Georgia Monthly Digest: Prime Minister Gakharia meets with neighbours, and accusations against the church6 min read

 In Caucasus, News, Politics

– On his first international trip as Prime Minister, Giorgi Gakharia met with the heads of Georgia’s neighbouring states. On October 9th, Gakharia and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev agreed to reopen the contested Davit Gareji Monastery, which is located in the Georgian Khaketi region bordering with the Agstafa region in Azerbaijan. The monastery has been subject of territorial and political dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan since the collapse of the USSR. 

On October 15th, Gakharia and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan agreed to strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries in the fields of economic development, the construction sector, infrastructure, culture, and sport, but did not present a long-term strategy. 

Finally, at the end of the month, Gakharia and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met and discussed further cooperation in the fields of trade and energy. The Georgia-Turkey Strategic Partnership Council (set up in 2016) is now set to meet later this year in Ankara. During a joint press conference, Erdogan underlined the importance of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum and Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipelines. We also accepted Gakharia’s invitation to visit Georgia in the spring of 2020. 

– A new human rights report commissioned by the EU-funded “Human Rights for All” program (2016-2019) and carried out by the UN agencies UNDP, OHCHR, UNICEF and ILO positively assesses the implementation of Georgia’s national strategy from 2014 to 2020 for the protection of human rights. The report, released on October 17th, argues that Georgia has made significant progress when it comes to legislative and policy reform, including new laws on anti-discrimination, juvenile justice, occupational safety, children’s rights and the protection of migrants and asylum seekers. Gaps persist in the protection of the independence of judges and prosecutors, real prevention of hate-motivated crimes, defense of media pluralism, and development of a culture of transparent, democratic law-making.  

– On October 22nd, a leaked video revealed that prisoners on a hunger strike in South Ossetian detention centers since September 27th had been subject to beatings by the prison’s security forces.

After Russia introduced more severe regulations in South Ossetian prisons, inmates went on strike to protest “disgusting food”, poor sanitary conditions and insufficient time outside the cells. South Ossetia’s de-facto Minister of Justice, Zalina Laliyeva, has questioned the legitimacy of the protest action, stating that prisoners had not informed the guards about the hunger strike. According to Laliyeva, the conditions in the prisons were “good”. The prisoners however continued their protest despite the quick improvement of sanitary conditions. Georgian public defender Nino Lomjaria confirmed that the video exposes severe human rights violations, such as inhumane treatment of prisoners; she stated that Russia should be held responsible for the violations.

– On October 24th, Minister of State for Reconciliation and Civil Equality Ketevan Tsikhelashvili announced the establishment of a special interdepartmental commission with the intention to search for those “who went missing during armed conflicts in the country” in cooperation with the Red Cross. Its main obligation is to find the burial sites and identify the bodies of around 2,300 individuals who have been lost since the 1990 and 2008 conflicts in Georgia. In 2010, two specific search mechanisms headed by the Red Cross were created: one between Georgia-Abkhazia and one between Georgia, Russia, and South Ossetia. As a result of the Georgian-Abkhaz cooperation, mass graves in Babushera from the Abkhaz conflict in 1992 have been exhumed. The Red Cross’s mandate will terminate in 2021, which increases the government’s responsibility to provide information on the whereabouts of missing individuals to their families.  

Civilian patrols of the EU Monitoring Mission Georgia. Image Source

– On October 24th, unarmed civilian monitors of the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) were briefly detained by Russian-backed South Ossetian security personnel while conducting patrols in the Chorchana-Tsnelisi area. Due to increased tension around the Administrative Border Line (ABL) and the closing of checkpoints since the beginning of September, the EUMM has significantly increased its patrolling presence. The Georgian Foreign Ministry called the hindering of the missions’s work “unacceptable” since it is “[…] the only international and effective monitoring mechanism and provides objective information about the situation along the occupation line”. South Ossetian officials stated that the patrols had “illegally crossed the border” and that the action by the EUMM was “provocative”. The EUMM has condemned the incident and discussed it with South Ossetian authorities during the regularly held Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) technical meeting in Ergneti.

– The closing down of checkpoints was followed by a tragic event on October 29th, when Margo Martiashvili from the Akhalgori district (located in South Ossetia) died in a Tskhinvali hospital after suffering a stroke. Because the road had been closed,  Martiashvili couldn’t be transported to the Tbilisi administered area (TAT) in order to receive medical support. Additionally, the EUMM hotline was inactive at the time, making it impossible for Martiashvili’s family to seek emergency help. The EUMM published a statement arguing that the instance shows the “impact of the severe restrictions in place on the freedom of movement for the local population in Akhalgori valley”.  

– The co-produced Swedish-Georgian film And Then We Danced, centered on a love story  between two young male dancers of the national Georgian ensemble, is being  internationally recognized. On October 29th, it was awarded the Chicago Film Fest prize. It also won the Irish Prize Best Feature Award, which is an international LGBT film prize. Moreover, the movie and its star Levan Gelbakhiani were awarded the Rainbow Spike and Best Actor Award respectively. Gelbakhiani was also recognized as ‘best actor’ in the Sarajevo Film Festival. And Then We Danced is Sweden’s official entry for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. 

Another movie which received critical acclaim at international film festivals is Georgian director Dito Tsintsadze’s Oscar-nominated film Shindisi. On October 19th, the movie received the Warsaw Film Festival Grand Prix, and Tsintsadze was named ‘best director’. Shindisi is based on the events of the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. Both movies, Shindisi and And Then We Danced, were nominated in the list of 24 best European movies by the Arab Critics Award.

– On October 31st, the Holy Synod of the Georgian Church dismissed Petre Tsaava, Metropolitan of Chkondidi, which is located near Kutaisi, from his position. Tsaava had stated the Patriarch and  other high-ranking church officials were “beset by the sins of pederasty and sodomy”. Tsaava has failed to present any evidence to back his claims against the Church and Patriarch Ilia II. High-ranking Georgian politicians from the Georgian Dream Party disapproved of Tsaava’s statement. Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani referred to Tsaava’s statement as ‘anti-national’, ‘anti-statehood’ and ‘harmful’. Prime Minister Gakharia stated that the Patriarch is a symbol of both the Church and the state, and that the future of the state “must not be put” at risk. The Public Defender of Georgia Nino Lomjaria pilloried “the use of sexuality as a ‘weapon’; she proclaimed her solidarity with the Patriarch, and noted that the statements only serve a political power game. Furthermore, LGBT groups reacted to the accusations: Equality Movement, which a Tbilisi based NGO, mentioned that “comments about the homosexuality of the [Patriach] may sound scandalous, but […] should not deter […] from remembering that we are living in a secular state where homosexuality is not a crime and especially not a sin”. Within the following days, Gakharia, Bizdina Ivanishvili, the leader of the Georgian Dream Party, and President Salome Zourabichvili, separately visited the Patriarch, underlining their support for the Patriarchate. 

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