By Svante E. Cornell (09/19/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The release of graphic videos of grave prisoner abuse in Georgia’s penitentiary system could not come at a worse time for the ruling party, less than two weeks before the October 1 parliamentary elections. The episode, inadvertently, is highly indicative of both the strengths and weaknesses of Georgia’s political system. On the one hand, it is aggravating that this type of abuse could go on without high-level intervention in spite of repeated criticism from domestic and foreign watchdogs alike. On the other hand, the government’s reaction is, encouragingly, that which could be expected from a democratic than an authoritarian state.

BACKGROUND: On September 18, Georgian oppositional television stations Maestro and Channel 9 released highly graphic video recordings of prisoners being brutally beaten and sexually assaulted in Georgia’s Gldani prison no. 8 on the outskirts of Tbilisi. The videos led to a rare spontaneous public outcry, with demonstrations emerging both in the capital and in other Georgian cities.

Controversy over the state of Georgia’s prisons and penitentiary system is not new. Indeed, the situation in the penitentiary system has arguably been the leading subject for years in the yearly country reports of the U.S. State Department on human rights in Georgia, as well as in the reports of the Georgian public defender’s office. As early as 2006, Human Rights Watch published a detailed 100-page report entitled “Undue Punishment: Abuses against Prisoners in Georgia”. The government, however, long downplayed such allegations, pointing instead to its successful purge of organized crime from Georgia’s penitentiary system. Indeed, that system had long been under the effective control of the “thieves-in-law”, the notorious Soviet organized crime structures in which ethnic Georgians wielded an outsize influence, and which in turn had developed strong linkages to the security structures during President Eduard Shevardnadze’s tenure from 1992 to 2003.

Following the release of the videos, the government initially tried to spin their release as a political plot by allies of opposition leader and tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili. The timing of the release of these videos indeed seemed intended to coincide with the most vulnerable moment for the government, roughly a week before parliamentary elections in which most polls showed the ruling party with a comfortable but shrinking lead. There is no doubt that this timing was intentional, yet the authorities soon realized that the problem could not be dismissed out of hand.

Therefore, that approach was quickly exchanged for a full-scale effort at damage control. At 3 AM on September 19, Saakashvili posted a lengthy response by video, in which he sharply condemned the abuses, and promised both harsh punishments for the  perpetrators and thorough reform. Officials still hinted at the political motives behind the release of the videos, but seemed no longer to seek to deflect responsibility for the abuses or to term them isolated incidents. By mid-day, the Minister responsible for the penitentiary system, Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, had resigned; and a number of prison officials including the deputy head of the penitentiary department and the two highest ranking officials of prison number 8 had been arrested. By the evening of September 19, the president admitted to a “systemic failure” in the penitentiary system and instructed Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili to oversee a thorough reform of the prison system. In a temporary measure, the personnel of “problem prisons” was suspended and the patrol police moved in to supervise prisons.

The televised meeting in which these remarks were made also featured Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili and Chief Prosecutor Murtaz Zodelava. Notably absent from the meeting was Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, who had been in charge of the crackdown on organized crime in the penitentiary system as head of the Justice Ministry’s Penitentiary Department in 2005-2008. Akhalaia had been widely criticized for human rights abuses during the period, and is widely believed to have continued to informally oversee the penitentiary system.

The official soul-searching continued with National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria termed the government’s failure to heed the public defender’s findings and recommendations a “grave mistake”. The next day, public defender George Tugushi, a persistent critic of the conditions in Georgia’s prisons, was named as Kalmakhelidze’s successor, stating that he had obtained from the president a promise of full independence to reform the system. Late on September 20, Akhalaia also tendered his resignation, citing his “moral responsibility” for the scandal.

IMPLICATIONS: The prison abuse scandal highlights two shortcomings of post-revolutionary Georgia, but also important strengths.

