Democratic institutions and practices in Georgia saw signs of development, stagnation, and even regression in 2015. Positively, the year saw increased evidence of political pluralism and a noticeable slowing in new prosecutions against former officials from the previously ruling United National Movement (UNM), while the structural independence and functionality of the Georgian judicial system were largely sustained in 2015. However, there were also signs of stagnation and even possible regression in other areas, and particularly in the realm of media freedom. While the Georgian media landscape remains diverse and largely pluralistic, the investigation and prosecution of the leading opposition media outlet, Rustavi2, points to political pressure by elements of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition.
After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia was mired in a succession of separatist conflicts, civil wars, and persistent economic depression in the 1990s. After peaceful protests known as the Rose Revolution ousted former President Eduard Shevardnadze in late 2003, the UNM’s Mikheil Saakashvili held the presidency from 2004 to 2013. The UNM was effective in combating low-level graft, strengthening state institutions, and diminishing both organized and petty criminality, but its agenda often ran contrary to the rule of law, and power was concentrated among a small circle of UNM elites. Growing popular dissatisfaction led to a surprise victory by the GD coalition in 2012, and Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili became prime minister, resulting in an uneasy cohabitation with Saakashvili. Ivanishvili resigned from the premiership in 2013, upholding previous promises to remain in office only briefly, and his longtime associate Irakli Gharibashvili assumed the post through December 2015. Despite Ivanishvili’s departure, he remained active in GD party affairs, leading to accusations from the UNM and other opposition politicians that he maintained power through informal means and was therefore unaccountable. After coming to power in 2012, the GD-led government also embarked on a campaign of what some GD leaders termed “restorative justice,” which targeted former state officials from the UNM. While UNM officials did engage in abuses during their period in power, critics claimed that the GD’s campaign was politically motivated and largely arbitrary. Frequent statements by senior GD officials assuming UNM officials’ guilt lent further evidence to this view.