Amnesty or Zero Tolerance?


New Government Facing a Choice

The democratic transfer of power, unprecedented in the history of Georgia, is unfolding in a climate fraught with emotion. Along with mixed feelings about purely political developments, there is growing concern over another major post-election change – a notable increase in crime.

The most conspicuous crimes of late have been a series of bank robberies. In early-October, masked armed robbers seized money from the Bank of Georgia branch in Tbilisi’s Varketili district. A day earlier, unarmed bandits robbed a branch of ProCreditBank in Tbilisi. In another incident, eight armed thugs robbed an electronics store in the center of Gori and made off with equipment worth more than ten thousand GEL. In addition to a spate of robberies, there has also been an upsurge in pick-pocketing on public transportation and thefts of auto parts. Many people have been expressing concern and victims recounting their losses in postings on social networks.

The Georgian tabloid Asaval-Dasavali, notorious as a xenophobic and hate-speech publication, also figures prominently in the worsening crime picture. A Georgian writer, Zaza Burchuladze, was severely beaten and hospitalized after appearing on Maestro TV to discuss the tabloid’s publication days earlier of full personal data of Gldani No 8 Prison personnel. Burchuladze had publicly sided with that segment of society which denounced publication of that information as a call for violence against identified prison employees and their families.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs has cautioned that an increase or decrease in the overall crime rate cannot be measured over the course of only a few days. Verifiable crime data requires observation over a longer period of time. Moreover, one must also take into account that the society is likely to be more reactive and easily alarmed in an already tense environment. Nevertheless, the spike in criminal activity since the parliamentary elections clearly indicates a deteriorating situation.

President Mikheil Saakashvili has himself expressed concern about the post-election crime wave. On 5 October, the President noted that such a dramatic deterioration in law and order was not even observed after the August war with Russia in 2008. In a public statement before TV cameras, President Saakashvili tasked the incumbent Interior Minister and Chief Prosecutor with taking measures to staunch the trend. That public message was presumably intended as a clear signal for the new government to heed as well.

As for the new government, it has been busy focusing on the transfer of power and has largely ignored the sharp increase in crime since the elections. Then again, it did not pay much attention to the issue of crime prevention before the elections either. It was not until 8 October that the Georgian Dream released a public message pledging that the change in power would not result in any weakening of the fight against crime. Interior Minister nominee Irakli Garibashvili told media that his team would be “maximally intolerant” to crime: “There are talks that the step-up of criminals is expected… Absolutely zero tolerance will be declared against them. A principled objective is to prevent the dominance of any criminal and not to allow their rampancy.”

Except for that general statement, not much else is known about the crime-prevention policy of the new Ivanishvili government. No details have been forthcoming about whether the policy of zero tolerance established by the Saakashvili government would be maintained, meaning an uncompromised fight against crime bosses and serious crimes, as well as intolerance of petty crime too.

The crime problem poses a substantial challenge for the new government. Curbing crime and scaling the crime rate back to the pre-election level must be at least a pragmatic priority for the Ivanishvili government for several reasons:

The stratum of society for which escalating crime is the most pressing issue is the middle class. The election results show that the alienation of that very segment of the society played a decisive role in the defeat of the United National Movement (UNM). If the new government remains seemingly indifferent to the increase in crime, it risks shifting the balance of middle-class support back to the UNM.

Despite numerous disappointments and even displeasure with the UNM, the period during which the population felt the safest and most secure is associated with the rule of the UNM. Official statistics show that the crime rate decreased each year from 2007 through 2011. According to results of the Gallup World Poll of 2011, Georgian citizens enjoyed the greatest sense of security in the world – more than 91 percent of the population felt absolutely safe, surpassing all 142 other countries surveyed. The Gallup survey on crime and security for the period from 2010 to 2012 found that 94 to 98 percent of Georgian respondents had no fear whatsoever of being mugged or burgled. A miniscule one to three percent of respondents negatively assessed police activity, according to that same survey.

If the recent increase in crime becomes a trend, it will have negative consequences economically as well as electorally. Without assurances of protection of private property and personal inviolability, the environment will become unfavorable for investors.

The American experience with the transfer of power is instructive here. Throughout the 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama sharply criticized George W. Bush for the methods employed by the Republican administration to fight terrorism. That changed after the election. As President, Barack Obama actually maintained most of his predecessor’s policies, excluding waterboarding as an interrogation technique and timid attempts to close down Guantanamo prison. That same scenario may be repeated in Georgia – scathing criticism of the Saakashvili system does not mean that the new government will jeopardize its approval rating and move in a starkly different direction from the policies of its predecessor. A retreat from the Saakashvili doctrine is probably even less likely in foreign policy.

On the domestic front, the new Prime Minister will have to take a tough and unequivocal anti-crime stance to avoid the perception of coddling criminals – be they in prison or on the outside. There already is wide speculation that criminal forces, including thieves-in-law living outside Georgia, believe they have contributed to Ivanishvili’s success and are owed appreciation in return – be it license to return to Georgia or some other quid pro quo.

Dispelling such perceptions may not be easy. The past few weeks have shown that criminals have adapted more readily to the new political situation than the police. The former has appeared motivated whereas the latter has been demoralized. For that, the former ruling party and the new authority each bear some responsibility.