First, the scandal points to the authorities’ unwillingness, in certain areas of governance, to respond to even long-standing and widespread criticism – very much in contrast to the same government’s highly cooperative and responsive attitude in other areas. It is noteworthy that the judicial sector tends to fall into the former category: aside from the penitentiary system, Georgia has been subjected to criticism for the slow pace of reform of the court system – Georgian courts still have conviction rates in criminal cases nearing 99 percent. The widespread process of plea bargaining, in turn, has been criticized for involving the selective and arbitrary application of justice. By contrast, in many areas of EU approximation, European officials have termed Georgia very cooperative and adaptive to recommendations and criticism. Even Akhalaia’s tenure at the defense ministry has been lauded in leaked U.S. government cables for being “the most active defense minister in terms of seeking advice” from the United States “and following through” on that advice.

A second shortcoming lies in the area of means and ends. Indeed, the scandal suggests that in certain areas of governance, the Georgian government has had a tendency to emphasize results over process, or ends over means. The balancing of means and ends dates back to the very first days of the Rose Revolution, when the Saakashvili administration needed to rebuild a dilapidated state from scratch, knowing it only had limited time to deliver public goods to its citizens before losing the window of opportunity for reform. It is at this point that the practice of plea bargaining was introduced, as officials widely known to have been spectacularly corrupt were arrested and allowed to buy their freedom in return for ‘voluntary’ payments to the state coffers. While widely criticized in the West, this practice enabled the government to make an example of these officials, in turn providing the legitimacy for the subsequent eradication of low-level corruption in the country. Similarly, the eradication of the thieves-in-law and their influence on Georgian society would have seemed highly unlikely prior to the revolution, given their pervasive influence on all levels. Their swift reduction to size would certainly not have occurred in the absence of the harsh measures employed by Akhalaia. Yet the question is whether the cost of these undeniable successes was a tacit acceptance of the need to break some eggs to make an omelet.

By contrast, the response to the scandal has highlighted how far Georgia has come in the past decade. Indeed, the government’s response to the scandal is much more reminiscent of what one would expect from a western democracy than from a post-Soviet authoritarian government. Far from seeking to shut down the video releases or cover up the scandal, the government responded by the admission of a systemic rather than isolated problem, as well as the resignation of two ministers and the arrest of high-ranking officials. Critics might retort that the government had little choice given the approaching elections and the impossibility of stopping the spread of the videos. But that it beside the point. While it is impossible to know how the government would have reacted outside an electoral cycle, it is precisely its concern to retain public legitimacy and to maintain the lead that all credible polls give it that suggest that Georgia has evolved considerably over the past decade. While the scandal suggests how much reform is still needed in Georgia, it also suggests that there may be no turning back. Indeed, the public outcry over the abuses suggest to what extent the principles of human rights have been internalized in Georgian society.

CONCLUSIONS: The prison abuse scandal put on public display the remaining dysfunctionalities of post-revolutionary Georgia. Yet paradoxically, the facts were not new. Opposition politicians and human rights watchdogs had long been complaining of exactly the kind of practices involved in the released videos. But just as in the Abu Ghraib scandal, it was the graphic nature of the videos that created an uproar in Georgian society, and which forced government officials to act as decisively as they belatedly did.

As tragic as the scandal is, it may have brought a silver lining. Not only is it likely to lead to a thorough reform of the penitentiary sector in Georgia; it may lead to a fundamental rethink of the relationship of means and ends. As Georgia approaches its parliamentary elections, the balance sheet of the Rose Revolution must be overwhelmingly positive: in spite of its shortcomings, in ten years Georgia’s government has built a functioning state and at the very least the foundations of a liberal democracy. Following the October 1 election, whoever comes out as the winner, Georgia will need to move toward the next stage, the consolidation of democracy. This will require the institutionalization of reforms, their spread to areas that have hitherto been neglected, and a greater attention to due process and the deepening of the rule of law. If the scandal helps accelerate that process, then something good may have come of it.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Svante E. Cornell is Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and Editor of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst.