BACKGROUND: Georgia represents a unique example of Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) reform as a result of broader political change. After the 2003 Rose Revolution, President Saakashvili together with a small group of close confidants advanced a broad range of reforms that made Georgia one of the most Westernized post-communist states. Reforms focused on eradicating the influence of organized criminal groups in the capital, Tbilisi, and across the country. Police reform was only part of a broader agenda to transform public administration, fight corruption, and improve the rule of law.
Unfortunately, the MIA’s reform efforts were imposed top-down by powerful state officials, without public accountability or debate. Under the constitution, the parliament is given formal authority over the MIA, but in reality police reform took the form of a private collaboration between the interior minister and Saakashvili. The interior minister, who must by law be a civilian, took strategic and operational decisions without public input or parliamentary review. Post-reform, parliamentary oversight of the MIA’s work remained weak, and the MIA arguably became the most powerful structure in the country.
Because reforms were conducted without public oversight, public suspicion about high-level corruption in the MIA mounted. Just two weeks before the October 2012 parliamentary election, videos appearing to document cases of torture and rape in the Gldani prison were leaked to the Internet, raising widespread concerns about human rights abuses in detention facilities. Georgian Dream’s leader Bidzina Ivanishvili came to power in October 2012 promising to depoliticize the country’s security apparatus by separating national security services from the MIA, opening up for public input and oversight, and eradicating corruption at the top political level. In effect, the changes were to catch up on the democratic aspect of the police reform and reinforcing the independence of the judiciary, which remained largely unreformed during Saakashvili’s reign.
The changes were indeed significant in the first year following the elections. Ucha Nanuashvili, a renowned human rights activist with years of experience, was appointed as the new Public Defender (Ombudsman). Furthermore, civil society activists and journalists were allowed access to prisons and police facilities. Two nongovernmental organizations, Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) and Transparency International (TI), led the efforts to draft the new law on the police. Although included in the lawmaking, GYLA and TI were given insufficient time to conduct a comprehensive review, thus the NGOs were only able to review 40 percent of the bill before it went onto the parliament floor. Nevertheless, the new police law was adopted in October 2013 as a result of the first successful NGO-MIA collaboration in Georgia’s history of independence.
In November, the then-Prime Minister-designate, Irakli Garibashvili, announced Alexander Tchikaidze as his replacement as interior minister. Widely unknown and very young at only 28, Tchikaidze became the head of the MIA only six years after joining it as a police officer in 2008. It seems that Garibashvili has been highly influential in all steps towards Tchikaidze’s early rise to prominence and power. Together, Garibashvili and Tchikaidze have resurged efforts to prosecute previous government officials from the current main opposition party, including Tchikaidze’s predecessors on the post, Vano Merabishvili and Bachana Akhalaia, on charges of abuse of power, torture, and fabrication of evidence during their terms. The chief prosecutor was forced to resign after a criminal history and proof of abuse during office were leaked.
IMPLICATIONS: Since his appointment, Tchikaidze has taken a proactive role in anti-corruption reforms of law enforcement agencies, the MIA, and the government as a whole. More severe laws against organized crime have been passed, especially targeting trafficking in drugs and humans, while crime-fighting coalitions have been built with other governments. Finally, a Tbilisi detention center was remodeled and expanded, showing the new minister’s commitment to criminal prosecution.
Yet, critics of the new leadership argue that the government’s openness to public input is temporary and is rapidly waning. According to one former member of the Saakashvili administration, “The government was open the first year because it lacked confidence.” According to this view, the ministry is more interested in prosecuting its opponents than improving respect for human rights among police personnel and opening up to public oversight.
Furthermore, critics argue that the ministry relies on the success achieved by the previous leadership and has done little to introduce new innovations that would continue to transform the country’s police. Most changes in the post-October 2012 period were of a populist, not reformative, nature. Examples include the popular decision to decrease traffic fines and expand the academic curriculum at the Police Academy.
Finally, complaints from NGOs about the MIA’s transparency issues increased again in late 2013 and 2014, voicing dissatisfaction with the new government’s approach to depoliticizing the police. According to GYLA, measures to reduce the ability of incumbent political leaders to use the police against opponents are insufficient. The new police law continues to allow the deputy interior minister to belong to a political party, sending signals about his political loyalty further down the chain of command to regular police officers. Human Rights for Georgia also reported that the MIA continues to monitor 21,000 cell phones every day despite its claim to end massive surveillance methods exercised by the previous government.
In December 2013, the Public Defender released a report on human rights and freedoms in Georgia for the year 2013. The report commends the MIA for its efforts to destroy unlawful recordings of citizens’ personal lives after the illegal surveillance project was leaked to the public earlier that year. However, the report also noted the state’s frequent failure to ensure the right to assembly and religion, its unlawful suspension of public servants, its unjust treatment of citizens by police authorities, its over-tolerance of violence against women and children, and its lack of healthcare and programs for the disabled. Likewise, NGOs have repeatedly raised concerns about cases of alleged ill-treatment of citizens in police custody and violence implemented by representatives of police and penitentiary institutions.
Furthermore, TI confirmed that the MIA has ministry officials positioned in both the Georgian Public Broadcaster and the Georgian National Communications Commission, in violation of Georgian law. Two directors of the television station Channel 25 reported that they were unlawfully detained, threatened, and pressured by ten members of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office to release false testimonies to officials in order for the Ministry to fabricate a criminal case against high level officials in the former government.
Finally, the parliament continues to be weak in its oversight of the MIA and the Prime Minister. The parliamentary committee on legal issues assigned to deal with the MIA reform is the strongest committee in the parliament, yet it has little leverage over the government. This is largely due to the Georgian Dream favoritism seen in the appointment of government and parliamentary positions. Ivanishvili’s closest allies occupy top government posts, including in the security sector, while the parliament is populated by the coalition’s less influential members. In sum, after a brief period of openness to external oversight in 2013, the window of opportunity for public-police collaboration seems to be closing again.
CONCLUSIONS: Georgia’s case of police reform demonstrates the difficulty of shedding post-Soviet legacy, as even democratically elected political incumbents will be tempted to rely on the police’s loyalty rather than the law. Despite a strong civil society and political opposition, it is easy for political incumbents to expand the police’s functions in order to intensify their political influence. Georgia has made some positive steps towards opening the MIA to public oversight. Yet, there is still a long way to go before police become accountable to the public rather than the political brass. The country’s NGOs and MIA officials must continue to look for ways to establish venues for constructive collaboration. A successful public-police dialogue is indispensable for Georgia’s democratic development.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Erica Marat is a Nonresident Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center and a Visiting Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Deborah Sutton is a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center.