Prime Minister of Georgia

Speech made to the Assembly

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Madam President, ladies and gentlemen, Excellencies, distinguished members of the Assembly, I am honoured to address you in the house of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We have just heard a beautiful piece of authentic Georgian polyphonic singing, where different voices come together in a complex union and embrace and enrich each other, developing and moving ahead. This is a strong marker of Georgian national identity, and when I think of being Georgian, this polyphony comes to my mind first. It is symbolic that we hear it today, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Council of Europe and the 20th anniversary of Georgia’s accession to it.

Yesterday, Georgia marked 30 years since tragic events. On 9 April 1989, a peaceful anti-Soviet demonstration demanding freedom and independence from the Soviet Union was violently dispersed by the Soviet Army using tanks and guns on Rustaveli Avenue in the centre of Tbilisi. I was very young then, but I still remember the event like it happened yesterday. On 9 April 1989, a small nation united to defend its freedom

the freedom of sovereign existence. In those events, the Georgian people dared to exercise their right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech in the Soviet Union. Their attempt was suppressed in bloodshed, but their fight for independence, freedom and democracy has not been lost. Two years after those tragic events took place, on the very same day, the Act of Re-establishment of Independence was signed. With that fight and sacrifice, Georgia regained its European identity, which seemed so distant 30 years ago. For that reason, my appearance today is dedicated to all the people who have sacrificed their lives for my country’s unity and freedom.

Since those years, we have faced many other challenges, and despite all of them, we still have achieved a lot – we have achieved almost the impossible. The success that my country has achieved in the last 20 years belongs to both Georgia and the Council of Europe, and therefore we can both be proud of it. Together we have created a country that has emerged as a true democracy between two continents, bridging Europe with Asia. In this challenging region, Georgia has an ambition to dictate peaceful rules of co-existence and create a sustainable model of democracy.

In the last 20 years since accession to the Council of Europe, Georgia has managed a dramatic transformation, and today we are a country on the rise. Twenty years ago, Georgia had serious challenges, and upon accession we made a list of commitments. We pledged to create a truly democratic State, to strengthen the rule of law, to carry out judicial reform, to fight corruption, to fight torture and ill treatment, to guarantee freedom of speech and a free media, to protect minorities and to strengthen national human rights mechanisms. Georgia has demonstrated progress in all those directions, through close co-operation with the different bodies of the Council of Europe.

I would like to take this opportunity to express gratitude on behalf of the Georgian people to the Parliamentary Assembly, the Committee of Ministers, the European Court of Human Rights, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, the Venice Commission, the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights and other human rights monitoring bodies. As I said, we have achieved everything together.

Let me elaborate on the major achievements that are worth your attention. After many years, Georgia has finally managed to establish a fair system of checks and balances and has made irreversible democratic progress. In discussing our new constitution and all the deliverables that it brought to the building of our democracy, the best I can do is to refer to the most reputable institution to judge – the Venice Commission, which said: “the constitutional reform process completes the evolution of Georgia’s political system towards a parliamentary system and constitutes a positive step towards the consolidation and improvement of the country’s constitutional order, based on the principles of democracy, the rule of law and the protection of fundamental rights.”

Our government became the first to refuse one-party domination. Our new constitution requires us to introduce a fully proportionate electoral system from 2014. Meanwhile, Georgia is going through an important transitional period. This will create better political balance and give minority parities a better chance of winning seats in parliament. With the introduction of a proportional electoral system, governments will be required to make greater concessions in policy making. This is our values-based choice, and we will never diverge from this path.

We are proud that for the first time in history Georgia has elected a female president. This is a profound milestone achievement in Georgia’s modern history. We are writing a new chapter in our history. With the election of the new president, the new constitution came into force. Now, Georgia is a parliamentary democracy where, in my capacity as prime minister, I am accountable to parliament and its members, who are elected by the Georgian people. As a result of the recent reforms, parliament has become stronger than ever. A strong parliament means robust oversight of the executive. For that very reason, we understand the importance of being accountable to our population. We understand how important it is for every single citizen to be informed about our day-to-day initiatives and reforms, and we are determined to strive towards more development and more accountability.

