Allow me to begin by extending my personal and my Government’s gratitude to you Mr. Chairman and the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe for inviting me to this meeting which, on the one hand, speaks on the growing interest to my country and the whole region, but also, coincides with the deteriorated security conditions caused by the aggressive and threatening actions of the Russian Federation towards Georgia.
Based on the problems described in your letter, Mr. Chairman, I will first elaborate on the state of affairs in the field of democratic institutions and human rights.
The protection of human rights is one of the key priorities of Georgia. A series of measures have been implemented to provide the human rights protection. After the adoption of the Constitution of Georgia new legislation has been created which is in line with international law. The Constitutional Court, which plays significant role in the implementation of constitutional guarantees of human rights, was established. The Office of Public Defender of Georgia has performed serious activities. Georgia became a full member of the Council of Europe, ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and other important instruments in the field of human rights protection. Judicial reform has been implemented; NGO’s are active and the media seriously participate in political life of the State.
In my view, and this is not only my view, since it has been shared by a number of western experts, among the former Soviet republics, and especially among the CIS countries, Georgia has been one of the leading countries in protecting human rights. Georgia is to be given recognition for its achievements in the democratization of the political, social and economic aspects of its development. Georgia’s commitment to a free press and respect of political rights have been remarkable in a region of the world not yet known for ensuring respect of basic human rights to their full extent. That is why in diplomatic circles expectations for Georgia are so high.
At the same time, it has to be mentioned that serious difficulties still exist in the protection of human rights. The particular matter of concern is the growth of the number of facts relating to religious intolerance, so far there is a lot of complaints on the violations of constitutional human rights. We fully recognize the existing problems in this area and all these cases are publicly discussed in the Parliament, Government and media.
In the light of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, the local elections were viewed by the majority of the political parties as some sort of warm up before the “bigger” elections.
According to the preliminary data available, the two parties in opposition have taken leading positions in the local elections 2002. These are the “Labor (Shromis) Party of Georgia” (Sh. Natelashvili) and the “National Movement-Democratic Front” (M. Saakashvili). The next places have been won by “The New Rights”, so-called “Entrepreneurs”, the Christian Conservative Party (Z. Zhvania), etc.
Unfortunately, in Tbilisi, Rustavi, Zugdidi and Khashuri many incidents occurred that resulted in violations of electoral procedure. The Central Electoral Commission declared elections, which had been held there, null and void and appointed a date to hold new voting.
On 4 June the Central Electoral Commission issued an ordinance #82/2002, which was supported by a vast majority of its members (14 vs. 4), to re-count electoral bulletins in order to “clarify final results of the elections” held in Tbilisi. This procedure is underway.
Attack on the NGO “Liberty Institute”
Immediately following this intolerable accident the President of Georgia issued Ordinance #982 (12 July 2002) entitled “On attacks committed against members of the Liberty Institute”. This normative act instituted the criminal proceedings and tasked the appropriate law-enforcement agencies, particularly the Ministry of Interior and the Prosecutor General’s Office of Georgia to ensure immediate and qualified investigation of the fact in question, exploit every legal means available in order to timely disclose the crime and establish perpetrators, and keep society periodically informed regarding the course of the investigation and its results.
In conformity with its domestic legislation and international treaties to which it is a State party, Georgia has assumed an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression. Georgia has acceded to the ICCPR and ECHR, which protect the right of freedom of expression, according to their articles 19 and 10, respectively. In particular, this right includes the right to criticize elected representatives and public servants, who should tolerate a greater degree of criticism than ordinary citizens, as established by the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. Moreover, the Constitution of Georgia (Article 19) also protects the right to freedom of expression; provisions contained in the article under review are fully in line with widely recognized norms and principles of international law.
The Government of Georgia has already taken certain legal and practical steps to hold individuals who committed this crime accountable before the law. Respective bodies of the Ministry of Internal Affairs have been investigating the criminal case linked to the attack on the Liberty Institute. A suspect has already been apprehended and the investigative agencies are working now to collect evidence to establish his guilt or innocence.
We shall inform all interested institutions in due course concerning results of the ongoing investigation. The Government of Georgia is going to continue to strengthen its efforts to protect free speech.
