Are there political prisoners in Georgia? US intervenes in dispute between gov’t, opposition on election agreement
After a several week-long pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, politics in Georgia have returned to an active state of confrontation between the authorities and the opposition. The opposition accuses the authorities that the latter has once again violated their word and a previously concluded agreement.
This time, foreign diplomats are involved, including the US ambassador. It was through the mediation of diplomats on March 8 that the opposition and the authorities reached an agreement on the rules for holding the upcoming parliamentary elections. This agreement may now be in doubt.
The opposition claims that one of the main conditions of the agreement was the release of political prisoners. Authorities say they could not have agreed to this condition, since there are no political prisoners in the country.
Both sides refer to foreign diplomats involved in the process as witnesses.
Parliamentary elections in Georgia are scheduled for October 2020. Since Georgia is a parliamentary republic, these elections are crucial – whoever wins them will be in power for the next four years.
Who is right in this dispute, and will the important agreement that was concluded with the mediation of the US ambassador and other foreign diplomats be violated?
A ‘historic’ agreement
On March 8, after months of consultations, representatives of the ruling party and the opposition agreed on an electoral model for 2020.
Today, the country has a mixed model: half of the 150 MPs are elected by party lists, half by majoritarian single-member constituencies. The opposition demanded a transition to a fully proportional system, because a majority system gives the party in power a significant advantage.
The media called the agreement ‘historic’, as many expected that it would put an end to months-long protest.
The agreement reached at the US Embassy on March 8 was the first serious “case” of the newly appointed US Ambassador to Georgia, Kelly Degnan.
The ruling party then made a concession – it was decided that elections would be held according to the 120/30 model, that is, 120 MPs would be elected according to proportional lists, and 30 according to majoritarian districts
The essence of the dispute
Representatives of the opposition said after the meeting that it had also been decided to release what they said were political prisoners.
This, the opposition says, would have entailed freeing former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili and opposition activists Besik Tamliani and Giorgi Rurua. As for the former mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, the opposition claimed he would be pardoned by the president.
The memorandum does not mention the term “political prisoner” and does not indicate specific names. The text is written in diplomatic terms and speaks of the need to respond to the “politicization of the judicial and electoral processes.”
However, many participants in the meeting (including Irma Inashvili, the leader of the most loyal-to-the government opposition party) confirmed that government officials promised to release persons detained for political reasons – including Gigi Ugulava, Irakli Okruashvili, Giorgi Rurua and Besik. Only Besik Tamliani, convicted of participating in the events of June 20, was released from this list.
As Grigol Vashadze stated then, despite the fact that the text of the agreement does not contain either names or a direct obligation to release someone, intermediaries – foreign diplomats – are guarantors of this condition.
Who is lying?
The US Embassy in Georgia, as the main mediator in the negotiations, reacted to the dispute between the authorities and the opposition.
“The agreement reached is well known to the public. It is equally supported by both the Georgian people and the international community. We note that the agreement consists of two parts, one of which is devoted to the electoral system, and the other is to resolving issues similar to political interference in the judicial system,” the embassy said in a statement issued on May 11.
In a statement, the embassy notes that both parties must abide by the terms of the agreement.
Member of the European Parliament Andris Kubilius reacted to what was happening and addressed an open letter to the Georgian authorities with a call to implement the agreement reached with the opposition on March 8. According to him, progress in the implementation of the agreement has not yet been achieved.
The harshest statement was made on May 12 by US Senator, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Riesch.
“I expect that the political parties of Georgia will fully comply with the March agreement, including the release of political prisoners and the progress of the new electoral system,” the senator wrote on his Twitter page.
What do the authorities say?
From the very first day after the signing of the memorandum, the government began to refute that “political prisoners” were mentioned in the document.
“There are no political prisoners in Georgia,” Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said on May 9.
“All facts and documents, including the text of the agreement itself, clearly indicate that the ruling party in no way promised to release the prisoners,” said Speaker of the Georgian Parliament Archil Talakvadze on the same day.
However, the former leader of the Georgian Dream parliamentary faction, MP Tamar Chugoshvili, who was present at the talks, said that no one required the ruling party to acknowledge the presence of political prisoners, but “the meaning of the agreement was to release these people from prison.”
What will happen to the elections?
The agreement reached on March 8 is so far only on paper. The law to change the electoral system must still be adopted by parliament.
Opposition parties in parliament – the United National Movement and European Georgia – are not going to support the bill if the authorities do not fulfill the part of the agreement regarding political persecution.
The opposition suggests that Washington will increase pressure on the government of the Georgian Dream.
Politicians and experts pay attention to the term “political prisoners”, used in the statement of Jim Risch, and see it as a sign that the international community is changing its policy towards Georgia.
“The Georgian dream has crossed the line in its lies and irresponsibility. They made sure that one of the senior US senators speaks directly about political prisoners in Georgia,” said David Usupashvili, one of the leaders of the Lelo political movement.
Giga Bokeria, the leader of the European Georgia party, does not exclude the possibility of the USA imposing sanctions against the government of the Georgian Dream:
“This has happened more than once, including in Moldova. The position of all friends of Georgia is the same – (the leader of the ruling party Bidzina) Ivanishvili must fulfill the promise he made to friends of Georgia and Georgian society – to release political prisoners.”
Some analysts also consider the mention of the term “political prisoner” by the US senator as a warning signal.
“The use of the term ‘political prisoner’ in relation to Georgia by the chairman of the foreign affairs committee is the last moment, after which we should expect a change in policy regarding Georgia as a whole,” said Batu Kutelia, the former Georgian ambassador to the United States.
In his opinion, it is possible that Ivanishvili and his entourage will fall under personal sanctions from Washington.