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Georgia: Open Letter Warns Ruling Party Over Political Intolerance

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has had uneasy relations with representatives of the country's nongovernmental sector. Civil rights activists have denounced Saakashvili's increasing authority and blamed his administration for an increase in arbitrary detentions and brutality by police. This week, a group of 14 independent personalities wrote Saakashvili an open letter in which they caution against the climate of intolerance and fear they say is settling in the country. Saakashvili is due to meet with the signatories next week.

Prague, 21 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As the international community remains focused on President Mikheil Saakashvili's efforts to impose the rule of law, fight corruption, and restore Georgia's territorial integrity, critics at home are voicing concern over some of his domestic practices.

A group of respected Georgian personalities on 18 October expressed their misgivings in an open letter to Saakashvili that was published in some of the country's independent media outlets.

Among the 14 signatories are lawyers, businessmen, journalists, civil rights activists, and heads of nongovernmental groups. All say they have subscribed to the letter as individuals, not as representatives of any organization or media outlet.

Mikheil Chachkhunashvili, executive director of the Tbilisi-based Open Society-Georgia Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that is part of the George Soros Foundations Network, said that what prompted him and the 13 other signatories to take action is the apparent contempt they believe the president and his ministers have for alternative opinions. He said such an attitude puts Georgia's nascent democracy at risk.

"Our main motivation [for writing this letter] is our belief that in a democratic society, alternative opinions must be heard and evaluated accordingly," Chachkhunashvili said. "If things continue like that, we believe the risk [for democracy] is high. Our society already knows the kind of results statements like these can achieve. We believe it is better to speak openly about these problems today than wait for their possible consequences."

The letter's authors caution representatives of Saakashvili's ruling National Movement party against a growing tendency to refer to opponents as "enemies of the state," "traitors" or members of an alleged "fifth column." That, they say, creates a climate of "intolerance" that pervades Georgian politics and the country's social life.

Saakashvili himself has been criticized for using epithets to spur the patriotic feelings of Georgians, as the following statement he made last April in the midst of his dispute with the restive leadership of the autonomous Republic of Adjara shows.
Critics say the situation is all the more dangerous now that the National Movement and its allies control all three branches of power.

"We will not be a happy people if we remain a defeated nation," Saakashvili said. "We will not be a happy people if our honor and dignity are flouted by separatists, enemies, and dwarves."

To former liberal parliamentarian Vakhtang Khmaladze -- another signatory of the open letter -- this attitude smacks not only of the 1992 civil war, but also of Georgia's Soviet past.

"People my age still remember how this can strain relations among people," Khmaladze said. "Younger generations also know that by hearsay. We went through this under the Soviet Union, and we are really afraid our [current] leaders may one day cross the Rubicon and find themselves in a position from where they will find it extremely difficult to backtrack. The outcome would be disastrous."

Critics say the situation is all the more dangerous now that the National Movement and its allies control all three branches of power and that Georgia's tiny parliamentary opposition is unable to check the ruling coalition.

Under such circumstances, Chachkhunashvili said, it is the responsibility of the nongovernmental sector to fulfill the role of whistle-blower.

"The ruling party is eager to achieve results as quickly as possible, and that may explain why sometimes decisions are made too hastily," Chachkhunashvili said. "In the present situation, there is a risk that mistakes are made and this is precisely what we are trying to do -- that is, to point at possible mistakes. We do not question the government's goals. We simply fear such haste may lead them to make mistakes. We fear that may drive us to totalitarianism."

In Khmaladze's opinion, much damage has been done already.

As he tells our correspondent, the political climate is such that it is already affecting freedom of speech.

"Despite my negative opinion of [Shevardnadze], I can say that during his tenure, there was a nearly absolute freedom of speech," Khmaladze said. "There were media that were independent from the government -- even though they were not totally independent. What we see today is a nonofficial censorship and, what I believe is even more serious, a very strong self-censorship. The reason is obvious. It is fear. When a situation emerges in which people live in fear, then this is really dangerous. Should we fail to nip this danger in the bud, the results would be catastrophic. Still, it is not too late."

Saakashvili and his team have, at times, reacted positively to criticism.

For example, the government a few days ago announced a new set of measures to curb torture in prisons, meeting a longtime demand of human rights activists who say police violence and arbitrary detentions have significantly increased since Saakashvili took office.

And the publication of the open letter did trigger a prompt reaction from Saakashvili.

The following day, he had his office contact the signatories to arrange for a meeting, tentatively scheduled for 26 October.