Highlights from 2010 and the future plans- Executive Director of the Foundation Talks with Georgian Newspaper

3 Feb, 2011

Newspaper “Mteli Kvira” (Resonance)
December 27, 2010
Author: Irma Chapidze
Interview  with Keti Khutsishvili, Executive Director of the Open Society Georgia Foundation.

Original version is available in Georgian (pg.1; pg.2).

Dialogue launched between the Government and the Civil Sector

Keti Khutsishvili: “OSGF will further advocate civil initiatives in 2011”

The Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF) initiated a number of important programs in 2010. Especially important were OSGF round table talks on media environment and package of bills for its improvement, public discussion of draft Constitution, and surveys on human rights, rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), plea bargaining and pre-trial detention.

In an interview with Mteli Kvira newspaper, Ms. Keti Khutsishvili, OSGF Executive Director, talked about OSGF’s plans for 2011 and the issues the foundation plans to further advocate.

– How would you evaluate OSGF’s activities in 2010?

Keti Khutsishvili: I think OSGF’s activities were very successful, but I’ll let others have the final say. 2010 was not an easy year, either for Georgia or the foundation. We had to work in a number of directions and respond quickly to social and political developments in addition to implementing our strategic programs. One of the highlights was a report we produced and submitted to the International Criminal Court in The Hague on human rights abuses during the 2008 war. The report has drawn a lot of interest from the international community.

We also partnered with Amnesty International on a report on detailing current conditions among Georgia’s IDP population. Severe problems have emerged in terms of their access to health services and other basic social benefits.

During the year we also worked on amendments to the Constitution. We came up with several recommendations for the improvement of the draft Constitution and submitted them to Parliament and the public.
All the while, we continued with our planned activities, particularly in media and civil society development. We launched an interesting new initiative along with a group of experts and journalists, which aims to improve the media environment in Georgia.

Finally, we worked hard to strengthen civil society. On one hand, we helped developed organizations to shore up their sustainability, by building contacts with Eastern European NGOs to learn from their experience the ways in which they can become more active and diversity their finances at the same time. On the other hand, we supported newly founded NGOs and active people to help them found new organizations and launch activities.

– As far as I remember, support for newly founded NGOs was your priority in 1996-97…

– That’s right. Unfortunately, in 2010 we still thought that this was an important issue. As you know the civil society and the non-governmental sector has weakened in Georgia. They do not have much influence over government decisions, nor are they trusted by the public at large. Therefore, it is vital to for new faces with new energy and ideas to take part in public life.

But as I mentioned, in addition to planned activities, we had to carry out a number of unplanned ones. For instance, in the process of working on the Constitution we prepared a very serious analytical document on the balance of power between various branches of the government. We organized a meeting between the Constitutional Commission and the Public Commission that reached agreement on certain issues. But when Parliament accelerated the process and launched discussions over the bill we had to arrange an emergency round table meeting and make respective evaluations.

The amendments to the Constitution were not adopted in the summer after all. The process was delayed and some improvements were made to the draft, but we still have many remarks. We believe the Constitution should aim for the consolidation of the country, balance between government branches and development of democratic pluralism, which the current Constitution fails to completely address.

– What about other events where you had to react promptly?

– We had to react promptly in a number of other cases during the year. For instance, when the government decided to remove the gas pipeline from the list of strategic entities not subject to privatization, we arranged a round table meeting as soon as possible and asked (along with other NGOs) the bill’s authors to explain the reasons for their proposal.

It is difficult to say whether this happened thanks to our efforts or not, but the process has been delayed, so we are happy. Later, we had to do the same in case of the draft Tax Code, which was also considered in “force majeure” circumstances. Following the organization of discussions, we collected recommendations from all interested parties and submitted them to the authors of the bill. Some of the recommendations were taken into account in the final version, but it’s clear that there is still room for improvement in the code.

– Let’s go back to the media and information related issues. OSCE representative Ms. Dunia Miatovich said Georgia has problems with access to information and gave some recommendations to the government…

– You are right–currently freedom of information, and media independence along with ownership transparency pose serious problems. The legislation on freedom of information that we considered to be a step forward in the 90s, has not proven to be effective enough. It fails to ensure that journalists can get the information they need to do their work from the government.

Moreover, Georgia’s rankings for medial freedom have fallen, according to all international surveys. Therefore, we were pleased to embrace the media environment improvement initiative put forward by a group of media and legal experts. The group worked very hard, and came up with several interesting conclusions and recommendations that have formed the basis for eight bills. The group proved that going in one direction alone, such as improving the transparency of media ownership, is not sufficient. Serious improvements on information accessibility are also crucial.

I am pleased that the government, in this case, showed readiness for dialogue; Parliament has held a number of discussions over the bills for the past two months. However, we would like to see this process go forward more quickly, without postponing the final discussions until spring. As we live in this country, we want positive changes, in case they are made, to occur soon.

By the way, the process made us aware of one interesting thing. Joining efforts is vital both for the media and NGOs. Gaining support of the diplomatic corps in Georgia is no less important. Sometimes, it happens that all three factors are needed to leverage change. I hope we will reach some breakthrough in this direction in 2011 but at least a good foundation has been laid.

