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Freedom House: Freedom in Georgia Takes a Step Backward in 2007

Washington, D.C.
January 2, 2008

In 2007, Georgia’s democratic institutions moved sharply in the wrong direction, according to a report released today by Freedom House. The report is being made available in advance of presidential elections scheduled to be held in Georgia on January 5.

Georgia’s rating in Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual global survey, dropped from a 3 for both political rights and civil liberties in 2006, to a 4 for both indicators in 2007.  A score of 1 represents strongest performance, while a score of 7 is weakest.  The country remains in the “Partly Free” category in the global assessment.

The report, which covers the period of January 1 through December 31, 2007, will be released in full on January 16, 2007.
“Political developments in Georgia over the past year represent a clear warning sign.  2008 will be a pivotal year for Georgia’s democratic aspirations, which hang in the balance,” said Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor. “We exhort both the authorities and the opposition to work in good faith toward a more democratic Georgia.”

The Freedom in the World report cited several key points in explaining Georgia’s regress, including:

    * An increasingly fractured political environment in which alternative voices – in the opposition and civil society – have been pushed to the margins. Mikheil Saakashvili, who recently resigned the presidency in order to be constitutionally eligible to run in the January elections, has dominated the political landscape and shown an unwillingness to engage political opposition and civil society. The opposition, meanwhile, has yet to demonstrate its ability to offer sound policy alternatives.

    * A fragile media landscape that is proving not to be up to democratic standards.  A pre-election assessment released on December 27, 2007, by an election observer mission of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights cited an uneven media environment that “indicate[s] a lack of balance in the news coverage of most monitored TV stations, with Saakashvili generally receiving the most coverage.”  In the context of the January 5 elections, the weakened condition at year’s end of Imedi TV, the only private opposition broadcaster with national reach, is also of grave concern.

    * The substantial use of force against protesters in November and the state of emergency that followed, which included the suspension of political activity, assembly and non-official media communication.

The report’s author, Freedom House Director of Studies Christopher Walker, said of the year’s developments that “since the Rose Revolution, Georgia’s reform effort has distinguished itself in a number of important ways. However, given the clear gaps in the country’s democratic infrastructure, Georgia’s leadership must prioritize building democratically accountable institutions.”

Mr. Walker added that “the elections on January 5 are an important step in rebuilding political trust. However, these elections are a means to a democratic end and not an end in themselves.”

Georgia, a country of four and a half million inhabitants, faces enormous obstacles to its reform ambitions. Among other challenges, Russia’s posture has made Tbilisi’s efforts at reform far more difficult. A blanket blockade was imposed by the Kremlin in 2006 and continues today, sealing the border between the two countries and barring sea and air travel.

Freedom House Director of Studies Christopher Walker is available for comment on developments in Georgia and can be reached at (212) 514-8040 x 19.

Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has monitored political rights and civil liberties in Georgia since the country became independent in 1991.
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