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Georgia: PACE Signals Impatience As Country Lags Behind Democracy Standards

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is set to examine on 26 January a report assessing Georgia's progress in honoring its obligations and commitments as a member state. The report, prepared by Hungarian lawmaker and PACE co-rapporteur on Georgia Matyas Eorsi, says the South Caucasus country has achieved much since the regime change in late 2003. But it also criticizes the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili for lagging behind many standards of democracy.

Prague, 20 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The deliberation will be the second time PACE examines Georgia's performance since the so-called Rose Revolution that ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze from power in November 2003.

A previous debate, on the health of Georgia's democratic institutions, was held in January 2004. That meeting came just days after then-opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president in a landslide victory. It also came weeks ahead of polls that led to an overwhelmingly pro-Saakashvili parliament.

At the time, the Strasbourg-based assembly had cautioned Saakashvili against the creation of a virtual one-party system -- something PACE said could constitute a democratic setback.

Of particular concern was the 7-percent vote threshold needed for political parties to enter the legislature. Only one opposition coalition was able to cross that hurdle and gain a few parliamentary seats last year.
The European assembly notes in its latest report that this "exceptionally high" threshold has resulted in the ruling coalition exerting "almost absolute control over parliament."

The European assembly notes in its latest report that this "exceptionally high" threshold has resulted in the ruling coalition exerting "almost absolute control over parliament." This, PACE says, raises doubts about the "efficiency and credibility" of the legislature's ability to counterbalance the executive.

Speaking from Budapest, Eorsi told RFE/RL that he once again warned Georgia's leaders against the risks of a one-party system during a visit to the country in July.

"They should never forget that many years ago Shevardnadze's party also won [elections] with more than 80 percent of the votes even [though] some of these votes were [fraudulent]," Eorsi said. "You'll never know in a democratic environment when people turn away from the government. So it is very important to have in parliament a government party with a solid majority, but also a strong opposition that can make [its] concerns heard by the public."

Eorsi's new report points to further evidence of the lack of checks and balances under the current Georgian administration.

He cited a constitutional reform that has overextended the powers of the president, executive control over the judiciary, an underdeveloped or nonexistent local democracy, a self-censored media, and a weaker civil society.

Eorsi also said he was particularly concerned at Saakashvili's anticorruption tactics.

Over the past 16 months, many businessmen and former government officials have been thrown into jail on suspicion of corruption. Most of them have been released without trial after agreeing to pay fees equal to or higher than those they had allegedly embezzled.

Georgian authorities have argued that the money retrieved from alleged embezzlers has allowed them to pay pension arrears and cover other urgent social needs.

But Eorsi said this system of "plea bargaining" was incompatible with Council of Europe standards.

"We have to acknowledge that a lot has been done in [fighting corruption] and we all know that combating corruption is not an easy thing, that the results cannot be seen in a fortnight," Eorsi said. "The question is, however, whether the tools [the Georgian leaders] use will achieve the [results] we would all like to see. In our report we criticize the Georgian 'plea bargaining' system, which is somehow different from the Western type of 'plea bargaining' system -- because we think that this goes against the wish of the people to see justice. To let people go free may not be the best idea."

Echoing concerns voiced by many Georgian human rights groups, Eorsi in his report cautions against the risk of police violence and arbitrary use of power, something he says can be seen in Saakashvili's extrajudicial anticorruption methods.

Eorsi writes in the report: "The post-revolutionary situation should not become an alibi for hasty decisions and neglect for democratic and human rights standards."

The Hungarian lawmaker told RFE/RL that despite progress made since the regime change, Georgia still fell behind Council of Europe democratic standards in many areas.

"[On the one hand], we are not impatient," Eorsi said. "But on the other [hand], we are impatient. Georgia is more or less democratic and the 'Rose Revolution' showed that the people wanted changes and could achieve changes. Yet, in the everyday field there is still a lot to do in the country."

The Council of Europe has also expressed a desire to see the Georgian government confirm the autonomous status of the Black Sea republic of Adjara.

Following weeks of tension, Saakashvili eventually restored central authority over the restive province in May. Russia helped secure a peaceful solution to the crisis by convincing Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze to step down and by offering him shelter.

The Georgian government has since appointed a new regional leadership and has routinely ignored recommendations by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission on constitutional matters to legalize Adjara's autonomous status.

Georgia's 1995 constitution says the administrative structure of the country will be put into law once the central government restores authority over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both republics seceded in the late 1980s-early 1990s.

Eorsi told RFE/RL the Council of Europe believed that establishing the legal scope of Ajara's autonomy could help Georgia peacefully restore its territorial integrity.

"In our opinion, the way the government of Adjara is elected depends too [heavily] on the central authorities in Tbilisi," Eorsi said. "I think more freedom should be allocated to Adjara. It is difficult for me to understand why these people cannot be free to elect their leaders. The other problem is that Georgia is fighting to get South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the model Georgia [might] offer Adjara could, in a way, be applicable to [these two republics]. But we fear the [insufficient] autonomy that is offered Adjara [might] not be attractive to South Ossetia and Abkhazia."

Saakashvili has said in the past he would be ready to grant Abkhazia and South Ossetia the "broadest possible autonomy" within a unified Georgia.

But both republics have rejected the idea, insisting they would never renounce their de facto independence.

Saakashvili has made it known that he intends to unveil a new peace plan when he addresses the PACE session in late January.

Eorsi told RFE/RL he welcomed the initiative but warned that no viable settlement could be reached without the participation of all the parties involved.