Just seven years ago, Georgia had serious challenges in the field of the rule of law and the functioning of an independent judiciary. We have made significant progress that is best measured here in Strasbourg. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights is the best indicator of shortcomings and improvements in the field of human rights. More people have started to seek and find justice at a national level, with no need to go further to the European Court of Human Rights. That has been confirmed by the significant drop in the number of applications filed against Georgia in the Court: in 2011, we had 395 applications to the Court, but in 2018 we had only a quarter of that figure. On the execution side, the total number of Georgian cases closed by final resolutions of the Committee of Ministers is 76. Around 80% of those cases have been closed since 2013. This demonstrates that the Government of Georgia effectively executes the Court’s rulings. Since 2013, applications to the constitutional court of Georgia by common courts have increased more than fivefold. Before, the number of applications was literally zero. Let me repeat that: literally zero. The quantity of administrative imprisonment cases has decreased by 68%. In addition, in recent years we have opened court rooms to the media and ensured the full transparency of trials.

Georgia has made immense progress in the fight against corruption and in ensuring the accountability and transparency of our government. In the 1990s, Georgia was among the most corrupt countries, but today we are proud to be one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Georgia is ranked No. 5 in the Open Budget Index, just below countries such as Sweden and Norway. Georgia is a proud member and former chair of the Open Government Partnership, a major international partnership with the aim of global openness, transparency and accountability.

Our government inherited a system of oppressive penitentiary machine, with the systematic practice of torture and ill treatment. The penitentiary system was failing, so we needed to take decisive measures. The reforms carried out have drastically changed the situation in penitentiaries. As a matter of fact, the Georgian penitentiary system deserves its place in good human rights stories from the United Nations and the European Union.

Georgia has transformed its attitude towards political freedoms. Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful manifestation, which previously were often violated, are now fully respected. Georgia has a vibrant civil society, a free media and Internet, and freedom of expression is fully respected. The unfortunate practice of violent dispersion of peaceful protests belongs to the past, and the government fully respects the right to assembly and manifestation.

The justice system has become more responsive to hate crimes and discrimination, and protective mechanisms have become stronger. I underline the fact that in April 2017 Georgia ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.

Last but not least, Georgia has developed robust human rights mechanisms. For the first time, in recent years the Government of Georgia has developed a strategic approach to the protection of human rights, empowered the ombudsman’s office, and established effective oversight mechanisms at the parliamentary level. We have achieved a lot, but we are determined to progress further. We are building a modern European country where people are the centre of gravity – a country that grants equal opportunities to every single citizen, no matter what their social status or position, and where every citizen’s voice gets heard and the government feels the aspirations of its people.

I often say that we have two main challenges in Georgia: occupation and poverty. This became my precept and serves as the basis of every reform or initiative that the government introduces in the country. One such reform is truly revolutionary – I would say it is a real game-changer – and that is the reform of the education sector. Over recent decades, education had become a real bottleneck, and the development of human capital lagged behind the demands of a modern world. We are going to devote an increasing proportion of our GDP to the education sector, starting from this year, and it will reach 6% of GDP, which is a quarter of our total budget. That will be ensured by legislation, so that every government that follows will be obliged to invest in the development of our human capital – the people who advance our country and made the values-based choice to support us in our European aspirations. It is the development of human capital that will serve as the solution to our existing challenges. Only educated professionals will be able to raise our country to the heights that we envisage for our future generations.

Despite all this progress, we still face major human rights challenges in our occupied territories. Some 20% of our territory is occupied by the Russian Federation. More than 300 000 internally displaced persons cannot go back to their homes. Every day we have to deal with barbed-wire fences, the depopulation of occupied territories, grave human rights abuses and a general situation that is nothing but a humanitarian disaster, in every sense of the term. The growing militarisation of the occupied regions is in full swing and depopulation is intensifying by the minute. Because of the grave humanitarian, economic and human rights situation, the population in the occupied regions has decreased by a factor of five or six since the start of the occupation.

