What’s up Georgia? Doctor released, and fake accounts removed8 min read
From December 1st through the 8th, the Tbilisi International Film Festival screened a diverse row of movies, from classic and modern Georgian films, such as Inhale-Exhale (Dito Tsintsadze), Before Father Gets Back (Mari Gulbiani) and Fatherland (Giorgi Sikharulidze) to alternative productions, such as Give Me Liberty, to works from the rest of the world, such as Mr. Jones (Agniezska Holland) and Gundermann (Andreas Dresen). Uta Beraia’s movie Negative Numbers was awarded the EU prize as the best picture to depict a human rights-related topic.
On December 5th, the three EaP (Eastern Partnership) countries, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, signed a joint statement on the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Council, declaring the countries’ ambitions for a ‘gradual integration aimed to achieve full access to the [European Union] EU single market while setting future European benchmarks’. They suggested creating a platform in some of the areas including justice, transportation, digital economy, and energy. The statement has been handed to Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
On December 9th, Human Rights House Tbilisi in cooperation with international freedom-of-expression NGO IFEX Europe organized a celebration on International Human Rights Defenders Day, whereby the role of human rights defenders in society was promoted. The House has developed a new strategy for 2019-2023 that aims to extend its protection programme, whereby Georgia received recognition as the first shelter country for many human rights defenders at risk of getting persecuted and fleeing from neighbouring countries. On December 10th, Georgian officials and civil society marked International Human Rights Day. On this occasion, Public Defender Nino Lomjaria criticized the government’s violence during the Night of Gavrilov and stated that the government had failed to enact effective measures when protestors disrupted the premiere of the LGBT film And Then We Danced and the Tbilisi Pride march.
On December 17th, the Georgian National Museum opened an exhibition honouring the legacy of Polish-Georgian artist Henryk Hryniewski. Hryniewski was born in 1869 to a family of Polish extraction in Kutaisi (western Georgia). He directed the Tbilisi Arts School from 1918 to 1921, and contributed to transforming it into the Georgian Academy of Fine Arts. He started working as a professor from 1922 and became its vice-rector in 1927. His artistic activities mainly consisted of decorating interiors and illustrating of books by Georgian authors. Hryniewski was arrested during Stalin’s Great Purge in 1941. The exhibition runs in the Sighnaghi Museum in Tbilisi and will be open until February 28th, 2020.
15-year old Luka Siradze, who had attempted suicide hours after from being interrogated by the police, died at Iashvili Children’s Central Hospital on December 17th. Siradze’s mother claimed that her son had been kept from her for 5-6 hours until he confessed to having vandalized the walls of the Tbilisi Green School, a private elementary school in Tbilisi. On December 15th, the Interior Ministry stated that Siradze had not been interrogated in the absence of his mother, thus dismissing the allegations by the family. However, On December 17th, Marina Choloiani, the police inspector who interrogated Siradze, was detained for having put psychological pressure on the teenage. On December 19th, state inspector Londa Toloraia claimed that the minor had been interrogated for more than six hours and had been threatened by Choloiani. Choloiani allegedly also said that if Siradze didn’t confess, she could cause problems for his brother, a student at the military academy. Furthermore, according to the statement released by the Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia, Choloiani had not acted in accordance with the principles of the Juvenile Justice Code and brought the minors “undue psychological stress”.
Siradze’s death was followed by protests in Tbilisi. The demonstrators claimed that Luka Siradze wa “another victim of the ugly and unfair system” and demanded the resignation of Vakhtang Gomelauri, the Interior Minister of Georgia. They also marked “Fuck the Law!” and “Fuck this Life!” on some buildings and roads of Tbilisi.
On December 20th, Facebook announced the removal of 39 accounts, 344 pages and 13 groups for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” in Georgia targeting domestic audiences. Nathaniel Gleicher, the Head of Facebook Security Policy, noted that the people behind the removed pages had used fake accounts and posted news on organizations and impersonated political parties, public figures, activist groups and media entities. Moreover, they had criticized the opposition and local activist organizations. According to the statement, Facebook’s investigation linked the activity to Panda, a Georgian advertising agency, as well as the government led by the Georgian Dream (GD) Party.
