TBILISI, Georgia — Today, Georgia enters the final week of a parliamentary election campaign that will be decisive for its future. How decisive? A friend of mine here called it “an apocalyptic crisis that squeezes out of every human heart what is deepest in it.”
This might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not. The emotional temperature of the contest broke the thermometer last Tuesday night when opposition television showed extensive video footage — sourced from a Georgian state prison guard who’d fled to Belgium — of other guards and their superiors torturing, taunting, and sexually assaulting prisoner after prisoner, sodomizing them with broom handles. (Partial footage from Georgian television can be found here, here, and here, discretion advised.)
Angry demonstrations have since lit up in in six different parts the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, despite the efforts of Ilya II, the Orthodox patriarch, and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire opposition leader, to calm them.
President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) is desperately hoping to get all this off the TV screens by election day on October 1 so that people can go to the polls having slipped back into a previously dominant mode of fear toward Ivanishvili, Russia, and the unknown generally.
The few intelligent voices still trying to defend the government argue that prison brutality occurs everywhere, that it’s hard to eradicate, and that appropriate measures are now being taken to remove the “sick” prison officials responsible for the recent abuses. Good arguments, if we limit ourselves to the incidents directly captured on video.
But was something more behind these crimes?
I think Georgians have reacted as intensely as they have to the videos on the belief that they symbolize an underlying reality in the country. What people watched on TV wasn’t just isolated acts but a brutal system leading to very a specifically bureaucratic program of violence: prisoners being lined up in an orderly, bureaucratic row, holding their files, to be beaten, taunted, and often defiled.
So what would the purpose of this system be?
Actually, it’s not that hard to imagine; it’s not unlike hazing or basic-training rituals we’re familiar with in the West: The purpose is to control people by showing them that they have no effective rights and no power, and that they’re at the disposal of those who do. Georgian prison officials have done this by frightening inmates, humiliating them, and robbing them of their self-respect. (Rape is of course one of the worst human violations. In a culture still characterized by a deep fear of homosexuality, moreover, men sexually assaulted in this way tend to feel especially tainted, outcasts for life.)
In the context of this kind of power abuse, consider what meanwhile happens to many Georgian businesspeople: They’re often suddenly visited by the tax police, or the regular police, told they have committed a violation (real or invented) that can be evaded but only by turning large sums of money over to anonymous hands — or by surrendering a car, or by working on government projects for free, or by granting a majority share in their companies.
Here’s an example from personal knowledge, with some details altered to keep the police from tracing the source: A friend of mine was suddenly visited by the tax police, who told her that her company had committed some transgression, one she says they invented, but that the problem could be evaded by turning over to them 125,000 Lari (US$77,000). She remonstrated that she was not guilty and did not have that much money. They replied, “You can borrow it from these relatives,” naming which ones and how much to ask from each. They went on, “Don’t tell anyone outside your family, and don’t even think of going to the media or to foreign diplomats. We know all your sources of income, who your parents are and where they live, your grandmother and her village, where your children go to school and where they play. … Think about them.” No one mentioned going to the courts. (The acquittal rate in the Tbilisi criminal courts is in any event a fraction of 1 percent.) She paid. This is a system of financial terror. It says, “You are an insect. You have no power. What those who do have power say, you will do.”
This terror goes beyond the business community, too. I have several first-hand reports from schoolteachers who were told that they will lose their jobs if they fail to vote for the National Movement — or, in one case, if they fail to board the bus for Saakashvili’s triumphal rally in Tbilisi’s Sports Palace on September 8. The National Movement has largely slipped into a pattern of ruling by fear.
I have been visiting Georgia since the Soviet era, and there is more public dread here than there was under the aging Politburo of the mid ’80s. I’m an American citizen, close to the airport, and I’m honestly afraid of the consequences as I write these words. As a long-term observer of Georgian politics, my impression now is that the government counts on fear as the decisive element in an electoral victory.