Religious intolerance: Manifestations and Measures to Overcome It
Until recently there were no signs of religious intolerance in Georgia. On the contrary, for centuries in the capital of Georgia temples of different religions co-exist peacefully, in the vicinity of each other. Not only orthodox believers live in Georgia. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims, followers of Armenian Church, Catholics, and Israelites permanently reside in our country and neither orthodox believers, nor the Georgian state have ever had instances of intolerance.
Some problems have recently arisen relating to certain non-traditional religious groups. This is a rather new phenomenon for our country, and some things in this respect proved to be unexpected. It is obvious now that the activities in question have become unacceptable for a significant part of Georgian society. We have uncovered a series of unpleasant incidents, which are linked closely to religious motives.
In order to explain the origins of intolerance directed against religious minority groups, let me describe some recent events.
For ages the Georgian Orthodox Church has played specific role in the preservation of our country’s statehood and the Georgian nation itself. This role is reflected in the Constitution of our country. (NB. The Constitution of Georgia (Article 9) states that the State recognizes the special role of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the history of Georgia, but simultaneously declares complete freedom of religious belief and confessions and the independence of the Church from the State.) That is why the public feels very strongly about keeping the Georgian Orthodox Church as a keystone of the independent Georgian state, an instrument to protect its historical and cultural heritage and traditions. As a result, certain part of our society expresses its disapproval of the activities of non-traditional religious groups, because, in their opinion, these groups are seeking to undermine the foundations of our state. Obviously, such an approach is erroneous. We need to change this mentality, and we are sure this is only a matter of time. In our opinion, this is the most important prerequisite to put an end to religion-based extremism, in order to restore the traditions of tolerance for which the West is rightly famous.
We will ensure that the activities of various religious groups, including both traditional and non-traditional ones, are legally regulated by passing a specific law. Steps made in this regard are being discussed below.
The President’s approach
When talking about the current situation, we would like to quote first the President of Georgia to emphasize his attitude toward religious tolerance:
“I must say that the issue of religious minorities has been the focus of serious concern among our people and the government. Respect for all religious faiths has always been an inseparable part of Georgia’s historical heritage. /…/Yet in the process of building a new democratic society, Georgia has encountered problems involving the members of minority faiths. The relations with Jehovah’s Witnesses have become particularly complicated. /…/
In Georgia, I regret to say, the strong sentiments of some groups against Jehovah’s Witnesses have on several occasions sparked violent confrontations. Particularly outrageous manifestations of such hostile behavior were the assaults by the defrocked Orthodox priest and his followers on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I strongly condemned this act and called for the punishment of the perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law. /…/
All acts of harassment and physical violence will be prosecuted and the perpetrators will be held accountable before the law”.
The Georgian Orthodox Church has made a public statement qualifying the acts of violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses as an attempt to discredit the Orthodox Church.In seeking solution to these problems, the Government is currently considering urgent steps to guarantee the equality and freedom of all religions before the law. Promotion of interfaith dialogue has been widely discussed at Government meetings as well as at the committee hearings of the Parliament. Intensive work is underway on drafting the Law on Religion.
Recently, in his letter to the Members of the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the President of Georgia has reiterated his attitudes in this respect:
“I strongly condemn any form of religious extremism and religion-based violence. They are absolutely inadmissible and should not go unpunished in any society that calls itself democratic, let alone civilized. Georgia has always been a tolerant country and it is imperative that this tradition must be continued in the future.
I am fully aware that no valid arguments can be advanced to justify acts of violence committed against religious minorities. Any act of this kind is a crime under Georgia’s criminal legislation and persons committing them ought to be held responsible. The same is true of law enforcement officials who refuse to perform their duties and look on as angry crowds resort to violence.
Let me assure you that I am fully determined to eliminate any further manifestations of religious extremism. As a matter of fact some appropriate steps have been taken to properly investigate all cases, bring perpetrators to justice and punish them in accordance with the existing law”.
On 16 January 2002 the President of Georgia issued Ordinance entitled “On Measures to be Implemented in Connection with the Public Defender’s Six-Month report 2001”. According to this document, the Ministry of Justice of Georgia was tasked with elaborating a draft law on the freedom of conscious and religious organizations, in compliance with international obligations of our country in the field of human rights.
