Editorial: Fidelity to justice must define the European choice
Nothing defines Europe, like the legal system that is rooted in the primacy of human rights, and provides effective redress against its violations. In this sense, death of Archil Tatunashvili while in custody by Tskhinvali’s Russia-backed authorities, is an affront to the idea that Georgia is in the European space. How Tbilisi, Brussels and the European capitals treat this incident and its consequences, will test their sincerity in lauding Georgia’s gradual integration with Europe.
Tragedies like Tatunashvili’s are, sadly, predictable. Like the shooting of Giga Otkhozoria in May 2016, they happen in the context of illegal and shifting borders, which are guarded by armed men following unclear procedures. They exist in a legislative limbo that not only permits, but breeds and feeds on corrupt underhand arrangements, on illicit trade, where the criminal underworld is fused with officialdom and levies bribes as a part of the everyday way of doing things.
As Russia was tightening its hold on Georgia’s two occupied regions in the past years, European diplomats have been heard saying in private conversations, that the official presence of Russians on the boundary lines and tighter integration of these regions into the Russian legislative space could bring more predictability for ordinary residents. This notion appears to be profoundly ill-construed: Russia’s increased presence replaces random chaos with administrative malice and institutionalized impunity of the police state.
As Europe should know only too well, totalitarian regimes rarely punish illegally. They make sure to modify the laws first, so that they disregard individual rights. They aim to maintain control, not enforce justice. They aim to instill fear, not to reassure. They aim to encourage retribution, not rehabilitation. When Tskhinvali “prosecutors” charged Tatunashvili with genocide post-mortem, and started fearmongering talks of having the “lists” of Georgian “war criminals,” they fit neatly into this pattern.
Europe’s understanding of rule of law is incompatible with the cynical Soviet legal practice that is now perpetuated by Russia. The purposeful use of law as a tool of selective punishment and general oppression, the lack of legal redress is what truly defines the occupation of Georgia’s two provinces by Russia.
Legal precariousness, where one can fall asleep in one country, and wake up in another; when one can get arrested for failing to pay the bribe and charged with genocide makes Europe an impossibly abstract concept for those who live in these occupied provinces.
Europe’s reluctance to define such practices unacceptable in the European neighborhood and to speak clearly against them for this reason makes an increasing number of Georgians think accommodation with Russia’s brute force is more rational, than pursuing an impossible European dream.
Europe can prove to Georgians this is not the case.
European Union and the European capitals must clearly oppose Russia when the principles of rights and law are concerned, and it must openly signal to Tskhinvali and Sokhumi when their actions cross the red line.
Firstly, the EU statements on acute human rights violations shall gain the same tenor and urgency, as those made in cases of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The time for “expressing concern” has long passed.
Secondly, legal redress under the European Convention for Human Rights (ECHR) shall be extended – symbolically and in practice - also to the residents of the occupied provinces to seek legal redress against Russia - and against Georgia, shall such violations occur. This decision shall stand even if Moscow pulls out of the Convention, as it now threatens to do.
Georgia’s European partners should demonstrate that the country remains firmly anchored in the European legal space: that its progress is judged by those principles, but its citizens are also entitled to redress from injustices inflicted onto them by the regime that is alien to Europe.
Georgia’s choice for Europe reflects its hope for justice. Europe must win the contest for Georgia’s soul in courtrooms, not the battlefield.