CSO METER - A Compass to Conducive Environment and CSO Empowerment

News | Rule of Law and Human Rights | INTERNET AND INNOVATIONS | Open Government | Analysis | Report | MEDIA AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION 24 May 2022

The complex social-economic developments, political tensions, and the Covid-19 pandemic have all significantly affected the civil society organisation (CSO) environment in Georgia. Coupled with this, the government has demonstrated some negative attitudes towards the civil society sector. Despite the overall political decay in Georgia, these ongoing developments have not been reflected in the legislative framework regulating the work of CSOs in Georgia and Georgian civil society remains vibrant and resistant towards the ongoing political fluctuations.


The 2020-2021 period in Georgia was rocked by a deepening political crisis and antidemocratic occurrences. The political crisis was further exacerbated by the arrest of the third president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, in October 2021. After years in exile, Saakashvili returned ahead of local elections and was arrested following convictions for a number of crimes committed while in office. However, he denies these allegations, asserting that his convictions were politically motivated. [1] The political rift between the opposition and the ruling party has grown wider and attempts by the President, Salome Zurabishvili, the EU, and other international institutions to resolve this political deadlock and achieve reconciliation in the country have proved unsuccessful. [2]

 

These political developments largely overshadowed a rampant socio-economic and health crisis in the country that was worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic and drastically shrank the potential for effective CSO advocacy on most policy-related issues. CSOs have had a difficult time bringing political attention to other issues and effectively engaging in policy-influencing, especially since the majority of the opposition is still not present in the everyday parliamentary activities and there are some questions about the legitimacy of the current composition of parliament without the full and active presence of opposition parties.

 

In addition to political upheavals, the CSO environment was taken aback by the surveillance scandal - leaked online documents indicating the alleged covert surveillance of citizens by the State Security Service, including the transcripts of phone conversations of CSO representatives, journalists, diplomats, clergy representatives, and others. The State Inspector’s Service was the first state authority to urge the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the alleged illegal surveillance and breaches of the right to privacy based on these leaked files.

 

Later, on 30 December 2021, the Parliament of Georgia made an unexpected decision to dissolve the State Inspector’s Service and separate its mandates under two new entities. These legislative amendments were adopted in an expedited manner, without any consultations or deliberations with CSOs or even the State Inspector’s Service itself. [3] Parliament claimed that these legal amendments were passed on the grounds of the incompatibility of investigative and personal data protection functions, and therefore the need to establish separate entities for those mandates. However, most stakeholders, including the State Inspector herself, assert that it was just a pretext for dismissing her and her deputies over recent decisions that the State Inspector had made regarding high-profile cases. [4] This decision was heavily criticized by Georgian CSOs [5] and international actors [6] for undermining democratic processes and government accountability by abolishing an independent state authority.


Limitations on rights and freedoms have been also imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, posing challenges to the timely and in-person participation of CSO representatives in decision-making, as well as the development of long-term plans and working schedules. The pandemic has motivated CSO representatives, civilians and volunteers to merge their resources and work on issues related to poverty and healthcare with their own power. However, these positive examples of CSOs’ contributions have not been translated into policy or an attitude change from the state’s perspective, since they have not resulted in any incentives for supporting volunteerism and philanthropy.


There has been no progress in state-CSO support, including ensuring transparency and accountability in the state funding system, and eliminating legislative obstacles that would enable local government authorities to issue state grants for CSOs. Freedom of speech, as well as the right to peaceful assembly, is still not effectively protected from arbitrary infringements in practice. In certain cases, the state still fails to ensure that CSOs and associated individuals, including the LGBTQIA+ community, are fully protected, including from physical harm. Though recent constitutional changes guarantee access to the internet and digital rights, actual mechanisms for the protection of such rights must be further developed.

