The European Commission released on May 15 its annual report on progress in relations between the EU and its neighbors, including Georgia.
The annual report identifies reform achievements made by countries within the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in 2011 and outlines the areas where further efforts are needed.
In respect of Georgia the report provides set of recommendations in areas ranging from internal political reforms to conflict resolution issues.
It calls on Georgia to ensure free and fair parliamentary elections this October and to address existing shortcomings in the electoral legislation; to engage with breakaway regions through “pragmatic cooperation with de facto authorities”; to continue strengthening freedom of expression and opinion; to strengthen independence and efficiency of the judiciary; to further liberalize criminal justice system; to increase oversight and accountability of law enforcement agencies and to combat “impunity” and investigate accusations of human rights violations by law enforcement agencies; to improve labor rights; to continue regulatory approximation to the EU in trade-related areas.
Political Reforms, Human Rights
The report notes that new election code, adopted in December 2011, reflects number of recommendations from Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal and constitutional affairs. It, however, also says that “questions remained about the fairness of the election environment.”
“The electoral code fails to address some key recommendations, in particular the different number of votes required to elect a deputy in different electoral districts,” the report reads.
The Venice Commission, has long been recommending Georgia to secure equality of vote through establishing approximately equal sized single-mandate, majoritarian constituencies. The commission said wide disparity between the constituencies - ranging from about 6,000 voters in the smallest constituency to over 150,000 voters in the largest one – “undermines the principle of equality of suffrage.”
The report says that the new election code “does not address ambiguities in the electoral dispute mechanisms” and also notes about “insufficiently regulated use by the ruling party of state resources for political purposes”.
Recently a group of election watchdog and legal advocacy groups have tabled package of legislative amendments, which, authors say, will improve electoral environment if approved by the Parliament and which among other issues also envisages further restrictions on use of administrative resources.
The report describes Georgia’s governance as being dominated by the executive branch with “weak parliamentary oversight and an insufficient degree of independence of the judiciary.”
“Despite marked progress in a number of areas in the justice sector some challenges remain, in particular in ensuring citizen’s right to a fair trial,” the report reads. “The main problem relates to the strong position of the prosecutor and the lack of independence of the judiciary.”
The report says that this is evidenced by 98% of conviction rates. There was only a slight increase in number of acquittals last year compared to 2010.
Coupled with severe punishment, the high conviction rates, according to the report, results in the frequent use of plea bargaining – in 87.5% of cases.
In November, 2011 amendments to the criminal procedure code went into force, which increased judicial control over plea bargaining by explicitly requiring judges to assess not only the legality, but also the fairness of plea agreements between the prosecution and the defendant.
The report says that “large prison population remained a concern.” There were 24,244 inmates in Georgia as of December, 2011, which is one of the highest prison populations per capita in the world. The Georgian Ministry of Justice has started focusing to promote alternatives to imprisonment and mediation in an attempt to also cut prison population.
According to the report “notable achievements” have been made in the area of juvenile justice and with regard to more liberal approaches in the criminal justice sector.
As regards media freedom, the report notes concerns about “equitable access to distribution networks.” Some TV channels are not able to reach wider audience as they are being denied by some cable networks to be transmitted.
According to the report further progress is needed “to increase the performance and accountability of law enforcement agencies”; it notes of remaining concern over the use of excessive force by the police during dispersal of anti-government protest rally in late May, 2011.
“The lack of democratic oversight on the part of the Constitutional Protection Department of the Ministry of the Interior is also a concern,” the report reads.
The report also notes about Georgia’s “substantial progress in addressing corruption.”
It, however, also notes about “an increasing concern that property rights are not being fully respected in Georgia.”
The report also says that last year’s legislative amendments allowing religious minorities to be registered as legal entities of public law was “one major achievement” in the area of of freedom of religion.
The European Union calls on Tbilisi to enhance its engagement policy towards breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia through “pragmatic cooperation with de factor authorities.”
“Take pragmatic and constructive steps to encourage trade, travel and investment across” the administrative boundary lines, reads the report, which says that Tbilisi has taken several steps to implement “its strategy of de-isolation and engagement” with the breakaway regions, including through stepping up efforts to provide health services to residents of those regions.
It says that healthcare services provided to residents of those regions is a “constructive step towards reconciliation”, but the report also notes that these efforts should continue “without preconditions, such as an insistence on the acceptance of Georgian-issued ID documents by the beneficiaries of medical assistance.”
Last year Georgia introduced, what it calls, neutral travel documents and identification cards for those living in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in an attempt to allow holders of those documents to travel abroad and enjoy various social services and benefits available in the rest of Georgia.
While welcoming introduction of these documents, the European Union has also called on Tbilisi that neutral travel documents “should not be the only means of travel for these populations until they are more widely accepted by them.”
Sokhumi and Tskhinvali, which have slammed these documents, said that Georgia’s neutral travel documents were in fact pushing these two regions into further isolation.
“These documents constitute an important step forward in Georgia's engagement strategy; but given the strong rejection of the documents by the Abkhaz and South Ossetian de facto authorities thus far, it is important that they exist as a de-isolation option, not as an exclusive means for travel of Abkhaz and Ossetians, so that confidence building and dialogue initiatives are not hindered,” the EU’s report reads.
It also says that the continued application of Georgia’s law on occupied territories “remained a concern for the effectiveness of the engagement strategy.”