The pre-election rhetoric of the UNM implicated the Georgian Dream in an alleged alliance with thieves-in-law. That theory was fueled by the publication of materials provided by the French gendarmerie. Claims that fugitive thieves-in-law intended to return to Georgia and that the victory of the Georgian Dream would facilitate such processes only served to embolden criminals. The video footage documenting the torture of Gldani prison inmates, which became the rallying point for massive protests, added fuel to an already combustible fire. Crime bosses for once found themselves on the right side of the human-rights issue, which has proved conducive to their public “rehabilitation.”

Justice Minister nominee Tea Tsulukiani sees amnesty for prisoners as a necessity, but that move may also be perceived by the criminal element as a sign that crime prevention is not a top priority. So far, Tsulukiani has not yet disclosed who might qualify for amnesty. Sozar Subari, the Corrections Minister nominee, also believes that amnesty is necessary to alleviate overcrowded prisons. The Georgian Dream coalition is currently working on a draft amnesty law. If passed by the new Parliament, the President has the power to veto that law. If that happens, amnesty could become the first serious bone of contention between the new Georgian Dream government and the incumbent President’s still influential UNM opposition.

For now, the Georgian Dream is sending mixed signals on crime fighting. One of Ivanishvili’s cabinet nominees is advocating amnesty for convicted criminals whereas another pledges to pursue a policy of zero tolerance against crime. Only time will tell how the new government will try to reconcile those potentially conflicting goals.

The policy of zero tolerance was necessitated by a grave crime epidemic that plagued the country in the 1990s. To address that problem, the Saakashvili government implemented zero-tolerance policies that dramatically cracked down on crime and just as dramatically swelled the prison population. Amnesty is a simple solution to overcrowded prisons, but it could also lead to unintended consequences, not least of which would be more crime and less safety. That should be given very serious consideration, especially since the new government has alternatives to amnesty, such as, for example, release on parole of those prisoners who do not pose a threat to the society. If such parolees violate the terms of their release, the state would be able to remand them to prison to serve out the remainder of their sentence. That could prove very efficient for continuation of the zero-tolerance policy.

Another potential impediment to abating the crime surge is the anti-police rhetoric of the Georgian Dream political coalition. The election manifesto of the Georgian Dream reads: “The main pillar of the regime is an extremely politicized prosecutor’s office and police. They have become a driving force of a repressive machine of the government with the court being an addendum to the prosecutor’s office.” Bidzina Ivanishvili himself has repeatedly stated that the initially successful reform of the police was hijacked and put into the “service of one person.” Irrespective of whether that assertion reflects reality, such rhetoric reinforces the feeling among a large segment of the society, including law enforcement personnel, that the police are an extension of the UNM and, as such, they should lose legitimization along with the old government.

That attitude was solidified with the pre-election release of the prison torture video footage. Mottoes like “The system must be pulled down” mirrored the Georgian Dream rhetoric that the law enforcement system established under the former government served an evil goal and, accordingly, had to be dismantled along with the ruling UNM force.

The pervasive feeling of insecurity among prison employees was further intensified when the Asaval-Dasavali newspaper published personal data – addresses and telephone numbers – of the Gldani prison staff. Regardless of their lack of involvement in the prison scandal, anyone who worked in penitentiary and law enforcement institutions indiscriminately faced a direct or indirect threat of violence.

When speaking about the demoralization of law enforcement bodies, another important factor is the lack of any experience in the peaceful transfer of power through elections. As it turns out, the police may now be so afraid of taking any political risks that they are playing it too safe in combating crime. Police officers fear losing their jobs if they detain the “wrong” person; that is, a relative of a politician from the new ruling party. For the first time ever since its reform was acclaimed as a major achievement of the Saakashvili government, the police force has been left without political support. That sense of rejection has not in any way been assuaged by Ivanishvili’s assertions that the society must not give in to political revache. “Every professional will retain his/her job. No persecution, save legal, will begin. Only those will be punished who have committed crime,” Ivanishvili has said in a message as notable for its ambiguity as for its veiled threat. An ordinary police officer cannot be sure to what extent the new ruling force may view past activity as lawful or declare police officers lawless servants of the past regime.

It is equally unclear to what extent the law enforcement system will be reorganized or who among existing personnel will lose their jobs – or when. For instance, Interior Minister nominee Irakli Garibashvili at first declared that the Constitutional Security Department (KUD) and the Special Operative Department (SOD) of the Interior Ministry would be scrapped, but then later said that the two units may instead be merged. Uncertainty reinforces demoralization and feeds instability.

Responsibility still lies formally with the incumbent government. Still, the leader of the Georgian Dream coalition could and still can play a significant role in allaying concerns and reversing the deteriorating situation. If Ivanishvili had political experience or at least political savvy, he would have engaged actively in processes from the outset. He would have arrived at the scene of that very first known robbery, expressed empathy for the victim and made a tough statement against crime then and there. It is too late for that, but he can still do something about the demoralization of law enforcement officers. He can meet with police officers and prosecutors, extend his appreciation to them for their public service, express clear support of their fight against crime and encourage, not punish, them.


This article first appeared in Tabula

Georgian Issue # 118, published 15 October 2012.


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