Steps taken by the Parliament
On March 30, 2001 the Parliament of Georgia adopted its Resolution on manifestations of religious extremism. I quote:
“The Parliament of Georgia resolves:
- The law enforcement bodies of Georgia should act in full conformity with the Constitution of Georgia and eliminate any manifestations of religious extremism;
- The Public Defender of Georgia should pay particular attention to the manifestations of religion-based crimes and make sure that the religious freedoms of Georgian citizens guaranteed by the Constitution of Georgia, are protected;
- The Parliamentary Committees on the Rule of Law and Administrative Reforms, on Human Rights and Petitions, on Civil Society Building and Integration should elaborate appropriate legislative proposals to regulate the activities of various religious groups;
- The Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Petitions and the Committee on Civil Society Building and Integration are responsible to report, on a regular basis, on the implementation of this Resolution”.
Steps taken by law enforcement and judicial bodies with respect to the cases related to religion-based intolerance
A series of criminal proceedings were instituted following the facts of religious extremism that entailed mob violence against representatives of various religious minorities (not only Jehovah’s Witnesses). The Prosecutor-General’s Office has already investigated these cases, and conclusions to indict have been directed to the court. Unfortunately, the court trial has not yet resulted in punishing perpetrators.
According to the Prosecutor-General’s Office of Georgia, the Tbilisi Prosecutor’s Office investigated several criminal cases initiated against defrocked priest B. Mkalavishvili and his accomplices P. Ivanidze and others, and these persons have been brought to criminal responsibility because of committing the following crimes: beating and battery, coercion, illegal obstruction of performance of religious rites, etc. On 5 October 2001 this criminal case was transferred to the Tbilisi Circuit Court. No decision has yet been rendered.
Nevertheless, some quite unacceptable incidents of religion-based violence still persist. The most alarming events are connected with the burning of a great deal of books belonging to the Baptist community of Georgia, in February 2002.
NB. According to the data provided by the Prosecutor-General’s Office of Georgia (28.08.2002), in connection with various offences committed against religious minorities’ interests, 22 criminal cases were instituted in 2000-2002, along with 5 more files on analogous inquiries. Out of these cases 3 were suspended due to failure to disclose them, 7 cases were transferred to the court based on relevant conclusion to indict, 9 cases were joined together and preliminary investigation on it is being performed by the Department of Investigation, Tbilisi Prosecutor’s Office. 3 cases are being investigated by Kaspi and Gori MIA investigative services and the MIA Department of Investigation, respectively.
On May 17, 2002 the President of Georgia issued a special Decree #240 “On measures aimed at strengthening human rights protection in Georgia”. In particular, the President of Georgia has tasked the Procuracy, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia with taking corresponding measures to: ensure the implementation of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief; investigate and submit to the court each act of violence committed against religious minorities in order to have the perpetrators punished; train personnel in the field of human rights, including the matter of inadmissibility of religion-based intolerance.
As you may be aware, in conformity with the principle of separation of powers, the court is independent in our country. Neither the President of Georgia, nor other bodies or officials are allowed to influence the judgments it makes in any way. But, in conformity with the Decree of th President of Georgia, the Council of Justice of Georgia is expected to attach particular attention to the consideration of court cases related to violence, torture or degrading treatment against religious minority groups, so that these cases are tried without any obstacles and undue delay.
We are hopeful that after all these assignments are executed, we will be in a position to say – religion-based intolerance in Georgia has no future and manifestations of religiously motivated violence no longer occur.
Respect for human rights, recognition of their importance is one of the criteria that cannot be neglected in Georgia. In our past we could not even imagine that somebody could enjoy basic human rights and freedoms. I would like to avail myself of this opportunity and express my hope that freedom of speech and expression, as well as other civil and political rights, will not be jeopardized in the future.
These freedoms are a result of our long-lasting struggle and we are not going to give them up.
Georgia's security and relations with Russia
The great majority of Georgia's domestic and foreign political problems, particularly those related to its security are, with different intensity, linked to our relations with Russia. Interstate relations today have reached the worst and most dangerous phase in our history.
Georgia is not alone among the post-soviet states. During and after the breakup of the USSR, Russia had a number of serious problems with almost all of this states, particularly, with those who made the establishment of independent statehood their utmost priority.
At issue is what does Russia want from the post-soviet states? Or to change the emphasis, what does Russia not want and will not accept from them? There is only one answer - Russia does not like and does not accept the statehood and sovereignty of its former "junior brothers". Of course this is an oversimplified response. The situation is more complex and intricate. It has a lot of very deep and complex aspects. I am not in a position to speak on behalf of others, but in the case of Georgia, the Russian policy towards us is extremely aggressive, hostile and humiliating. These are the facts:
1) Russia has violated sovereign Georgian airspace repeatedly against our warnings to cease. The Bush administration has condemned these violations of our air space. We have been, in the last two months, bombed half a dozen times. International observers (including Russians) from the OSCE and the United States confirmed those violations. The Russian Federation not only brazenly denies conducting air raids which have resulted in casualties, but it blames the Georgian side that its aviation has bombed its own citizens.
