A bad week for free speech in the South Caucasus.

The last few days have been unpleasant and disappointing for anyone who cares about the future of the South Caucasus and its people. Freedom of speech has once more been the easy victim of crude political machinations.

In Armenia, a former Soviet dissident who is a candidate in this month’s presidential elections was shot and wounded; the Foreign Minister led a chorus of negative reactions to mild criticism expressed by European diplomats in Yerevan ahead of the election; an interim report by the OSCE/ODIHR Mission raised concerns about the lack of a level playing field.

In Azerbaijan, two prominent politicians have been imprisoned on dubious charges of stirring trouble in the town of Ismaili. One of them is a candidate in the Presidential election in October. Several other activists remained imprisoned for peaceful protests in Baku in January. Meanwhile a writer who dared to challenge the official narrative on relations with Armenia has been vilified by the state, had his books burned, and been threatened with physical violence.

In Georgia the Parliament refused to hear the annual address of the president, who then decided to hold the speech at the National Library. a legitimate protest by former political prisoners turned violent when the Presidential administration refused to allow a delegation from the protesters to attend the Presidential speech. the police failed to control the situation. a number of opposition politicians were hurt in the melange.

In themselves none of these events was serious enough to create a crisis but seen together they reflect very badly on the region. It seems that intolerance to the views of others is so entrenched in the mind-set of the political actors that it has become the norm.

Freedom of speech is about the rights of those that one does not agree with to express their views. Protecting these rights is a core element in democratic state building. those who cite respect for the rule of law as a pretext for some of the actions of the last week need to remember that in each of these three cases, the first law of the land is the constitution, and that basic freedoms are enshrined in the constitution of their countries. It is time these constitutions are respected.

The events in Georgia showed bad judgement on the part of Georgian leaders. The silver lining is that the incident has forced the two sides to enter into discussions on a number of key issues, including constitutional changes. It is important that Georgia adopts changes in the constitution and that this is done in a transparent way, in consultation with different sectors of society and with the advice of foreign organisations such as the Venice commission. the disastrous constitutional legacy left behind by the Saakashvili government needs changing, but forcing through changes will simply replace one wrong with another. a full public debate is therefore essential and wide political consensus desirable. The Ivanishvili government needs to show that it is different from its predecessor by doing things differently.

source: CEW editorial team