Internationally, the government had been mostly viewed as sure-footed — until last week, when a scandal erupted over evidence of systematic abuse and torture in the nation’s prisons. Videos made by an insider and broadcast on national television showed guards admitting a line of new inmates to a prison — each methodically beaten, one by one, with the casualness of getting their papers stamped. Other videos showed prisoners sodomized with truncheons and broomsticks, taunted as they cried or begged for mercy.
Thousands of shocked and furious citizens took to the streets, the interior minister and prison officials were forced to resign, several guards and officials were arrested, and Georgians young and old demanded to know how their government could have ignored persistent reports of brutality and wrongdoing.
“For many years, we have been talking about illegal treatment,” said Tamar Chugoshvili, chairwoman of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association. “The government has not investigated, and nobody really cared about it.
“They have accomplished many very good things, but they have failed to build a democratic system and protect human rights,” Chugoshvili said. “A small group of people in the executive branch makes all the decisions, and there is no check or balance on this power.”
The United States has invested deeply in Georgia and democracy, providing $3.37 billion in aid from 1992 to 2010, putting the country’s 4.5 million population high on the list of per capita assistance, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Georgia, perched in the Caucasus Mountains in the shadow of Russia and Iran, has been a staunch U.S. ally, sending troops to Afghanistan and providing energy security with a pipeline that takes oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia and on to Turkey. Georgia values the alliance, and government and opponents alike have been spending freely on lobbying in Washington.
The World Bank this year published a 100-page book describing Georgia’s reforms so that other countries might benefit from its experience.
Though President Mikheil Saakashvili and his circle have eliminated day-to-day corruption, turned the despised police into a trusted force and made government services citizen-oriented and easy to obtain, they have not permitted development of political competition, their critics say.
The Oct. 1 parliamentary elections bring the first serious opposition, a spectrum of parties called Georgian Dream united behind Bidzina Ivanishvili, a 56-year-old political novice whose $6.4 billion fortune equals almost half of the country’s gross domestic product.