By Giorgi Lomsadze
Georgia has become the first post-Soviet country outside of the Baltics to ban former KGB operatives and senior Communist Party and Komsomol officials from holding public office. While many Georgians welcome the move, some critics worry that the measure could easily lead to civil rights abuses.
Under the so-called Freedom Charter, approved by parliament on May 31, ex-officials and operatives will have six months to report themselves to a committee within the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs. The law differs from many of its European equivalents, however, by also targeting current collaborators of foreign intelligence services – largely interpreted as meaning Russia’s military intelligence and foreign intelligence agencies.
Georgia’s political establishment makes little distinction between the former Soviet Union and today’s Russia; even less so after Tbilisi’s 2008 war with Russia. Some observers believe that the charter targets the past as a way to contend with the security challenges of the present.
There seems to be plenty of ambiguity built into the legislation. One representative from each of parliament’s four factions (plus, any faction formed by its 10 independent deputies), along with an unspecified number of Interior Ministry officials, will sit on the committee that determines the fate of former apparatchiks. The number of votes needed to put a person on the ministry’s black list has not been finalized. Civil society representatives and constitutional law specialists will have no role in the process. Nor will the public at large be allowed to look at individuals’ KGB files, now stored in the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ archives.
No precise timeframe has been specified for the purge of Georgia’s political and government ranks, also called “lustration.” Conceivably, the committee would be most active during an election campaign season. Under the law, the Central Election Commission will submit all candidate applications to the committee for review; those found to have had undesirable past connections will be blocked from running for office.
Evidentiary standards also have not been established for proving active collaboration with the KGB, or for determining participation in Communist Party or Komsomol (Communist Youth) policymaking. Soon after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, fire destroyed a large part of Tbilisi’s KGB archives. Another part was evacuated to Russia. The ability of the 100,000 or so documents still in the Interior Ministry’s hands to shed sufficient light on the past activities of Georgians may prove limited.
Some critics contend that the program will create more problems than it will solve. “It is a huge hodgepodge of laws that pull in various directions,” said historian Lasha Bakradze, director of Tbilisi’s Literature Museum. Portions of the law essentially have been copied from similar Eastern European and German documents, he noted. The Freedom Charter, for instance, also bans the public display of Nazi symbols, which, apart from the rare piece of street graffiti, do not exist in Georgia.
Some analysts fear that the Freedom Charter could be manipulated for political purposes. Parties that enjoy representation in parliament, including the governing United National Movement, could, for example, use it to suppress parties that do not have seats in the legislature, and which, therefore, do not have representatives on the commission.
“It is very good that all parliamentary factions will be in this commission, but the law does not specify what would be the decision-making mechanism, and whose voices will carry more weight — those of the parliamentarians or the Interior Ministry officials,” said Eka Gigauri, executive director of the Georgia office of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
Those individuals banned from public office would be able to appeal their cases in court, but Georgian courts do not have a strong track record of ruling against the government.
In its review of the Freedom Charter, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, which supports the lustration provisions, charged that the judiciary system effectively has been shut out of the process. Court cases may be filed only after an individual has been banned from public office. It also questioned why the charter targeted current espionage for foreign states, an activity already addressed by Georgia’s criminal code and constitution.
“[The] Freedom Charter attempts to place itself above the limits of the criminal code and the Constitution, and restrict[s] beyond these limits the rights of Georgian citizens to take any public office,” GYLA wrote.
Other civil rights could also be at risk. Under the law, extra-judiciary powers have been granted to police to monitor the financial remittances made to and by individuals under review. The charter also empowers police to keep a video eye on “strategic facilities” without a court order. The definitions of such facilities are unclear — bakeries are listed as such; water supplies and roads, however, are not.
The law’s sponsor, opposition MP Gia Tortladze, could not be reached for comment. Representatives of the governing United National Movement, which voted in favor of the Freedom Charter, deferred all questions to Tortladze.
Not only does the charter seek to purge anyone with a tainted Soviet past, in a continuation of the campaign that toppled Gori’s Stalin statue last year, all Soviet-era symbols are slotted for removal. The prospect does not sit well with some architects and historical preservation activists. Hammers and sickles are woven into Tbilisi bridge railings; a red star still sits atop the city’s Soviet-era Academy of Sciences. Parliament may have lost its worker and peasant statues long ago, but the official emblem of Soviet Georgia, now nearly faded into oblivion, still adorns its pediment.
Some government sources maintain that they do not envision any large-scale demolition campaign — only a select few buildings would be targeted, they claim — but here, too, the law faces criticism that Georgian society itself has been shut out of the process.
“I am all for unveiling the Soviet past and the workings of the Soviet system, but this should be public knowledge, not something available to small groups of politicians,” historian Bakradze said. “Any attempt at monopolization of knowledge is fraught with risks of abusing this knowledge.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.