2) Russia has repeatedly attempted to send and deploy units of paratroopers in the Northern regions of Georgia. Only President Shevardnadze’s personal involvement in the case and his courageous visit to these regions resolved the situation;
3) Russia says publicly that it recognizes the sovereignty and territorial integrity of neighboring Georgia. But its actions tell a different story. Russia has nurtured separatist movements in the northern regions, supports militarily separatists and integrates Abkhazia and South Ossetia into the Russian Federation, unilaterally introducing the visa regime with Georgia and exampting separatist regions from it. The international community has condemned these attempts to annex parts of Georgia by Russia.
4) Russia is successfully dragging out peace negotiations on the so called "frozen" conflicts. Russia having the status of facilitator in negotiations on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is blocking the process of negotiations and effectively creating obstacles for rapprochement of conflicting parties. Russia, without any sense of responsibility and discrediting its own role of mediator, facilitator and peacekeeper, openly supports separatism outside and fights it inside the Russian Federation.
5) Russia has not implemented its international commitments made in Istanbul in 1999 regarding the closure and withdrawal of the Russian military bases in Georgia. Russian military base at Gudauta, Abkhazia plays particularly negative role by backing Abkhaz separatist regime since the beginning of the conflict. One of the key principles of CFE Treaty – free consent of host nation on deployment of foreign troops – has been violated. Russia completely ignores all suggestions of the Georgian side to continue negotiations on the withdrawal of RMBs from Georgia, thus hampering the ratification process of the adapted CFE Treaty.
6) Russia, as a main gas supplier, has arbitrarily shut off our gas lines, especially in wintertime. Russia has also attempted to gain full control over the national energy infrastructure, thus undermining independence and sovereignty.
7) The psychological warfare – another favorite tool in Russia’s arsenal, is underway. All official mechanisms and structures, including the Parliament and the President are mobilized. Various pro-governmental printing media and TV are daily full of misinformation and false materials on Georgia.
It is well to ask why Russia commits acts of unprovoked aggression against Georgia. I believe four reasons predominate:
· Georgia’s movement towards the West;
· Economic projects bypassing Russia in favor of Georgia.
· Georgia’s demand for the withdrawal of the Russian military bases and fulfillment of its International commitments;
· President Shevardnadze's Personality
I will abstein from presenting of counterarguments due to the absurdity of these accusations.
From the very beginning of the second Chechen war, Russia has accused Georgia of sheltering the Chechen terrorists. Ever since Georgia started its anti-terrorism operation, Georgia has been accused forcing Chechen terrorists to withdraw to the Russian territory.
In the statement of September 11, 2002 the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin gave orders to the ministry of Defense, General Staff and the Federal Services of Security and Boarder Defense of Russia to prepare and present a plan of a military operation to be carried out in Georgia.
The timing of the above-mentioned action was chosen very carefully. Mr. Putin’s statement came one day prior to President Bush's speech in New York at the UN General Assembly. Obviously, it was aimed at gaining a trade-of on Iraq and Georgia with USA.
Here I would like to refer to the statement made on September 20th by Senator John McCain: “President Putin of Russia has appropriated American rethoric in the war against terrorism to justify Russian subversion of the Georgian state. A free Russian hand on Georgia is apparently the price President Putin believes the US is willing to pay for Russia’s support for military action against Iraq”.
The leadership of the Russian Federation tries to mislead its population and the international community, asserting that it is Georgia that hampers Russia's fight against terrorism. In fact, it is clear that the source of terrorism is in the territory of the Russian Federation itself, which seeks to justify its inability to cope with this problem by putting responsibility for the failure on the neighboring state. Pro-Western Georgia with its President serves very well to this aim.
Russia is shaping public opinion to make the world believe that problems existing in Pankisi beget and fuel troubles in Chechnya and elsewhere in southern Russia. It is hard to imagine a clearer example of confusing the cause and the effect. In reality, problems in Pankisi Gorge have arisen specifically as a result of the military operation conducted in Chechnya, during which Russian armed forces could not or would not keep military actions within the boundaries of Russia and allowed the spreading of the conflict into the territory of a well disposed, friendly, sovereign neighboring nation.