As a result of the occupation, we have Russian military bases in the heart of Georgia. Today, we still deal with the threat of the abduction, torture and murder of Georgian citizens. The recent victims are Archil Tatunashvili, Giga Otkhozoria and 18-year-old David Basharuli. Only several weeks ago, another Georgian citizen, Irakli Kvaratskheliya, was illegally detained. The details of his subsequent death are still obscure, with unclear circumstances. One fact is clear: a Georgian citizen has been illegally detained in the illegally occupied territory, at a military base built illegally by the Russian Federation.

I thank the Parliamentary Assembly for backing and supporting the Otkhozoria-Tatunashvili list. We should all line up against the grave human rights violations to ensure that the deliberate disregard for the rule of law will never be tolerated. The Russian Federation tries to undermine our peaceful initiatives. With diversions of this kind, it tries to block all our efforts, and with ethnic discrimination it tries to fully eradicate the Georgian identity, but this will not happen. We will never give up.

Recently, our government introduced a new comprehensive and inclusive peace initiative called “A Step to a Better Future”. With this initiative we seek to provide our population in the occupied territories with access to proper healthcare and education services, and to create opportunities for micro and small commerce and for entrepreneurship, so that they can feed their families and ensure their physical survival.

The Russian Federation continues to ignore its obligations under the 2000 ceasefire agreement to withdraw its troops from our territories. We only believe in peaceful resolution of the conflict; that is our one and only position towards the resolution of the conflict. Our joint victory will only come when our IDPs are able to return to their homes. Bridges between people will be fully restored. The rule of law and human rights will be ensured throughout the whole territory of Georgia. Today, from this stage, I would like to send a message to all our Ossetian and Abkhaz citizens: our every success is your success, and the only future that we see is together with you, united in peace and prosperity.

I thank the Council of Europe for its unwavering support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of my country, and for keeping the issue of the occupation of Georgian territories high on its political agenda. I thank you all for the annual decisions of the Committee of Ministers on the issue and on the consolidated reports of the Secretary General. We greatly appreciate the close co-operation and co-ordination, especially in the direction of confidence-building measures and in the restoration of bridges between the divided communities. We are bolstering people-to-people relations by insisting that we are one country, one sovereign and united European nation.

In spring next year, we will host a peace forum in Georgia. Our goal is to contribute to peace and stability in the wider region, and therefore to give all the countries in the region the possibility to utilise the huge opportunities that have not yet been unleashed. As for the outstanding issue of Russia, we firmly believe that the member States should not allow a lowering of the Council of Europe’s standards or any downgrading of our common values to overcome the challenges we face, including the financial crisis.

Georgia supports the efforts aimed at solving the current financial difficulties. However, the position of Georgia remains that non-payment by Russia should not become a factor or condition for changing the existing rules or procedures of the Parliamentary Assembly or the Statute of the Council of Europe. Georgia has benefited from the different institutions of the Organisation for the last 20 years and as a sign of our gratitude the Government of Georgia have decided to make a voluntary contribution to the Council of Europe of €500 000.

It should be particularly emphasised that the action plans of the Council of Europe remain a very important instrument in helping certain member States to fulfil the recommendations issued by the various independent human rights monitoring institutions of the Council of Europe. It is important that the Council of Europe continues its work in both directions; on the one hand, it identifies shortcomings in member States through its monitoring institutions; and on the other hand, it continues to assist member States to rectify the shortcomings that are identified. Action plans are crucial, indeed critical, in that regard.

