Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to this Helsinki Commission hearing on democracy, human rights and security in Georgia. Much has happened since 1993, the last time we examined the situation there. On the positive side, a great deal of progress has been made. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of NGOs, scores of political parties, a parliament that has actually developed a role as a legislature, and some feisty, hard-hitting media outlets, especially Rustavi-2 Television. These developments give us cause to hope, reason to take pride in the people of Georgia and are indicative of the grounds for continuing U.S.-Georgian relations.
Nevertheless, in the last few years much of the optimism about Georgia’s future has dissipated. Last year, a Georgian official devoted a large part of his public address in Washington to refuting the notion – which was being discussed at the time – that Georgia is a “failed state.” I reject that characterization. But today’s hearing is a good opportunity to discuss the serious problems Georgia does face.
Preeminent among them is systemic, rampant corruption, which has impeded economic reforms and sickened the body politic. Despite lectures from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.S. Government, Georgia’s Government has proved incapable or unwilling to do what is necessary to stamp out this evil – even though President Shevardnadze himself has called corruption a threat to Georgia’s security.
There are also grounds for concern about democratization. The last few elections have clearly not met OSCE standards, which makes us worry about the important parliamentary election scheduled for 2003. And the 2005 presidential election will usher in the post-Shevardnadze era in Georgia, with all the attendant uncertainties. Meanwhile, the media and NGOs have been under severe pressure. Last fall, a foolish ploy by the Ministry of Internal Affairs to intimidate Rustavi-2 Television backfired, resulting instead in the fall of the government. While society’s response was heartening – thousands of people came out into the streets to defend the station – the attempt to silence one of the country’s most popular media outlets indicated that some Georgian officials are still mired in Soviet patterns of thinking.
I am especially concerned and appalled by the ongoing religious violence in Georgia. Since 1999, there has been a campaign of assaults against members of minority faiths, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses, which Georgian authorities have tolerated. Occasionally, policemen have even participated in attacks on defenseless men, women and children who have congregated for the purpose of worship. Attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice have foundered, as throngs of fanatics hijack the trial proceedings. If such travesties are allowed to continue, the country’s entire judicial system is at risk of falling victim to mob rule.
Though Jehovah’s Witnesses have borne the brunt of this savagery, other religious minorities have suffered as well, including Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics. Earlier this year, for example, a mob invaded a Baptist warehouse, threw the religious literature outside and burnt it. How awful to think that events in Georgia today remind us of Germany in the 1930s.
Georgians have a long tradition of religious tolerance, of which they are rightly proud. It is all the more puzzling, therefore, why religiously-based violence has erupted and continued only in Georgia, of all the post-Soviet states. There may be many explanations for this peculiar phenomenon but there can be no excuse for state toleration of such barbarity. It must end, and it must end now.
In this connection, I would like to single out another point of concern. President Shevardnadze, in his response to our letter last May about religious violence, mentioned the anticipated passage of a law on religion as evidence of government responsiveness. However, a law on religion is not the answer to ending the violence, as current criminal law is sufficient, if the authorities will only apply it. Also, drafts of the religion law currently circulating in the Georgian Parliament are problematic in light of Georgia’s OSCE commitments, as they would create intrusive bureaucratic hurdles for minority groups to overcome, thereby constructing avenues for the government to ban unpopular religious communities. The answer to the violence is not regulation of the persecuted groups through a new law, but enforcement of current criminal statutes. Consequently, we will carefully follow the legislative process, and if a religion law is eventually adopted, it should meet all OSCE standards on religious freedom.
Turning now to another issue, I have been watching with growing alarm Moscow’s campaign of intimidation against Georgia. Russia has been leaning on pro-Western, strategically-located Georgia for years, but the temperature has in the last few weeks approached the boiling point. President Putin’s request for United Nations backing for Russian military action against Georgia was not any less objectionable for having been anticipated.
Georgian parliamentarians on September 12 unanimously approved an appeal to the United Nations, the OSCE, the European Union, the Council of Europe, and NATO for protection from anticipated Russian military aggression. Georgian lawmakers should know that their American colleagues have heard their appeal and stand with them. While we are cooperating with Russia in the war against terrorism, we have in no way given Moscow leave to attack Georgia, nor will we do so.
The United States is now more than ever directly engaged in the Caucasus and is stepping up military cooperation with the region’s governments, especially Georgia. This hearing offers a timely opportunity to examine Georgia’s prospects for democratization, its security situation and how Washington can help advance democracy, human rights and economic liberty in Georgia while leading the battle against international terrorism and defending Georgia’s sovereignty.
To discuss these issues, we have assembled an international group of experts. In addition, before our panelists speak, we will show a brief video prepared by the Jehovah’s Witnesses that highlights the cruel brutality of the ongoing mob attacks.