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Opinion: Law enforcement woes risk Georgia's Western aspirations
31 July 2017

Law-enforcement remains a contentious sector in Georgia. "While the most senior members of the government cannot be completely held responsible for the recent failings of the police, they should bear at least some of the blame", argues Timothy Ogden in this op-ed 

By circumstance and fortune, the nations of the former Communist Bloc have gone down two paths since the collapse of the Soviet Union: they have become either burgeoning European countries in the fashion of the Baltic states and Poland, or floundering entities plagued with corruption, war and economic woe, such as Ukraine or Armenia. 

Georgia has long been an anomaly in this regard. Despite the 1990s being dominated by civil strife, conflicts with breakaway territories and the rule of a corrupt government, it did not take long for the country’s revolutionary leadership of 2003 to bring Georgia back from the brink and set it firmly on a path of Westernization. Not even a brief war with Russia five years later was able to stem the tide of progress, and 2012 marked the country’s first democratic transition of power.

But despite Georgia’s high rankings in safety, transparency and democratic accountability, it has yet to replicate the success of the Baltic countries, and remains outside the European Union and NATO. With recent events in Ukraine and Syria bringing relations between Russia and the West to a level unseen since the height of the Cold War, both the EU and United States have been hesitant in granting Georgia the membership status it covets in both Europe and NATO.

It has been understandably frustrating for Georgians to endure what has been an agonizingly slow process. Moldova was granted a visa-free regime long before Georgia, a move that simply seemed both illogical and unfair due to Moldova’s continued problems with endemic corruption and its economy, which has the dubious honor of being the poorest in Europe. It also has its own breakaway territory in the form of Transnistria, albeit one which is less hotly contested than South Ossetia or Abkhazia. In addition, Georgian bitterness over the lack of even a NATO Membership Action Plan has further been exacerbated by the deaths of over 30 Georgian soldiers (with more than 400 wounded) on NATO-led operations, campaigns which many people cannot see have much to do with Georgia’s security, especially since the country’s most implacable enemy has thousands of troops barely 40 miles from Tbilisi.

These factors undoubtedly led to a minor rise in Georgian disenchantment with the West and resulted in a minority pro-Russian political party being elected to Parliament for the first time, but while the Kremlin-aligned Alliance of Patriots won just six seats out of a total 150, this negligible amount clearly demonstrated the dissatisfaction of some Georgians with Brussels and Washington.

Yet none of this is the fault of Georgia’s current government, whatever opposition factions might like to think. The Georgian Dream party, while having made a plethora of mistakes since its rise to power in 2012, cannot be held responsible for the West’s reluctance to provoke Moscow. Georgian politicians have justifiably expressed anger and frustration over the EU’s indecisiveness, most recently with a final delay to the visa-free regime on the grounds of Germany expressing feeble security concerns causing particular outrage.

In short, after so many years, Georgia should know that the West is a hesitant, cautious entity, and make sure that its own affairs are above and beyond suspicion and criticism.

And it is here that the Georgian Dream government has failed.

Last year saw a number of incidents that caused alarm amongst the public, mostly concerned with the police, whose institution has been praised by Georgians and foreigners alike for its competence, efficiency and transparency. Two foreign journalists threatened with knives struggled to secure the help of the police in getting out of danger, while a Georgian lawyer was savagely beaten by police officers while attempting to interview his client. A local journalist was also in a collision with drunken law enforcers, who held him responsible before assaulting him.

 This worrying trend has continued into 2017, with the incarceration of two young rappers whose satirical anti-police video was released barely a day before both men were simultaneously arrested in different parts of the city with the same amount of MDMA on their person. Yet most concerning of all is the case of Afgan Mukhtarli.

It is debatable as to how responsible a government can be for the petty corruption and mindless violence of individual police officers, even if such behavior has – until recently – been something Georgians believe is confined to the horror stories of the 1990s. Yet the abrupt disappearance of an Azerbaijani investigative journalist from Tbilisi (who fled his country due to threats from the openly corrupt government) abruptly reappears in a Baku police cell a day later cannot be due to the actions of one or two officers.

Azerbaijan remains Georgia’s chief strategic partner in the region, a relationship which was further strengthened when SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil and gas company, agreed to supply Georgia with more gas due to a deficit; without Baku’s assistance, Tbilisi might have been forced to broker a deal with Russia’s Gazprom conglomerate. Mukhtarli’s abduction, however, has caused speculation that this comfortable Caucasian partnership might come at the price of the right to free speech. 

Prime Minister Kvirikashvili has been accused of complicity, but it is unlikely that Georgia’s government would risk damaging the European relations they have fostered so carefully for the sake of appeasing Azerbaijan with one troublesome journalist. Under the Georgian Dream leadership, Georgia has signed the Free Trade Agreement with the European Union and achieved a visa-free regime with the Schengen Zone, both of which benefit Georgia far more than Europe and can be suspended at any time. Azerbaijan is Georgia’s principle regional ally, but the government would hardly put its Western aspirations in jeopardy for such a minor appeasement to Baku.

But while the most senior members of the government cannot be completely held responsible for the recent failings of the police, they should bear at least some of the blame. After all, these incidents are occurring under their tenure, and the symbolic firing of the border police chief and the chair of Georgia’s intelligence agency has done nothing to illuminate who was at fault.

The case has drawn comparisons with the Turkish demand to extradite Mustafa Emre Cabuk, the director of a Turkish academy in Tbilisi. Cabuk is accused of having links to Fethulla Gulen, the US-based leader of a movement opposed to the Turkish government, and has been placed in pre-extradition detention in Tbilisi. The Georgian authorities’ insistence that Cabuk will be granted a fair trial in Turkey and treated humanely should be imprisoned has rung somewhat hollow.

While the decision to formally include Georgia in Western bodies rests in hands far from the Caucasus, if the Georgian government is sincere in its stated ambitions it must not give any EU or NATO country any more reasons to deny membership. Recent polls have shown that the Georgian Dream government has lost support since 2012; nothing short of a vast improvement will do if it is to win back the confidence of the public and Georgia’s foreign allies. 

source: Timothy Ogden is a Tbilisi-based journalist and commentator with a particular interest in defence matters and foreign policy. He contributed this op-ed to commonspace.eu

photo: Celebration of "Police Day", held in Tbilisi on 30 May 2017 (picture courtesy of agenda.ge)

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