Finally, ladies and gentlemen, in 1999 – 20 years ago – the Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia, the late Zurab Zhvania, spoke in this wonderful city of Strasbourg at the historic moment that Georgia joined the Council of Europe and he made his famous statement. I vividly remember his words and therefore today, 20 years afterwards, I reiterate the words that Zurab Zhavania spoke here in the Council of Europe: “I am Georgian, and therefore I am European”. Since those historic words, 20 years have passed and symbolically this year we will take up the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, the Organisation that has been our principal supporter on our path. It is now our turn to accept this torch and pass it to future generations. Thank you. Gmadlob.

The PRESIDENT* (interpretation)

Thank you very much indeed, Prime Minister. Thank you for reminding us of the path that you have trodden, and for pointing out the prospects for the future, particularly when you spoke about your country’s commitment to develop its budget for education.

A number of colleagues have expressed a wish to ask you questions, Prime Minister. Please may I remind colleagues that you should put a question and not make a statement, declaration or speech? Your question should be limited to 30 seconds, to enable everyone to take the floor.

Mr POCIEJ (Poland), Spokesperson for the Group of the European People’s Party

Prime Minister, I am speaking on behalf of the European People’s Party, but also as a Polish politician and representative of my country. You know how deeply we were involved in the process of your democratisation, with everything that we did. However, we observed the election and we have one question that arises from our observation of it – not only our observation, but that of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. We saw many irregularities and between the irregularities we also saw the violence. Can you assure us that in the future these kinds of things will not happen? And, if so, how can you ensure that?

Mr Bakhtadze, Prime Minister of Georgia

Thank you for the question. The last presidential election in Georgia was a historic milestone; after the election, we switched to parliamentary democracy. Obviously, the biggest shortcoming that we observed in the election was a very polarised political environment. Unfortunately, Georgia is not the only example of that on our continent. We received the recommendations from ODIHR and from the OSCE, and the Parliament of Georgia is now working to implement those recommendations within our legislation.

Mr SCHWABE (Germany), Spokesperson for the Socialist Group

Prime Minister, first I thank you for Georgia’s fruitful co-operation with this Organisation, which you mentioned, and for answering the demand for an additional financial contribution to this Organisation; it is very helpful and is a good example to others perhaps to follow.

You mentioned the real progress that you are making in the fight against corruption. However, there are still things to do, for sure. Transparency International reports that it felt pressure from high-level officials and NGOs while investigating corruption cases, calling them “supporters of Fascism”. What do you say in response to those allegations?

Mr Bakhtadze, Prime Minister of Georgia

Thank you for the question. If you look at the rankings prepared by the most reputable international organisation, you will see that Georgia is the leading country in our region, and of course we are motivated to take our success to another level. We also have a vibrant civil society and our motivation, of course, is to work very closely with it. Regarding reforms, I always say that there is no low-hanging fruit left in Georgia. We have conducted very sophisticated and fundamental reforms, and the involvement of civil society in those reforms is very important; we understand that. Please be sure that we will continue to take our success to another level, and once again – let me repeat myself – the international rankings, which were prepared by the most reputable organisation, are very good evidence of that.

Mr HOWELL (United Kingdom), Spokesperson for the European Conservatives Group

Thank you, Sir, and it has been a great pleasure to work with colleagues of yours in the Council of Europe.

I will pick up where one of my colleagues left off. The Economist, which is an internationally recognised organisation, has classified Georgia as a “hybrid regime” and not a full democracy. That is no cause for congratulation, but I appreciate that it may be a step on the road to full democracy. You have parliamentary elections coming up next year. How will you make sure that you become a full democracy?

Mr Bakhtadze, Prime Minister of Georgia

Georgia is a full democracy. We switched to a parliamentary democracy after the election of the President of Georgia. You mentioned a very reputable magazine, but let me give you some other information, such as our success in the protection of human rights, our economic development and our transparency. I said that we are ranked number five in the open budget index, which measures important policy making by governments. That is a major indicator of Georgia’s success. When it comes to democracy and the protection of human rights, the best indicator would be the Court in Strasbourg, where cases have decreased by 80%. We are No. 6 in the world in the World Bank’s doing business index. But we understand that there are some shortcomings and we want to address them, using the recommendations of institutions that include the Council of Europe. We are fully motivated to do so. The Georgian Parliament is working intensively to implement into our legislation the recommendations that we received from the OSCE on the presidential elections conducted last year. Please be assured that Georgia will take its success story to another level, with your support and recommendations.

