According to him, all the current events in Georgia occur on the instruction of the main strategic partner of the republic – the United States, “which do not allow the incumbent president to make any sudden moves and do not allow the newly elected Prime Minister to fully implement the legitimate operation to uncover former government’s crimes.”
Asked about the large-scale amnesty, Arno Khidirbegishvili confirmed that political persecution took place in the country, and also stressed that very often people who had committed minor crimes were sentenced to disproportionately long imprisonment.
“The courts were clearly working for the government; the number of acquittals was minimal. However, I think that certain forces that want to demonstrate incapacity of the new leadership, will provoke rise in crime in an attempt to prove that the amnesty was unjustified,” the expert said.
Moreover, according to the analyst, the former leadership of the country will try to stand up to the party which came to power.
“Saakashvili is a political bankrupt, he ended his political career. The UNM is compromised and discrediting still continues. However, there are very experienced leaders in the UNM who can regroup and create a new party. They are unlikely to regain power in a short time, but they have electorate support in Western Georgia and in the areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. Now the situation in the country is mainly controlled by the Georgian Dream but the party will face a lot of resistance from representatives of the former regime,” the analyst concluded.