Georgia continued to deliver on a busy reform agenda in 2013, according to EU’s annual report assessing progress in its neighborhood countries.
The progress report, which reviews achievements made by countries within the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in 2013 and outlines areas where further efforts are needed, was released by the European Commission on March 27.
“In 2013 and first few months of 2014 Georgia navigated successfully complex and unprecedented transition with two landmark elections in which power has changed hands peacefully, two changes of Prime Minister, change of President, a functioning cohabitation and constitutional shift in the political system, moving away from one party dominated state and at the same time tackling the legacies of past abuse – while it continued to deliver on a busy reform and approximation agenda in the framework of the Association Agreement, including the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area and Visa Liberalisation Action Plan,” reads the progress report on Georgia.
The report calls on Georgia to ensure adequate separation of powers; to reform the justice system to ensure “the full independence of the judiciary”; to ensure that criminal prosecutions are conducted in a transparent and impartial manner and to avoid any perception of politically motivated justice; to ensure that pre-trial detention is used only as an exceptional measure; to increase the accountability and democratic oversight of law enforcement agencies; to strengthen media pluralism and independence, as well as freedom of expression and opinion.
According to the report Georgia “reinforced the independence of the judiciary through new rules that increase transparency and diminish the opportunity for political interference.”
“The judiciary has become more independent in relation to the Prosecutor’s Office,” it says.
The report says that the Parliament “played a constructive role throughout the period of cohabitation between the President and Prime Minister, reinforcing its position in Georgia’s political system.”
According to the report the media environment “improved and became more diverse, but it remained politically polarised.” It also says that the situation at the Georgian Public Broadcaster “deteriorated” attributed to problems related its defunct board of trustees.
Report says that prison reforms were implemented with “positive results” and notes improvements in healthcare in the penitentiary.
“Reforms moved towards a rehabilitative rather than a punitive approach and radical changes were introduced in prison management policies. There are, however, concerns that this may lead to the renewed empowerment of informal power structures among inmates, including the thieves-in-law mafia,” reads the report.
The report notes “mixed” progress towards freedom of association and freedom of assembly, saying that there were “violent examples of islamophobia and homophobia”.
According to the report the Interior Ministry initiated last year amendments to the code of administrative offences to ban insults against religion, “but this effort did not prosper, thanks to the opposing efforts of NGOs, minority religious groups, the Ombudsman and the international community including the EU.”
Noting continued progress in fighting corruption, the report also says that “more needs to be done to prevent, detect and tackle high-level corruption.”
“Acknowledging past progress in the fight against corruption, the government made a commitment to reinforce mechanisms to fight alleged high-level corruption, but effective reforms towards these ends are yet to be implemented,” reads the report.
It says that tackling “legacy of abuse remained a challenge” for the government with more than 20,000 complaints filed by citizens relating to alleged abuses committed in recent years.
“Thirty-five officials who had served under the previous government were charged with criminal offences… In this context, the EU has voiced the need to ensure fair, transparent and evidence-based due process, free from political interference,” the report reads and also notes that allegations of undue pressure placed by prosecutors on ex-PM and former interior minister Vano Merabishvili, who was convicted last month, “need to be properly investigated.”
The report says that “new policies and steps have been taken to de-politicise” the Interior Ministry. But it also notes that “some individual cases raised questions regarding violations of the presumption of innocence, abuse of pre-trial detention and use of intimidation during questioning.”
“Some operations conducted by the fiscal police under the Ministry of Finance have been heavily criticised as unprofessional and unnecessarily brutal,” reads the report.
It calls on the authorities to adopt anti-discrimination legislation. The bill, which was drafted by the Ministry of Justice and which incorporates comprehensive anti-discrimination approach, among them gender identity and sexual orientation, “will be submitted with some delay” to the Parliament, according to the report. It says that adoption of such legislation “is expected to prove controversial.”
The report welcomes adoption of the new labor code – a longstanding EU request to Georgia, but it also says that “implementing it properly remains problematic.”
“The focus now needs to shift to enacting the necessary secondary legislation, improving social dialogue, ensuring safety at work, and establishing a dispute resolution mechanism,” reads the report.
It says that the creation of “a healthy and competitive business environment, without unnecessary state intervention, remains one of the priorities of the government.”
“A clear communication effort and unambiguous message to investors about the government’s policies and timeline for implementation of related reforms is strongly recommended,” reads the report.
On breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the report says that after the change of government there have been “many positive signs and some cautious steps towards a more open and effective engagement” with the breakaway regions.
But it also says that “more decisive steps such as substantively reviewing restrictive aspects of the law on occupied territories are still pending.”
Although last year the Georgian Parliament started discussion of a bill, partially decriminalizing illegal entry into breakaway regions from territories other than those controlled by Tbilisi, the proposal was shelved and not yet approved by the Parliament.
“The EU welcomes the government’s more open approach towards conflict resolution and confidence-building. Announcements and initial cautious steps that have been taken are positive and should be reinforced,” reads the report, which also notes as a positive development renaming of the State Ministry for Reintegration to the State Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality.