Crime, Punishment and Democracy in Georgia

In recent weeks there has been several high visibility crimes committed in Georgia and a corresponding uptick in media attention to the issue. Eurasianet’s Giorgi Lomsadze has argued that,

“(a) series of brazen homicides, including of a police officer this weekend, are sowing worries about a resurgence of crime in Georgia…The fact that the murders occurred in broad daylight, and that police, so far, have failed to bring the killers to justice are prompting concerns that Georgia’s much-praised police is losing its grip.”

The Georgian government has responded with some tough on crime rhetoric of its own. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s anti-crime bluster was impressive in its own right.

“I promise everyone, who has been pardoned or released as a result of amnesty by our government, but who failed to appreciate such humane act taken by the state, that the state will be merciless to all those persons, who do not give up their criminal activities. I promise it publicly…Everyone who will raise a hand against the state will be punished in the strictest manner. There is no place for them among us.”

Garibashvili’s words are significant for a few reasons. First, it is appropriate, in the aftermath of a few high profile crimes, to reassert the government’s attitudes towards crime and rule of law. However, the language itself revealed a bit more than that, in some respect because of what was left out. It is notable that Garibashvili referred to criminals who “raise a hand against the state.” Crimes of murder, assault or other acts of violence are generally committed against citizens, not against the state. This may seem like a relatively minor distinction, but it is significant. The government should be in the business of protecting the people, not just the state. This was perhaps simply an oversight by the Prime Minister, but it suggests a view of the state as preeminent, a position that in a democracy should be occupied by the people.

Additionally, but less surprisingly, there was little in the Prime Minister’s comments about due process, trials, fair sentencing or much else related to judicial processes. Instead, Garibashvili referred to the “humane act” of the state, and threatened that the state would be “merciless” towards future offenders. Although this is partially understandable given the context, it is nonetheless troubling, and resonates particularly for those familiar with the recent history in Georgia of capricious and excessive actions by law enforcement officials.  As Democracy and Freedom Watch noted following Garibashvili’s statement,

“(i)ncreased police powers and a ‘ruthless’ fight against crime were two of the policies of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili which the opposition criticized him for. Saakashvili also introduced a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards crime a few years into his presidency. An important consequence of these two policies was that human rights were massively violated, by the government’s own volition, as protecting human rights was seen as secondary to breaking the mafia’s back.”

Reducing crime was, despite, or perhaps because of that, one of the areas that many viewed as the previous government's greatest success story. Significantly, it was also their efforts to fight crime that most directly led to the defeat of the ruling United National Movement (UNM) in October of 2012. The dramatic crime fighting steps Mikheil Saakashvili took beginning in 2004 when he dismissed thousands of traffic police, followed by a zero tolerance, and also almost zero acquittal, approach to fighting crime, contributed to a police department and interior ministry that ultimately felt empowered to commit abuses against suspects and ordinary citizens culminating in the prison abuse scandal that became public shortly before the 2012 election. Given all that, one might expect the new government to remain more committed to due process and understand the need to balance fighting crime with maintaining the rule of law. Critics of the Georgian Dream government have not hesitated to raise these process related issues with regards to high profile UNM leaders who have been charged with crimes, but given recent Georgian history, the rights to due process of ordinary criminals is an issue with larger societal repercussions.

Some in the Georgian government understand this issue and the need to both fight crime in a thoughtful and effective way while preserving freedoms and rule of law. For example, Justice Minister Thea Tsulukiani recently stated “It’s probably time to tighten the law on weapons and to revise our crime-fighting strategy, but not to the point that we forsake human rights and return to a culture of zero tolerance.” By focusing both on rights and the availability of weapons, Tsulukiani made the the issue less about crimes against the state and more about finding a rational and balanced way to fight crime. This is encouraging and represents a wise lead for the Georgian government to follow.

Assuring the security of the people is a primary responsibility of all governments, democratic or not. Accordingly, the rise in crime is, among other things, a failure of governance, but not necessarily a reflection of the democratic development of a particular polity. While for many citizens who may feel less safe, this may seem like an insignificant difference, for the government it is a very important one. Crime reduction, more than almost any policy area lends itself to deemphasizing democracy. It is much easier to reduce crime if the government is less concerned with democratic niceties like due process, the rights of the accused and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. However, if crime reduction comes at the cost of these democratic institutions, the longer term impact can be devastating. Georgians probably understand that principle better than most.

The dichotomy between democracy and governance, that was manipulated so ably by the previous Georgian government as they explained away many undemocratic acts by focusing on the necessity of making quick reforms, is largely a false one. Nonetheless, it is not the case that democracy is always the fastest and most efficient way to reach short term policy outcomes, particularly with regards to public safety. The current government therefore has the more difficult task of fighting crime without compromising Georgia’s still nascent democratic development.

A central component of that is leadership that requires both the ability to set, rather than follow, public opinion, and having a vision for the direction Georgia needs to go regarding the panoply of major issues, including, but not limited to crime, that now face the country. While it is appropriate for the Prime Minister to express outrage over violent crimes committed by those who have been released under his government’s programs, without a fuller explanation, including a description of why those releases were made, the Prime Minister leaves his government vulnerable to charges of being soft on crime, and of governing based on whim, rather than rule of law. It is also a missed opportunity to try to deepen democracy in Georgia by going more into the details of the component pieces of issues like rule of law and civil rights.

Another component of leadership is being proactive. A crime policy that results from people being angry over a few highly visible crimes, or even a documented rise in crime, rather than from a well thought out program, is less likely to be effective, but also more likely to overlook key issues of democracy and rights. This extends to many other issue areas. Tasks like dismantling the UNM era surveillance state, building a true private sector, breaking decisively with crony capitalism and encouraging citizens to feel ownership over government, rather than the decades long environment where Georgians felt more like subjects who were wary of their government, require well thought out plans and cannot be done in an impromptu or reactive way.

It is not an overstatement to say that the future of democracy in Georgia lies very much in those, and similar, details. The big picture visible signs of Georgian democracy, like electoral transitions, relatively good elections, and a legislature that is stronger and more independent than any time in years are, of course, positive developments, but they represent only the outline of real democracy. Filling in that outline is how democracy will consolidate and become less precarious in Georgia.

The benchmarks for Georgian democracy, for too long have been on the big, easily observable and higher profile components of democracy. Things like fair elections, functioning legislatures and basic freedoms of media and assembly are, at least for now, in place in Georgia. However, there have been several times in the last twenty years when similar conditions existed but democracy nonetheless did not consolidate. Assuring that this does not happen again is not a question of looking at the next election, international ranking of media freedom or independence of the legislature, although those things are important. The consolidating of democracy is now a question of whether those outlines are filled in, and seeing that the smaller pieces of democracy, both in law and spirit, get the attention they deserve.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space.  If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email