 

Overall, the CSO environment has not deteriorated since the last reporting period, and it largely remains the same. The country still struggles with issues that were addressed in previous recommendations, such as the revision of the Code of Administrative Offences to eliminate unjustified interventions into the right to peaceful assembly, the adaptation of regulations which will make public participation obligatory during the process of elaboration of draft laws or strategic documents by the government, the addition of municipalities to the list of grant-issuing entities, the development of unified legislative standards for state funding, and improvement of the internet infrastructure, competition and quality to ensure that Georgian citizens equally exercise digital freedoms and use new technologies for meaningful engagement in development processes.

 

The key recommendations:

 

1. The Government of Georgia should elaborate and adopt a systemic vision for state-CSO cooperation on all levels of the decision-making process and further institutionalize these standards;

 

2.  Government authorities should develop unified legislative standards for state funding, encompassing clear guidelines for the award process (participatory decision-making, preliminary identification of selection criteria, avoidance of conflicts of interest, transparency, etc.), preventing discriminatory and arbitrary decisions, and further institutionalizing transparency and accountability standards; 

 

3.  The Government of Georgia should urgently introduce the necessary legal amendments to create comprehensive legal safeguards for personal data processing and covert investigative actions, including by reforming the State Security Service of Georgia and increasing its oversight. The Government should  also ensure that CSOs are consulted and engaged in the reform process right from its initial stages;


4. The Prosecutor’s Office should prioritize and promptly investigate alleged illegal and arbitrary surveillance of CSO representatives, journalists, and others, and  ensure that all relevant actors are granted victims status and have access to case files, at the same time updating the public on the progress of the investigation;

 

5. The Government of Georgia should design and adopt unified standards/rules on public consultations of draft laws and policies at the national level, including by clearly setting participation as the obligatory stage in the elaboration of decrees, draft laws, strategic documents, and other instruments and establish redress mechanisms for their violation;

 

6.  The Government of Georgia should encourage state institutions to support local initiatives by adding municipalities to the list of grant-issuing entities by introducing relevant legislative amendments; 


7. The Government of Georgia, in active collaboration with CSOs, should ensure compliance with MONEYVAL recommendations while avoiding unnecessary deterioration of the CSO environment.

 

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1. BBC, ‘Mikheil Saakashvili: Georgian ex-president arrested returning from exile’ (1 October 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-58767420.

 

2. Agenda.ge, ‘President Zurabishvili: national reconciliation initiative complicated to carry out, but process is transparent’, (21 December 2021), https://agenda.ge/en/news/2021/4005; U.S. Embassy Statement on Georgian Dream’s Withdrawal from April 19th Agreement (29 July 2021), https://ge.usembassy.gov/u-s-embassy-statement-ongeorgian-dreams-withdrawal-from-april-19th-agreement/.

3. The State Inspector, Londa Toloraia, has heard about the proposed reform through media, while she was on maternity leave, neither her, nor general public had access to the draft law, until the later stages of deliberations, https://personaldata.ge/en/press/post/7793.


4. Statement of Londa Toloraia, State Inspector on the abolition of the State Inspector’s Service (30 December 2021), https://personaldata.ge/en/press/post/7814 

 

5. Joint statement of non-governmental organisations on vetoing the legislative change on the abolition of the Office of the State Inspector, https://socialjustice.org.ge/ka/products/sakhelmtsifo-inspektoris-aparatis-gaukmebissakanonmdeblo-tsvlilebaze-vetos-dadebis-shesakheb.


6. The Statement of the U.S Embassy in Georgia, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10159660050822954&id=55448127953  Statements by the representatives of international organizations and Ambassadors, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=2687214558088039&id=295537447255774  EU Delegation responds to expedited procedures in the Georgian Parliament relating to the State Inspector's Service and the Judiciary, https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/georgia/109365/eu-delegation-responds-expedited-proceduresgeorgian-parliament-relating-state-inspectors_en?fbclid=IwAR2P8ZTefy3eYkgAN_RjSanJZ1Xje5ZcxV19300L6plY7ru678m7l6DQtk 

 

 

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