Mr BULAI (Romania), Spokesperson for the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe

My question concerns the recent elections in Georgia in November 2018. How in line with the rule of law do you think it is for a leader of a ruling party to pay bank loans for 600 000 people from his own pocket? Do you think that such a gesture, and allegations relating to pressure on public sector employees, should, could or will be investigated by an independent body in Georgia? If not, how could that affect Georgia’s relationship with Europe?

Mr Bakhtadze, Prime Minister of Georgia

Thank you for raising that topic. The idea of writing off those citizens’ debts belonged to me when I was Minister of Finance. Let me give you some interesting figures. Georgia has a population of less than 4 million, but more than 600 000 citizens were on the so-called black list. They had no chance of participating in the economic life of Georgia. That is a majority of our families. I initiated the idea before the election. In August 2018, as Prime Minister I announced that we would implement the project in autumn 2018, and we did. It was one of the biggest problems in our economy and it created a systemic risk for our national economy. Georgia was recently upgraded by major international credit agencies, and one of the many reasons for that was the implementation of this project. I assure you that the project has nothing to do with the election. I was the person who initiated it, as Georgia’s Minister of Finance, and it had nothing to do with the election of autumn 2018.

Ms TOMIĆ (Slovenia), Spokesperson for the Group of the Unified European Left

Prime Minister, you said a lot about protecting human rights, but in 2018, the organisers of the march into Tbilisi for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia were forced to cancel the event due to threats from far-right extremists and concerns about the lack of police protection. It is the latest in a long series of problems faced by the LGBTI community in exercising the right to freedom of assembly. What concrete actions will your government take to ensure that the LGBTI community can enjoy that basic right?

Mr Bakhtadze, Prime Minister of Georgia

As you know, several years ago the Georgian Parliament adopted the anti-discrimination law. That was a big step forward. The extremist groups you mentioned are marginalised groups, and such groups can be found in any country. Please be assured that in legislation, human rights are protected at the highest level possible. We are proud of our achievements, and we are getting recommendations from our European friends to make that stronger. I go back to my major argument: legislation. We have taken strong steps in the right direction. If there are ways in which we should make our legislation stronger, we have the political will to do that. The recent changes to our legislation are a strong guarantee that the protection of human rights in Georgia is of the highest level.

Ms PASHAYEVA (Azerbaijan), Spokesperson for the Free Democrats Group

I am pleased to recall that, since the restoration of independence, our two nations Azerbaijan and Georgia have further reinforced their historical friendship and have built strong co-operation. Based on mutual trust, there have been successful regional energy projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, or more recently the southern gas corridor. Through co-operation, together with Turkey, we provide a safe shipping of hydrocarbons from the Caspian basin to the European market. How can other countries contribute to the energy security of the European continent?

Mr Bakhtadze, Prime Minister of Georgia

Azerbaijan is a strategic partner of Georgia. Together we can implement historic projects such as Baku-Tbilisi-Kars and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, which I have mentioned, the southern gas corridor and many others. We think that we are not fully utilising resources from the Caspian Sea. We can contribute more to the energy security of Europe, and we have dialogue with European colleagues. As you know, there are free capacities in Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, and we will be happy to explore those opportunities together with Azerbaijan, to increase energy flow in our corridor.

The PRESIDENT (interpretation)

Thank you, Mr Bakhtadze. We have come to the end of questions on behalf of political groups. Colleagues, I suggest that we now take three questions at a time, to allow as many of you as possible to take the floor. I call Mr Rubinyan, Ms Schou and Mr Schennach.

