In Search of Georgia's Culture of Democracy

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Speaking to a television journalist late last month in Tbilisi, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili -- leader of the Rose Revolution and darling of the administration of President George W. Bush -- defended the crackdown on free media in Georgia, saying the country lacked a "culture of democracy."

But when the young and idealistic Georgians stormed the parliament building in November 2003, democracy was their freedom cry. The strangling of the free media is only one example of the government's reluctance to entrust its citizens with the necessary tools to question authority and conduct a serious political debate.

Out of 12 major television stations, only one is allowed to broadcast the news. This station happens to be owned by the government. On July 2, Saakashvili warned private companies in Georgia to stop advertising on the station Kavkasia, which was the last remaining independent television channel broadcasting in Tbilisi.

As far as newspapers, they have been ordered to reregister with government censors by Sept. 1 or they are out of business.

Radio stations have been banned from broadcasting political news. Greenwave is the only remaining independent radio station, and it is guarded day and night by journalists and their supporters to avoid being taken over.

Moreover, the judicial system in the country is controlled by the government. In each case, the judges were appointed by the president himself and are expected to make rulings favorable to the administration. According to a June 30 report, the European Commission for Human Rights, the Georgia's judicial system does not rise to the level of a modern, democratic court system.

As a result of the recent parliamentary elections, the ruling party has a constitutional majority -- 169 seats against 12 opposition seats.

Recent demonstrations against the government have empowered the citizens, waving white scarves and calling for democracy.

In the coming weeks, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice plans to visit Tbilisi, the capital of a country that is supposed to be an emerging democracy. She will no doubt be insulated from the real and serious problems of the Georgian people and the strangled media, which has been abused in the name of democracy.

If just one independent news report is published and Rice happens to get a copy, the Georgian people will have won a small battle. A culture of democracy is alive and well, even though Saakashvili refuses to admit it.

Tsotne Bakuria, a former member of Georgia's parliament, is a senior fellow at Global International Study Group in Washington.