Advocacy and protection of the public interest is never an easy task. It takes time, not only here but in developed democracies. We should not give up anyway. A number of our and our partners’ initiatives are in need of support. For instance, we helped the Harm Reduction Network to develop a package of bills on drug policy issues. They have been shelved in Parliament quite for a long time. We are promised all the time that they will be considered, but this has not happened yet. At the same time, we all understand that our current legislation, to put it mildly, is not humane.

We think that stronger advocacy efforts may bring results. We noted that in 2010 the authorities were responsive to various initiatives coming from civil society, whether the job was done, however, is another issue. They responded, helped us, attended dialogs, whether this was an event, round table meeting, or other occasion; they made some concessions, however I cannot say we reached any crucial outcome in any of the directions. But in a positive light we consider this as a start of more constructive relations.

For instance, just a few days ago we published two very interesting reports on pretrial detention and plea bargaining jointly with our partners.
Both reports paint a terrifying picture. According to statistics 0,1% of defendants are acquitted in the country, which raises concerns and doubts regarding the independence and fairness of our court system. This explains the large number of plea bargains. When people understand that it is impossible to be acquitted, they usually resort to plea bargaining. Here again we face serious transparency problems. According to the analysis, quite often the punishments do not match the crime committed at all.

There are a few cases of convicted murderers being released in months, while those who have stolen 500 GEL were given sentences of several years. The analysis also showed that Georgia is one of the leading nations in terms of jail population on a per capita basis – especially in case of preliminary detention. We plan to launch an advocacy campaign on this issue and we hope that the Public Defender’s office and other NGOs will also join the process.

– Which programs for European integration did OSGF implement?

– We prepared a report on the implementation of European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) commitments in 2010. We involved a number of experts from civil society in the process. We submitted the report to Brussels. Probably, by the end of January, we will visit Brussels along with several partners to meet representatives of EU institutions. The report deals with almost all important developments that took place in 2010. It shows the commitments the country performed or failed to perform as part of the ENP.

Unfortunately, in most of the cases commitments are considered to be met, but still a number of problems remain. These are problems related to the Constitution, election law, which was changed before the elections but still poses a problem, the election process, which has not improved sufficiently either, human rights, court independence and media environment. We will unveil the report to the public in February.

– What would you say about the new direction – Eastern Partnership?

– We have joined this new initiative – Eastern Partnership – this year. ENP is nearing the end. The country will have more active relationships with Europe as part of the Eastern Partnership. We think that civil society should be more fully involved in this process. It should not be limited to negotiations between governments.

– What do you think about new coalition of NGOs?

– The coalition was created recently, therefore so far I find it difficult to comment. Of course, the creation of a new NGO union and a new platform is a welcome move. The coalition involves several of our partner organizations and also newly founded NGOs, with which we are not yet familiar. We will probably meet and talk about the issues they plan to work on. Since we are actively working on European integration issues, we will likely cooperate with this coalition as well.

– There are speculations this is a government initiative…

– I find it difficult to evaluate so far as I have not talked to them directly and I am not aware of their goals. Though, naturally, the aspirations for bringing the country nearer to Europe and European accession should be welcomed. The country will better deal with all our current concerns like media freedom, human rights, and economic development in the context of European accession.

– In 2010, according to different surveys Georgia’s ranking has worsened. Unfortunately, we rank 103rd in terms of democracy and 99th in terms of media freedom. Does the head office plan to intensify the OSGF activities and what are OSGF key priorities in 2011?

– In the first place I would like to point out that we set our priorities depending on the country’s needs, then the New York office approves our budget. Considering the international and local rankings you have just mentioned, our priorities are still as follows: protection of human rights and support of human rights organizations; improvement of media freedom and environment; and civil society strengthening. Generally, there is a complicated environment in the country and our foundation as well as other donors will have to put more energy and make more social investment to make a positive change.

– Some representative of the public still believe that the foundation fights against Georgian traditions. The readers of our newspaper do not belong to the category of people that react to such rumors, but….

– It is rather easy to lay the blame on an organization or a person but much more difficult to later destroy this stereotype. I hope for the past two years we have been open to the public and media as well as initiative groups. We have tried to work on the topics that are important to the Georgian public. Of course there always will be people who cast blame on us for something, but we have not worked against the church or Georgian culture. On the contrary, I would like to note that we have held a competition – Democratic Values in Georgian Culture. The works created as part of the competition will be soon unveiled to the public. Some people think that modern liberal and democratic values are alien to Georgian culture.

Quite the contrary, let’s take Georgian public figures of the 19th century. They did not lag behind but were even ahead of contemporary European thinkers. The goal of the competition was to show that respect for human rights, tolerance, freedom and equality before the law are universal values, which in no way conflict with traditional Georgian cultural values.

For instance, the author of one of the projects compares Ilia’s, Vazha’s and Akaki’s views with the Human Rights Convention. It is astonishing that Ilia’s words, voiced in the 1890’s, preceded those provisions that were developed in the middle of the 20th century. Personal freedom, tolerance, and respect for diversity are in the limelight of Vazha’s writings. Not many of his contemporaries can boast the same. We do not oppose but want to promote what is most valuable from Georgian culture.