Georgia has repeatedly voiced public warnings regarding inadmissibility and danger of a spillover of the conflict into its territory. Relevant statements were made to all major international organizations. Regrettably however, our appeals never evoked a due response from the Russian side. Moreover, according to the available materials, armed individuals were in fact allowed to enter the territory of Georgia through the official Russian border checkpoints.
Russia's mass media and public officials have exacerbated the problem by asserting that Georgia is the main supplier of armaments to the conflict zone; ignoring the fact that the origin of the weapons that Chechens possess is Russian and are spreaded out from the Russian military bases. This announcement was made by the country that develops most friendly relations with the states associated with the axis of evil. It is also worth to mention that for arms dealing with terrorists in Sudan, Syria and Lebanon the US Government recently has imposed sanctions on a number of Russian state-owned industries.
Georgia has demanded and achieved the establishment of international control of the Chechen and Ingush segments of the Georgian-Russian State Border. Even Russian experts recognize that Georgian segment of the Russian State border is better protected compared to other sectors of the Chechen border. The activities of the OSCE monitoring mission, which includes a number of Russian observers as well, have clearly demonstrated that there has been no threat to Russia emanating from Georgia. On the other hand, during the same period of time, OSCE observers have recorded numerous violations of Georgia's sovereignty by Russian bombers and military helicopters as they attacked adjacent villages, which caused wounds and loss of life among innocent civilians.
All of the above gives one sufficient ground to think that the issue of the Pankisi Gorge is artificially sustained in order to pressure Georgia to damage its international reputation, to provoke destabilization, to disrupt the implementation of the major economic projects of the Europe-Asia transport corridor and transit of the energy resources from the Caspian region through Georgia, and to discredit an active member of the international anti-terrorist coalition, whose positive contribution to the struggle against terrorism has been noted on many occasions by the leading nations of the aforementioned coalition. The Russian Federation has not been subjected to armed aggression by Georgia, while those armed individuals penetrating the territory of Georgia from Russia and then have been moving back, are mostly citizens of the Russian Federation, who have been methodically "squeezed" out onto the Georgian Territory.
Incidentally, it is worth recalling that some of those who fought in Chechnya had previously received combat experience in 1992-1993 in Abkhazia, in the war against Georgia. At the time, many organized groups of the Chechen fighters led by Basaev, who is currently regarded by Russia as the chief terrorist, were dispatched to Georgia with the assistance of the Russian special services. Any protest on the part of the Georgian Government was inevitably met with a cynical remark that the Russian authorities did not bear any responsibility for the penetration of "volunteers" from the territory of Russia and that Georgia must unilaterally provide the security on its borders. Then all this boomeranged to the Chechen conflict against Russia when those fighters turned their guns against their own patrons.
Today the opposite is asserted regarding the Pankisi Gorge. Repeated attempts are being made to blame Georgia for its inability to provide security for Russia on the Chechen Segment of the Georgian-Russian State Border.
On our part, we have been trying to resolve the conflict by peaceful means. In his letter to the President of the Russian Federation Mr. Putin, President Shevardnadze has once more appealed to the leadership of Russia and the President himself to find common ground, to rise above the existing problems and develop good neighborly relations between our two peoples. We have also indicated readiness to receive an OSCE group of experts, including representatives of the Russian Federation that will be provided with opportunity to visit any site at any time and will be expected to present a report on the actual situation on the ground. Yet we are convinced that only with an active support of the world community of nations will we manage to maintain territorial integrity and provide security for the Georgian people.
Georgia is open for a real assistance from real friends – we welcome and appreciate the “Train & Equip” program – proper support by the USA to prepare Georgian units for fighting against terrorism, drugs and arms smuggling.
I’d like also to inform you that the Georgian authorities have launched a major antiterrorist operation in close co-operation with the US military advisers to root out terrorists from Pankisi. During a very short period of time the Georgian Armed forces have established full control over the region and we will have more tangible results shortly. President Shevardnadze has proposed expanding international monitoring to prevent fighters coming back and finding shelter in Georgia in the future but it needs also Russia's political will to contribute to it.
We are appealing to the entire international community and particularly to the USA with the hope that they will not allow the violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of my country by aggression from one of the mighty military-political powers of the world.