Less publicized, though no less important for Georgia's democratization process, is Saakashvili's approach to domestic political dilemmas. While trying to reestablish Tbilisi's authority in separatist regions, Saakashvili is simultaneously waging a vigorous domestic struggle to stamp out corruption and firmly establish the rule of law. In pursuing those lofty goals, however, critics contend that the president is using authoritarian means.
Representatives of Georgia's non-governmental sector are among the most vocal critics of Saakashvili's domestic practices - an ironic twist given that Saakashvili relied heavily on the NGO sector in his successful drive to force former president Eduard Shevardnadze from power last November. A significant number of top officials now serving in Saakashvili's administration were prominent civil society actors during the Shevardnadze era. The presence of such officials in government, however, has not been able to squelch the concern over the administration's actions.
An open letter issued in early July by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) to Javier Solana, a top European Union official, expressed concern about a "gap" in the Saakashvili administration's statements on human rights and its actual practices. The letter went on to voice concern over recently adopted constitutional amendments "that have challenged the republican-style balance of powers" by increasing Saakashvili's authority. It also accused the Saakashvili administration of various rights violations. To help support the assertion, the letter cited a July 1 incident in which security forces used force to break up a sit-in at Tbilisi City Hall being carried out by earthquake victims seeking disaster relief.
In addition, FIDH accused Georgian officials of failing to protect the rights of those accused of crimes. "The increasing number of [cases of] torture, inhuman and humiliating treatment, as well as arbitrary detentions also remain matters of deep concern for FIDH," the letter said.
Controversy has continued to build in August, with Saakashvili facing accusations of trying to stifle press freedom. An incident that galvanized presidential critics was the August 2 arrest of Revaz Okruashvili, the editor of the newspaper Khalkhis Gazeti, on drug possession charges. Okruashvili's newspaper has published articles highly critical of Saakashvili's policies. He was released under a "procedural agreement" reached between the defendant and Georgian prosecutors, the Kavkasia-Press news agency reported August 6.
In a July interview with the British Broadcasting Corp, Saakashvili acknowledged the dissatisfaction with his methods, but he scoffed at the notion that he was taking Georgia in an authoritarian direction. "Although things are not perfect, we are developing," Saakashvili said. "Free media and fair elections rule out the existence of a dictatorial regime."
At home, Saakashvili has not shied away from confronting criticism raised by local NGO activists. Referring to the violent dispersal of the July 1 sit-in, Saakashvili told NGO representatives in a recent speech that the government had a right "not to allow the blocking of the entrance of the Mayor's office
John Mackedon is a Tbilisi-based writer.
He works for the on-line publicatin Civil Georgia, and formerly
served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country.