Mr RUBINYAN (Armenia)

Thank you for your speech, Prime Minister. Georgia is in the process of transitioning to a full parliamentary republic. According to the Georgian parliamentary delegation, the country has made comprehensive reforms and is preparing for more changes. Would you share more details on that?

Ms SCHOU (Norway)

Prime Minister, I understand that Georgia has made considerable progress on creating a regulatory and institutional framework for fighting corruption. There is, however, still a way to go. Georgia is ranked No. 41 in Transparency International’s corruption index. What is your government doing to continue the important fight against corruption, to improve people’s trust in public institutions and processes, and to improve your ranking?

Mr SCHENNACH (Austria)

Prime Minister, congratulations on all your efforts. Statistics show that individual complaints from Georgian citizens to the European Court of Human Rights have reduced dramatically. Can you tell us what is behind that? A second question: have you ever sent your ambassador in Azerbaijan to see Afgan Mukhtarli in prison, who was kidnapped in your country, and have you ever investigated the civil servants who were active in that kidnapping?

Mr Bakhtadze, Prime Minister of Georgia

Thank you for the questions. I mentioned that the last presidential election was a historical milestone for our nation for many reasons; one of them is that after the election, we switched to a parliamentary democracy. Of course, the role of parliament has never been so strong in Georgia. The relationship and communication between the Government and Parliament of Georgia has never been so intensive. We believe, and our political team believes, that parliamentary democracy is the best model for Georgia to create a strong European State.

The second question was about corruption. In the ’90s, Georgia was one of the most corrupt countries in the world. We have tremendous achievements in this regard, but of course we understand that we need more efficient mechanisms, and we are working on that with our international partners. I provided you with information about our position in international rankings; I would like to give you information about our aspirations, too. We are trying to make Georgia a regional hub for international business, tourism, logistics and education, so we are very much focused on monitoring the position of Georgia in international rankings. Fighting corruption is one of the major priorities. I mentioned that we are No. 6 in the Doing Business index. We have very strong positions in other major international rankings, but I assure you that our main goal is to be in the top three in all major international rankings. That means that we have a concrete action plan and motivation to take the success of Georgia to another level. That includes fighting corruption.

As for the judicial system, the figures are the best answer to the question, but of course everything starts with political will. In 2015, there was the political will to start this big transformation, and we achieved it. We succeeded in it. We conducted three waves of reforms to our judicial system, which were very successful; we are preparing for the fourth. On the main question about how this became possible, my answer would be that everything starts with political will.

The case of Afgan Mukhtarli is very sensitive. Of course, we have co-ordination and communication with colleagues in Azerbaijan. The investigation is in progress. I can give my evaluation once the investigative process and procedures are over.

Mr CORLĂŢEAN (Romania)

Prime Minister, congratulations on the 20th anniversary of Georgia’s membership of the Council of Europe. For all those years, our Organisation and my country of Romania have strongly supported the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Georgia, while condemning Russia’s aggression against not only Georgia, but Moldova and Ukraine. My question relates to a commitment that Georgia made on its accession on which we need to see substantial progress in the near future: the signing and ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. What are the concrete perspectives?

Mr XUCLÀ (Spain)

Thank you, Prime Minister, for your communication, and congratulations on 20 years of Council of Europe membership. Education is one of the foundations of a better society, and a better future for the next generations. I have noticed that your government is on the way to implementing a very ambitious programme for better education in your country, which could be a reference point and model for the region and the eastern countries of the Council of Europe. Can you say a little about the programme?

Mr HUSEYNOV (Azerbaijan)

Prime Minister, Georgia is home to representatives of numerous ethnic and religious groups, who have co-existed for centuries in peace and mutual understanding. Georgian society has historically offered a fertile environment for the fulfilment of people living on its soil. It is not surprising that as far back as 1918, the Georgian Parliament had an elected female deputy, whose name was Peri-Khan Sofiyeva – a Georgian citizen of Azerbaijani origin. Could you please tell us about the major challenges that today threaten the peaceful co-existence of those in your diverse society, and how your government handle them?

