I challenge you to watch this video without your jaw dropping.

For those who (like me) don’t speak Georgian, here is what happened. Elderly Roza Tskhabelia was trying to speak with President Mikheil Saakashvili, during his trip to her western village, about problems she had paying for health care for her children, according to Democracy and Freedom Watch.

At first a police officer and who appears to be a plainclothes security agent physically keep her out of the area where Saakashvili is speaking. Then, when Tskhabelia starts to talk to reporters about her complaints, the plainclothes thug, joined by another, interrupts the interview and drags her away. They reportedly locked her in a cellar for the duration of Saakashvili’s visit.

That’s appalling, but, unfortunately, we’re just getting started. Last week, Amnesty International released a report on the increasingly repressive atmosphere for opposition activists and reporters in Georgia. It cites evidence from the country’s ombudsman, among other sources, that public employees have been involved in the violent disruption of meetings between opposition politicians and voters.

In addition, pro-opposition journalists are being targeted by thugs who seem to enjoy impunity. From the Amnesty report:

Ekaterine Dugladze, a female journalist with pro-opposition news agency INFO 9 in Zestaponi, western Georgia, told Amnesty International that in the last three weeks she has been persistently followed and harassed by a group of seven young men: “They follow me every[where] by car or on foot, preventing me to move freely, interfere with filming, come physically very close when making inappropriate remarks about my work and private life and asking questions in a non-stop manner.”

Dugladze told AI that despite her filing complaints with the local prosecutor and police, the gang continues to hound her, as it did Vasil Dabrundashvili, a reporter who came to interview her as part of a story about the harassment of opposition journalists.

After the men disrupted the interview, they followed and harangued him. And here’s the kicker:

“This was all taking place in front of the Zestaponi Police building. I entered the police building and asked the police officer to stop them from following me and interfering with my work as a journalist, however they refused to act on my request,” he told Amnesty International. Vasil Dabrundashvili also called on a police patrol for help, however the two policemen that arrived to record a complaint left abruptly and without any explanation when he requested to see and sign the report of the incident. According to Vasil Dabrundashvili to date no formal investigation has been launched and no one has been held responsible in connection with the incident.

Then there is the more widely reported confiscation of thousands of satellite dishes that opposition media had intended to distribute in an effort to reach more households.

So what is going on in Georgia?

I know what it looks and smells like: authoritarianism. Saakashvili has condemned the treatment of Tskhabelia, but what politician in his right mind wouldn’t? Where is the concern about an atmosphere that leads security agents to think that hustling an old woman into a cellar is the proper course of action? Or leads police to ignore a case of harassment that happens literally on their doorstep?

Saakashvili has always seemed like a micro-manager to me, which made sense considering the task he had taken on. But that means he can’t really pass the buck on incidents like these. Even if it’s up to local officials to go after these bullies, he needs to send a clear signal that their abuse is unacceptable.

Instead, he seems more concerned these days with what he calls attempts to use bribery and fraud to win this October’s parliamentary elections. That’s how Tbilisi likes to frame the satellite dish issue. Although parliament passed a law requiring cable and satellite TV operators to carry all stations that broadcast news programs until election day – thereby ensuring that opposition media are not shut out – many people do not have satellite dishes.

In the giveaway, prosecutors accuse opposition media of trying to buy votes in an operation linked to billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream movement. Giving gifts to voters ahead of an election is a common ploy – the OSCE criticized an Armenian party for handing out tractors before that country’s elections this year. But a casual investigation by Transparency International suggests that something more than a desire for clean electioneering is behind the seizures. Even those who want to buy the dishes in quantities of 10 or 20 are not having much luck. Traders at a huge wholesale market outside Tbilisi would not sell more than one or two dishes per customer when a TI representative went looking recently:

“Asked why they set this low limit, most sellers turn away. ‘The market for antennas is gone at the moment,’ one salesman says. Asked what had happened, he responds: ‘Politics.’ ”

In a recent speech, Saakashvili made this statement:

“Some are trying today to portray Georgia as if there are autocrats sitting in this building and are silencing people. There is no restriction in Georgia, is there? Don’t we go outside? Everyone can express their own opinion and we will all be proof of it. Personally, I will always accept your opinion – this is exactly what the free debates are about.”

Judging by events of the past couple of weeks, I would say, yes, Saakashvili goes outside, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to hear unpleasant opinions. And, yes, the opposition can express itself, but that doesn’t mean many people will get to hear them. And Saakashvili could rectify that if he wanted to.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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