Georgian Government officials rejected the accusations, instead blaming the opposition United National Movement Party for producing and spreading fake news. At a press conference on December 24th, GD Executive Secretary Irakli Kobakhidze claimed that disinformation is spread not only through the social media, but also through the television broadcasting. He announced that a legislative proposal against “disinformation in the media” had been initiated in the Georgian parliament, which will be discussed with NGO representatives. A similar initiative was mentioned by Salome Zourabichvili, the president of Georgia, in her New Year statement. Nearly one year prior,Patriarch Ilia II had claimed in his Christmas Epistle of 2019 that freedom of expression was a frequent victim of abuse.
The Advertising Agency Panda responded to the accusations by releasing a video called ‘Buried by Defamation’ and blaming Georgian media and ‘false liberals’ for accusing Panda without any proof. The video denied the allegation that Panda had been connected to any fake accounts on Facebook. Later, Panda partially confessed to the accusations and claimed that they had criticized the opposition not for the love of the Georgian Dream party, but out of fear of the fear of return of dictatorship in the country.
On December 23th a trilateral meeting of Georgian, Azerbaijani and Turkish foreign ministers (FM) took place in Tbilisi at the Ceremonial Palace of Georgia in Avlabari. In the framework of the trilateral format, the three ministers signed a new, 2020-2022 action plan for sectoral cooperation. Georgia’s foreign minister, David Zalkaliani said that the meeting had been very successful and rested its focus on regional transport and energy projects. Azerbaijani FM Elmar Mammadyarov argued that both Georgia and Azerbaijan face unresolved conflicts while both countries keep acting in accordance with the international law.
On December 28th, the prominent Georgian doctor and the president of the Association of Orthopedists and Traumatologists of Georgia, Vazha Gaprindashvili, who had been detained on November 9th for an illegal border crossing, was released from prison in Russian-occupied Tskhinvali Region. On 20th December Gaprindashvili was sentenced to one year and nine months in prison for “deliberately crossing the border”, which caused outrage among Georgian officials and the international community. Georgian villagers living near the rural boundary are often detained on similar grounds. However, the detention of Gaprindashvili, a high-profile local figure, drew more attention and led to hundreds of citizens, including relatives, colleagues, politicians, and civic activists calling for his release. At a press conference after his release, Gaprindashvili explained that he had passed into Tskhinvali to visit a patient. He thanked those who had called for his release. He refused to admit that he had crossed an international border and repeated that he was “presently in Georgia, on Georgian soil”. On December 30th, South Ossetian officials announced a ‘temporary closure’ of the only crossing point in Kartsmani with the rest of Georgia ‘due to increased security threats in New Year days.’
On December 31st, Georgian police detained 10 people including opposition members and civil activists who had protested against Tbilisi City Hall’s decision to remove protest tents and banners for the installation of an amusement park in front of the Tbilisi Parliament building.
Five of the detained were released before trial on January 6th, whereas the trial of the other five has been delayed. Malkhaz Machalikashvili, father of Temirlan Machalikashvili, who was shot in the face in his own bed by security services in a December 2017 counter-terrorism operation, urged parents not to bring their children in front of the parliament. According to an official statement from Tbilisi City Hall, the protesters had been informed about the removal of the protest camp in advance.
Statistics by the Georgian National Tourism Administration released on December 31st show that over 9 million international travelers visited Georgia in 2019. As Mariam Kvirikashvili, the head of GNTA announced, this is 7.1% more than 2018. The majority of the visitors came from Azerbaijan, Russia, and Armenia. Furthermore, more visitors are coming from Poland, Italy, Germany, France and the UK. Notably, the number of tourists visiting Georgia in 2019 reached its highest-ever record.
On January 1st, 2020, Georgian Patriarch Ilia II addressed Russian president Vladimir Putin in his New Year’s video and called on the Russian government to end its occupation in Georgia. He also urged the Georgian youth to listen to and respect their elders . In the same vein, Georgia’s Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia wished a happy new year to those who live in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and dealt “with occupation on a daily basis”. President Salome Zourabishvili stated that “Georgia lacked calm in 2019” and that its downward turn could only make its enemies happy. He also said that, Georgia could “disperse hatred, black clouds and unite for the development of [the] country.”
Sources: Agenda.ge (ENG), Civil.ge (ENG), Human Rights House (ENG), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (ENG/GE), OC Media (ENG), RFE/RL (ENG), YouTube (ENG), Vimeo (ENG).