The country of Georgia, located at the border of Europe and Asia, has recently seen a major constriction of civil liberties. Once a member of the Soviet Union, Georgia is now classified as its own hybrid regime, having seceded in 1991. As of 2022, Freedom House labels the country as semi-free and acknowledges the occurrence of backsliding. The fight towards total freedom has been rocky and fraught with civil war and economic crises. More recently, Georgia’s freedom of the press has come into question with the arrest of journalist Nika Gvaramia.
A pro-opposition media figure, Gvaramia was charged this year with abuse of his position and embezzlement. The government justified the arrest by claiming that Gvaramia used a company car for personal reasons, sentencing him to three and a half years in prison. With some semblance of truth, – the car was used by Gvaramia for personal reasons – experts are stipulating that the arrest has a political motive. According to Varol’s framework for backsliding, a governmental charge brought against opposition for non-political crimes is worrying. This is a form of stealth authoritarianism, which is harder to recognize and could cause significant damage in the long-run.
The conviction of Gvaramia occurred soon after the journalist started a new pro-opposition broadcasting service, sparking questions amongst the international community. If political competition is not allowed to exist, democracy cannot grow. In order to avoid backsliding, there must be options for the people to consider in the political sphere. Although Gvaramia was not running for office, his influence amongst Georgians is enough to threaten the government and add a level of political competition. Huq and Ginsberg classify elimination of political competition as a pathway to erosion, along with a “contraction of the public sphere”. The media restrictions subtly placed on anti-opposition broadcasters through non-political arrests limit the liberal rights of the people.
The arrest of Gvaramia is not the first time Georgia has restricted opposition leaders and groups; crackdowns have occurred on both sides of the political arena. In 2007, pro-Western ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili arrested many anti-government protestors and restricted broadcasting rights, leading to a Georgian rebellion. On the flip side of the coin, Saakashvili was arrested in 2021 for corruption, leading many to wonder if this arrest was another politically motivated crusade. When both prominent parties of a country, specifically the Georgian Dream party and the United National Movement in Georgia, are specifically out to get each other without abiding by the rules of law, the country’s democracy is in danger. Free and fair elections are impossible if there is distrust from both parties; more and more leaders who come into power will be arrested, and political competition will be destroyed.
Gvaramia’s conviction was preceded in 2015 by an accusation of governmental blackmail directed at the journalist. According to Gvaramia, a businessman sent by the Georgian government told him to transfer his broadcasting station to its previous pro-government owner. If he didn’t accept the change in ownership, Gvaramia says, the government and its representative would release personal videos of the media mogul. Surveillance of powerful opposition figures is a signature component of stealth authoritarianism and backsliding, according to Varol. Besides Gvaramia, recent wiretapping amendments have been introduced by the Parliament. Regardless of the eventual veto by the Georgian president, the idea of governmental supervision is scary. Illegal observation of privacy is a big problem – it discourages citizens from opposing the government in any way. If people are getting arrested for things they said or did in private, others will fear breaking conformity and begin to censor themselves.
Though ballot stuffing and voter intimidation run rampant in the country, Georgia has been working towards free and fair elections. Achieving equality within the electoral process is essential for the growth of democracy. However, with the arrests of Gvaramia and Saakashvili and the new surveillance laws, the country seems to be slipping back into an authoritarian government style. This sets a dangerous precedent for all other future leaders of Georgia and similar countries. Citing specific non-political laws as a cause for arrest is damaging to the core of the country and its civil liberties. Just as competitive elections need to occur, competitive media is necessary for progress. Without competitive media, citizens are only exposed to one candidate and one point of view. Limiting the amount of information available to citizens is a threatening tactic; as Mercieca says, limiting contradictory information is a form of meaning distortion. Distorting the meaning of governmental information is overall dangerous, as citizens will be living ignorant. Being forced to stay uninformed due to intimidation and consequential self-censorship is not democratic, and is therefore not conducive to democratic growth.
The detainment of Gvaramia has been widely criticized by international organizations, but it doesn’t seem as if Georgia is ready to halt its backsliding. The new surveillance amendments introduced by the Parliament are worrying, especially since the enactment of these laws already occurred way back in 2015, with Gvaramia. This shows that the government is not only willing to ratify these amendments (with the exception of the president), but to enforce them. Fearmongering seems to be running rampant in Georgia, and the effects of it need to be addressed by the international community.