The U.S. government, the EU, UNICEF, and others whom you’d expect to condemn the abuse of Georgia’s prisoners have indeed done so; but the condemnations ring hollow. To begin with, they all call for an investigation of the abuses by the Georgian government and courts. President Saakashvili met on Wednesday for well-televised instructions along these lines to the new prime minister Vano Merabishvili, minister of justice Zurab Adeishvili, chief prosecutor Murtaz Zodelava, and deputy interior minister Giorgi Lortkipanidze — all of whom, along with Bacho Akhalaia, recently appointed minister of interior (read: the police) but forced to resign within the last few days, are widely suspected of being key operators in the prevailing terror campaign against businessmen, prisoners, and others.
Whoever turns out to be responsible, they are high up in the Georgian government. Among those actually filmed torturing prisoners were the deputy chief of the penitentiary system, the warden of Gldani Prison, and his deputy. Many reports from human-rights organizations, and from the government’s own public defender, have meanwhile complained of prison brutality for years. Merabishvili, who was minister of interior until this summer, directly supervised the prisons until 2008. Dmitri Shashkin, who was appointed defense minister when all these people were promoted over this past summer, was minister for penitentiaries after 2008.
So President Saakashvili’s pious calls for investigation may resemble Comrade Stalin’s instructions, in November 1938, to Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police, to find out the truth behind reported violations of socialist legality by the NKVD (the KGB’s infamous predecessor).
Wouldn’t the Saakashvili of the Rose Revolution have been the first to expose official misconduct and torture and set them right? What happened to brave young Misha, who defied election fraud with an armful of roses, cleaned up feudal corruption, vanquished the mafia, set a failing state on its feet and resolutely defied the Russian tanks?
Yes, Saakashvili and his comrades did all this — and it intoxicated them with a feeling of righteousness, ability, and power. They believed that they were bringing light into a dark cellar that had been padlocked for 70 years, exterminating the vermin who infested it, and cleaning it like new.
From the very beginning, the Rose Revolution had a punitive spirit; and so, from the very beginning, Saakashvili’s project concealed an inner contradiction. The light it was bringing was liberal democracy; but in a place so dark and infested as Georgia was, Saakashvili believed, that required harsh measures.
To cope with the failing state they inherited, the revolutionaries raised revenue by milking Eduard Shevardnadze’s corrupt officials without going to court. Through this and other improvisations, they rapidly built a strong state. They now possessed an effective instrument they could employ for whatever task they needed — or simply wanted. So, for their noble purposes, they began to squeeze normal businessmen when short of money.
They then began to realize that a strong state could yield not just money but votes, as well, by intimidation or fraud at the margins. That came in useful in 2007 when Saakashvili, like many heroes who have come to power before him, began to grow unpopular. He could have left office then, or amid the current scandals. If he did, he might someday return in triumph. But what would happen to him in the meantime? Having had recourse to so many shortcuts and illegalities, and having inflicted so many indignities, he and his friends could lose everything. In this sense, you can see Saakashvili today as a trapped, tragic figure.
None of this is to deny Saakashvili’s eminent place in Georgian history as the founder of a real Georgian state under highly adverse conditions. Neither is it to denigrate the fortitude of his resistance to Russian imperialism. Neither for that matter is it to argue that Ivanishvili is a savior on a white horse. His campaign has not been very tolerant — or even particularly skillful. But Ivanishvili did have the courage, in a system where one group monopolizes power by squeezing “black money” out of the society around it, to make his vast fortune available for the creation of a genuine opposition movement; and he did this at great personal risk.
Some U.S. political leaders, John McCain notably among them, have responded to Georgia’s electoral contest with the generous instinct to help Saakashvili in his hour of tribulation. But instinct isn’t always the best guide to complicated foreign realities, particularly at a moment when we need to come to terms with the counterintuitive dark side of Saakashvili’s rule. However you look at the decisive elections next week, let’s be clear-minded in understanding that the methodical torture and rape uncovered last week are not isolated breakdowns of civilization within Georgia’s prison system; they’re symptoms of a deeper crisis that now permeates Georgia’s whole political system.