Mr Bakhtadze, Prime Minister of Georgia

Thank you for the questions. The principles of the charters are already incorporated in our legislation. On the charter mentioned, of course we need consultation with all stakeholders to find an acceptable solution for everybody.

On the question about education, I believe that the biggest resource we have in Georgia is our society and people. Human capital development is therefore a major priority for my Government. There was a decision to dedicate 6% of GDP to this great idea – this new national idea – and some may say that it will be very hard to implement. But we are absolutely committed to making it happen because we believe that 6% of our GDP, which is a quarter of our budget, is the least amount of money that should be allocated every year to education. We have identified five levels. The first is pre-school education, then school education including secondary education, vocational education, higher education and science. If you take only education in our secondary schools, of course we have huge shortages there especially in terms of infrastructure. We have only 7 billion Lari to invest in upgrading our schools to the European level.

I would also like to touch on the importance of synchronising our programmes with the programmes that you have in Europe. We have a very concrete benchmark for our final goal and aim. In the Human Capital Index, Georgia now stands at No. 61; our goal is to be in the top 10 of that index in the next 10 years. I believe that the only way for Georgia to overcome the challenges we have in our country is by building very strong human capital, which should of course be sustainable. That is why our position is that it should become part of legislation, so that any future government has that commitment and obligation to invest 6% of our GDP in building human capital.

On the third question, we are of course very proud of the constitution that the first Republic of Georgia had, which in my opinion was the most progressive constitution on our continent at that time. We are fully committed to the values of that constitution as well. I have spoken about education reform; a big part of that reform is aimed at ensuring the involvement of all ethnic groups in the political and economic life of Georgia. Let me repeat again: with this reform, we plan to overcome all the barriers that Georgia may have. We also regard it as a way for our society to become much more engaged and stronger.

Mr GENTVILAS (Lithuania)

We want Georgia’s success story to continue but we have certain concerns, especially after the presidential elections last November and ODIHR’s comments on them. Our top concerns include the vote buying of 600 000 voters, whose loans were covered by your party chairman's charity fund but not by the government. There is the lack of an investigation into the pressure on civil servants, or into violence against opposition politicians. Do you have a concrete plan to address this in your government in the upcoming year?

Mr O’REILLY (Ireland)

Georgia has made very good progress since the Rose Revolution in 2003, including in the human rights area, which you have continued to consolidate. There has, however, been criticism of the prosecutions of your predecessors. We are concerned about the case of former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, where the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that there was a breach of Article 18. How do you propose that this issue be closed and resolved?

Mr KITEV (North Macedonia)

I welcome your presence here today. It is a sign of Georgia’s commitment to the values of the Council of Europe. On this occasion, I want to underline the importance of the recent establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of North Macedonia and Georgia. These will now enable enhanced bilateral dialogue and co-operation on issues of common interest, including those at the heart of the Council of Europe. In this context, I would like to ask you about the added value of the Council of Europe’s actions in your country.

Mr Bakhtadze, Prime Minister of Georgia

Thank you for those questions. I have previously answered the question about the so-called vote buying, which has nothing to do with reality. With permission, let me repeat myself: a year before the election, I initiated that idea as the Minister of Finance. That problem was becoming a systemic risk for our national economy. As Prime Minister, I announced in August that we were going to launch that programme in autumn 2018 – and we did it. If I had the choice about making that announcement again, yes, I would do it because it was about one of the major weaknesses of our national economy. I have told the audience about the figures. More than 600 000 Georgian citizens could not participate in legal economic life because they were on the blacklist. The programme was very successful, and I would be happy to provide additional information to all the colleagues who would like to see how it affected our national economy positively, including on all the lives of the people who were on that blacklist. I repeat: it had nothing to do with the election. We announced the programme much earlier than when the election took place.

