After remaining vacant for nine months, the post of Public Defender (Ombudsman) will be filled by a representative of the NGO community. President Mikheil Saakashvili made this decision on July 6 during a meeting in his office with a group of leading Georgian NGOs.
The presidential nominee is Sozar Subeliani who currently leads the “Rule of Law” project at the pro-Saakashvili NGO Liberty Institute. He is a graduate of the Georgian Theological Academy and has a long career in journalism. Subeliani made a name for himself with several investigations into corruption in the law-enforcement bodies and by working as a human rights advocate. Together with other members of the Liberty Institute, now partly housed in the parliament building, Subeliani contributed to last year’s Rose Revolution. Therefore, parliament, which is dominated by pro-Saakashvili majority, is highly likely to confirm him.
“First of all, it is necessary to restore trust towards the ombudsman’s office; this should be achieved through principled positions and proper reaction to each instance of human rights abuse,” Subeliani said after his appointment. However, he admits that, according to the current legislation, the Public Defender lacks effective mechanisms to efficiently protect human rights throughout Georgia. Subeliani pledged to make his activities transparent and refused to engage in the backroom deals that his predecessor employed.
Subeliani declared that if the office of Ombudsman had been a political post under President Eduard Shevardnadze, that bias ends now. “To my thinking, today the Ombudsman would be an opponent of certain people and certain decisions in the government that infringe upon human rights,” he declared. However, Subeliani’s background and his close ties to the ruling party make him vulnerable to charges that he might try to avoid sensitive issues. Subeliani himself does not bother to hide that he is a staunch follower of Saakashvili. “I consider the present government my associate in strategic issues. This government, whom I supported to take power, and its strategy are acceptable for me,” he said.
After the revolution many NGOs found themselves somewhat marginalized from the new administration. Many also began to criticize Saakashvili and his government for sacrificing the rule of law and respect for human rights as it cracked down on corruption. The behavior of police and other law-enforcement bodies after the Rose Revolution became a particular source of discord between Saakashvili’s government and the NGO community. Civic groups questioned the legality of arrests, mistreatment of imprisoned officials, and large-scale criminal roundups. “Today, police do not behave any better than before the revolution. In some cases they are even worse than before,” Subeliani told Civil Georgia magazine.
Tina Khidasheli of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, who was one of the candidates for the Ombudsman post, says that after the Rose Revolution the government began to ignore the NGOs, even those that had helped engineer the revolution. Saakashvili repeatedly had avoided holding a meeting with NGO groups. “They know well what we are,” Khidasheli said, “and they know well our strong and weak sides. [They know] the best way to push NGOs into the background is to ignore them.”
The NGOs, however, refused to disappear. Groups once friendly with Saakashvili put the president on notice that they could withdraw their support if Saakashvili fails to bring the anti-corruption and anti-crime activities in line with the law. “The major problem faced by the non-governmental sector is that they lost Saakashvili as an opposition activist and received him as a President. Until the current opposition becomes stronger, the efficiency of the non-governmental sector’s activities will always be low. But I think this is a matter of time and will be settled soon,” legal expert Davit Usupashvili commented.
The appointment of Subeliani might be considered a sort of “gesture of good will” from Saakashvili towards the NGOs. The president’s earlier persistent efforts to distance himself from the NGOs may have damaged his image. The July 6 meeting was likely intended to defuse the tensions between the government and the NGO sector. Having praised the role of NGOs Saakashvili, however, called on NGO leaders for a “transformation, in order to cope with new realities.” It remains to be seen how the NGO community will interpret this blunt message from Saakashvili.
Levan Ramishvili, Director of the Liberty Institute, says that after the peaceful transfer of power, the methods used by the third sector might not be as effective in the new political environment. Under Shevardnadze, investigative journalism was an effective way to change the political situation and mobilize public opinion. Accordingly, watchdog organizations were more frequently seen in media. The recent exodus of staff from the NGO sector to the governmental bodies has raised fears that it might lead to weakening of the third sector. To remain relevant, NGOs may need to reorient themselves toward social issues, self-governance, and civic education (Civil Georgia, July 8; 24 Hours, July 9; Resonance, July 12; TV-Rustavi-2, July 6).