For the last nine years Georgian NGOs and civil society in general have been struggling to regain the status within their society that they held prior to the Rose Revolution of November 2003. That event on the one hand brought many civil society leaders into the political mainstream, as the government of President Saakashvili tapped into the talent of the mainly young civil society leadership to fill many government posts. On the other hand the government’s approach to what was left of civil society has since then not always been friendly. A senior government official recently described civil society leaders as “Tbilisi based, elitist and disconnected”.
There are some signs that a new generation of civil society leaders are now ready to reclaim the ground lost.
Last year non-governmental organizations engaged in the field of elections, and media representatives, started a campaign under the name “This Affects You Too” aimed at improving election legislation and developing a better pre-election environment. Up to 170 non-governmental and media organizations as well as about 1500 individuals signed the petition submitted to the Parliament of Georgia on 17 February, 2012, together with a package of legislative proposals. The proposals, aimed at mellowing down some of the draconian laws that the Georgian parliament had adopted earlier, particularly on party funding. It has had a measure of success.
“This Affects You” has now started the second stage of the campaign that envisages amendments to the Election Code, as well as the regulation of the media environment during election period. On 7 May, the participants of the campaign submitted a new package of legislative proposals to the Parliament of Georgia. The proposals were also explained to an audience which included representatives of Tbilisi based foreign embassies and international organisations and NGO representatives at a well-attended event at the Tbilisi Marriott Courtyard on Thursday, 17 May 2012.
The legislative proposals address the following issues:
1.Refining the vote count procedure on the day of the elections. Under the proposal, the number of actual voters participating in the elections should be documented in the summarizing records before the ballot boxes are opened in the precincts. This will prevent the precinct electoral commissions, after they have ascertained the elections outcomes at specific precincts, from switching the numbers of the electorate that showed up at the elections. The amendment will help prevent modifying the summarizing records in the event if the outcomes turn out unsuitable for the election administration. The mechanisms for summing up the election outcomes have also been made clearer.
2.Ensuring transparency of the activities on behalf of the electoral administration – live broadcasting of the sessions of the Central Election Commission and district electoral commissions during the pre-election period as well as their live internet coverage is ensured.
3.Regulating the use of administrative resources –pre-election restrictions are imposed on the use of administrative resources starting from 1 June of the election year; the range of persons not entitled to participate in the election campaign is increased; activities of the legal entities of public law, government officials, and heads of regional and local governments fall under the regulation; a ban is imposed on campaigning during events/presentations funded from state/local budget; more precise regulations on budget expenditure as well as clear restrictions on the use of budget resources are put in place; liabilities for local self-government bodies and district electoral commissions as well as transparency standards of their activities and sanctions for non-fulfilment of those standards are better defined.
4.Ensuring equal media coverage for political parties during the election period – the definition for hidden advertising has been clarified; rules have been provided for placing social, commercial and free political advertisements, as well as rules for discussing and responding to the media monitoring results carried out by both Georgian and international organizations have become binding, and rules for holding pre-election debates and providing information on the elections have been set up.
5.Defining the rights and responsibilities of the Georgian National Communications Commission in such fields as broadcasting transmission, copyright and allied rights – under the proposal, cable network operators are obliged to retransmit television signals of Georgian Public Broadcaster as well as community and satellite broadcasters. Additionally, broadcasters are required to sell their re-transmission rights to cable network operators without establishing monopolistic prices or other conditions that could bring about unjustified disparity of forces in the broadcasting market.”
Georgia’s civil society was for a time considered as one the most positive pro-democracy factors in the post-Soviet space, and its loss of clout was a serious setback to Georgian national state-hood. The new assertiveness of Georgian NGOs has been welcomed by many observers of the region, and its impact will undoubtedly be felt in Georgia and beyond.