Georgia’s prison torture scandal is the tip of the iceberg in the ‘model democracy’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

A country famed for its Rose Revolution, Georgia has wound up with a president – a hero in those days – who now declares in Parliament that 'I deserve to rule this country for one generation', writes Tedo Japaridze.

Tedo Japaridze is a former Georgian foreign minister and the chief foreign-policy adviser of the Georgian Dream Party.

"Georgia is now back on the world’s TV screens. In 2003 it was the Rose Revolution. Four years ago it was a war with Russia. This time it’s a horrible and disgusting scandal in our prisons, a bizarre evolution.

This is not the kind of attention we want. Better that we impress the world with democratic elections and our transition to democracy.

But in the market of public perception, it’s often said that one picture is worth 1,000 words – a value leveraged, perhaps, by the advancement of social media. The picture seems almighty today. But this is not necessarily true.

The images of prison torture were but the tip of the iceberg. In a country once hailed as 'a beacon of democracy' (by the U.S.) and 'a success story' in the fight against corruption (by the World Bank), Georgian entrepreneurs now face  punitive laws that are selectively enforced in what might be called rule by extortion rather than the rule of law. Dig deeper into society, and the picture gets uglier.

A nation once acknowledged as taking serious steps toward educational reform is now a land where the finest teachers are fired on suspicion of “independent thinking,” or joining the opposition.

A country famed for its Rose Revolution has wound up with a president – a hero in those days – who now declares in Parliament that 'I deserve to rule this country for one generation'.

In short, those who think that this country wedged between Russia, Turkey and Iran is suffering the usual hiccups of democratisation have missed the latest memo. Democratic transition in Georgia has stalled.        

We now have an authoritarian regime, complete with cages and torturers. We are witnessing the failure not only of a prison system, but the collapse of a system of governance as well. Yet somehow this picture remains under the radar screen in the West, where people keep calling Georgia 'a model democracy'.

It’s always amazing to see what kinds of stories do not make the news. A few months ago, another video went out, describing the mechanics of rigging of elections – past, present and possibly future.

The clip was filled with black humour, as a journalist quizzed an expert on the vote-rigging process. The trick, he explained, isn’t stuffing the ballot boxes, but omitting the envelopes you are 'uncertain' about.

One wonders if Western election monitors parachuting into Tbilisi saw that footage. I’ve seen no reference to it in Freedom House indicators or in the reports of human rights organisations.

The world tends to pay attention to Georgia – a country roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland or West Virginia if you exclude occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia – only when brutality is involved: War gets attention, as do waves of refugees travelling with starving children and despairing elderly people.

A revolution with appropriate footage of street fighting does the trick, as do images of inmates being beaten and tortured.

Yet these grainy pictures of human misery could in fact come from many countries in the Caucasus. The focus on specific human depredations allows the viewer in a safer, more democratic part of Europe to contemplate in comfort that such horrors are, thankfully, far away. What is newsworthy about Georgia, it seems, is rarely 'about Georgia'.

The torture story, after all, reached a semi-acceptable climax. The interior minister resigned! And the president fired everyone! A few seconds later, no one will be thinking that torture is always – without fail – a political act.

Whenever and wherever torture is acceptable, new torturers emerge. In Georgia the message for too long has been that you can disappear – be imprisoned, beaten and raped without anyone noticing.  Unless videos are leaked, of course.

This observation holds true for the larger geopolitical picture. Georgia is a potential gateway for the trafficking of humans, small arms, nuclear material and narcotics.

Diplomatic attention is often drawn to the country’s potential as a transit corridor for trade and energy. Georgia is always a hub of some sort. And that, again, is the perpetual bottom line: Georgia is important for where it is, not for what it is.

No one cares until something goes seriously wrong, as it did in its war with Russia in 2008.  And then it’s usually too late to do something.

Regretfully, we have never had the 'peaceful transfer of power' that President Barack Obama wished for. Nor did Georgia have the 'level-playing field' that German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called for.

And we definitely didn’t pave the way toward the 'return to Europe' that everybody wanted. Even if we were, in the foreseeable future, to join the European Union, would we become European in our outlook and mindset?

That President Saakashvili suggests what happens in Georgian prisons happens daily in Europe and the U.S. is outrageous, and if it happened, then a government would be forced to resign.

Democracy remains on the wish list of ever-elusive benchmarks for Georgia. But the question is, will the West do something to ensure that normal democratic elections take place in Georgia?

As next week’s elections approach, the Western press has paid attention to some stories 'about Georgia', not least about its opposition. With a rather condescending tone, we have heard that 'messiah politics' are common in Georgia, implying that the poor ignorant folk of this country are, once again, placing their hopes on a single man. But what is the alternative?

Until recently, Georgia lacked a credible political opposition, reflecting the government’s de facto monopoly on the media and its habit of amending the constitution to suit its needs, not to mention the fear that anyone can land in the very prisons that have appalled the world.

There was little room for an opposition. Yet once again we have heard journalists refer, with a condescending tone, to “a plutocrat” entering politics.

Georgians are deeply religious people. They hope and pray. But they also work.

Bidzina Ivanisvili was a poor man who left home, made money and came back home to make a difference.

He has already channeled $1.7 billion of his personal wealth into building infrastructure, patronising the arts, funding agricultural development and simply plugging the holes of government deficits.

In time, he realised that money makes a difference, but does not make all the difference. Governance itself must change.

And to make this kind of a difference, he must play by the rules, because this country does not need another revolution; it needs rules; it needs the next evolutionary step ahead. He was soon to discover that this was not a sound choice.

Even if you have money and power, the government can strip you of your citizenship, pillage your personal assets, and ensure that the state wields a media monopoly. You must swallow all that and more, while paying bogus government fines of $100 million and thus “helping” the same Government to use that extorted money for their own campaign.

That might be money well spent, if it leads somewhere. But as this campaign draws to a close, one cannot help thinking that anyone else, besides Bidzina Ivanishvili, would be in much more trouble. So much for 'plutocracy'.

No one can – or will – stop this government. Yet Georgians will, come Oct. 1, go to the polls and, for a few hours, they will hope for the emergence of a rather uneventful country that doesn’t attract media attention. They will hope for change.

If their timid hope is betrayed, it won’t be for the first time. Business will continue as usual. Domestic stability will be enforced by fear. Georgia, the gateway, along the old Silk Road, will still be seen as a potential bottleneck. And everyone will ask whether peace with Russia can be secured, so Georgia can escape the limbo of 'not-war'.

But nothing will be done until something has to be done. Europe will 'report' and, at times, 'regret.' Washington will 'encourage' and, at times 'raise questions'. In prisons, torturers will be more careful.

Until, that is, something goes seriously wrong and everyone is invited to 'take action'. Before we come to that, Georgians will, again and again, seek hope wherever they can find it."