As for the violence, the recommendations of the ODIHR and the OSCE are the best source for finding out about that. I can assure you that the last election was one of the best from that perspective. This is not my opinion; it is the opinion of our colleagues in the ODIHR and the OSCE. As for the case of Mr Merabishvili, he was sentenced in regard to several criminal cases. The European Court of Human Rights made a judgment and determined a violation within one particular episode. The Committee of Ministers is considering the decision of the Court; we are of course fulfilling our obligations. Let me repeat: Mr Merabishvili was sentenced because of several criminal cases.

We regard North Macedonia as a great friend of Georgia and we will of course welcome any such initiative.

Lord ANDERSON (United Kingdom)

The US human rights report of 2018 stated that “Judges were vulnerable to political pressure from within and outside of the judiciary”. Is that correct? What are you going to do about it?

Ms ÅBERG (Sweden)

Prime Minister, one of the key findings of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at the presidential elections last fall was pressure on civil servants. Last week, 11 members of the European Parliament called upon you to investigate the death of Ia Kerzaia, a school principal who publicly stated the pressure put on her to join the campaign of the pro-government candidate. Can you promise that this tragic case will be thoroughly investigated?


Prime Minister, unfortunately the Council of Europe is not able to fully implement its mandate in Georgia, which is very frustrating. The human rights situation in the occupied territories of Georgia is not monitored, which leaves many people under grave human rights violations. Please share with the members of this House more about the gravity of the humanitarian situation and human rights violations in the regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia. Could you also give additional information about the peace initiative “A Step to a Better Future”, which represents the intention of the Georgian Government to deal with the problems we face in the occupied territories?

Mr Bakhtadze, Prime Minister of Georgia

Thank you for the questions. In 2012, we inherited a very difficult legacy in the judicial system, and we started the transformation process. Today I gave you, dear ladies and gentlemen, the statistics and figures, which are really very positive. We understand, of course, that there are shortcomings and we should improve.

Let me go back to my major argument. We inherited a very difficult legacy; I am being very diplomatic. We started a transformation process in our judicial system. We conducted three waves of reforms very successfully. They are very successful – that is not only my opinion, but that of European institutions as well. We are preparing now for the fourth wave.

As for the second question, of course this case was a human tragedy. I would like to express my condolences to the family of Ia Kerzaia. But at the same time, some political parties are unfortunately using this tragedy for political speculation. I have the expectation that the investigation will answer all relevant questions around this tragedy.

In both occupied regions of Georgia, we are observing a humanitarian disaster – there is no other word to express or evaluate the situation with human rights protection in both regions. We are continuing to observe the population year after year. Now the population in both regions is five or six times less than it used to be before the Russian occupation. That is the most painful challenge for Georgia.

With our peaceful initiatives such as “A Step to a Better Future”, we are trying to stop the humanitarian disaster. We have crafted this peaceful initiative together with our international partners and we believe that it perfectly addresses the challenges we have in both occupied territories. Basically, the idea behind this peaceful initiative is to provide access to healthcare and a proper education to the people still living in the occupied territories – to create opportunities for them to start micro-businesses and engage in small entrepreneurship, and to give them the chance to feed their families.

I would also like to use this opportunity to thank you all, great friends of Georgia, for supporting this peaceful initiative. I am sure that through it we will be able to change the situation. I hope that we will be able to stop the humanitarian disaster in both occupied territories.

The PRESIDENT (interpretation)

Thank you, Prime Minister.

We must now conclude the list of questions. Before we adjourn, I ask all members to stay in the Chamber for a short performance by a deaf Finnish rap singer called Signmark. He will present a few songs in sign language. Those who took part in the standing committee meeting in Helsinki last autumn will have had the privilege of attending a short performance of his then. All of us who were there came out feeling both moved and encouraged by the sign language and the message conveyed by the artist. The performance will last about a quarter of an hour and will tell you a lot more than a 15-page report. You will be well placed to understand the importance of sign language and how important it is for deaf people to enjoy their fundamental rights. I thank the Finnish chairmanship for this initiative, and I welcome Signmark and his team.