National Ombudsman Gains Stature in a Georgia Where Freedom, Repression Coexist
Friday, July 24, 2009
TBILISI, Georgia -- They arrive at the graceful, tree-shaded villa clutching handwritten letters and sheaves of documents. Mothers tell of sons wrongly arrested; homeowners complain of houses forcibly requisitioned; people come to report what they feel is unjust treatment by their government.
The house once belonged to the local chief of the Soviet secret police. But today a tall, broad-faced man who is Georgia's ombudsman occupies it. Over the past five years, Sozar Subari has turned the position, created in 1997, into a counterweight to a government that many Georgians say has become increasingly authoritarian.
Although many countries, including democracies such as Norway and authoritarian states such as Azerbaijan, have ombudsmen, the state-funded job here has gained prominence in part because of Georgia's peculiar mix of freedom and repression: President Mikheil Saakashvili has been consolidating power, and Subari has been able to keep criticizing his government. Amid complaints from people such as Subari, Saakashvili proposed a number of democratic reforms, including strengthening the courts, as he prepared to meet Vice President Biden, who addressed Georgia's Parliament on Thursday.
With a staff of 60 people, the ombudsman investigates human rights violations and monitors the treatment of ethnic minorities. Complaints to the office have jumped from 1,400 to 5,100 annually, partly as a result, Subari said, of the job's higher profile since he took over. Subari, 44, appears frequently on television, meets with foreign diplomats and has won the respect of many ordinary Georgians: In a May poll by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, he ranked most popular among two dozen public figures, including ruling party and opposition leaders.
"He helps everybody he can," said Tamara Zhghenti, 54, a Tbilisi teacher who said Subari helped her resolve a property dispute involving a government official. "He is doing everything right."
But, stung by his reports on Georgia's lack of judicial and electoral independence, on police brutality and weakened media, government officials routinely dismiss Subari as politically motivated. "Confidence toward Sozar Subari as a personality is very low among government institutions," said Akaki Minashvili, a member of Parliament from the ruling party.
"I guess that some parts of [his] reports might be right," he said, adding that the government follows up on them, as required by law. "But with his political agenda, he undermines the content."
Since 2007, the opposition has staged regular rallies against the president, and for the past three months protesters have obstructed streets, blaming him for last year's war with Russia and demanding his resignation. Subari tries to witness the rallies and has paid a price.
He was beaten by government special forces in 2007. In May, he observed a clash in front of a police station and now keeps four rocks on his office desk as mementos. "This one hit a woman who was standing next to me," he said, turning it over in his palm. Government officials dismiss Subari's accounts of such events, saying he focuses only on police actions and not on the misbehavior of the protesters.
Subari's twice-yearly presentations to the mostly pro-Saakashvili Parliament are often delivered to a sparsely attended chamber.
"Parliament has been rough on him," said Peter Semneby, the European Union's special representative for the South Caucasus. "But one should not interpret the fact that people are not present at his public statements to mean that they find the substance uninteresting; it's probably the other way around. My sense is that they probably take the reports home and they do read them."
Semneby cautioned against confusing the nature of Subari's work with political bias. "The ombudsman is there to scrutinize the functioning of the government, of the authorities," he said. "I've sometimes been quite surprised at how courageous he's been. . . . He has been under attack, but not under enough attack that he's been destroyed."
Subari's survival can be seen as a sign of a maturing democracy or the result of a political strategy that seeks to give an added appearance of democratic principles.
"One could argue that he is more dangerous to the Georgian government on the outside than he is on the inside," said Lincoln Mitchell, a Columbia University professor of international affairs who specializes in Georgia. "They see the value of having some democratic structure even if they are not democratic. . . . Saakashvili doesn't hesitate to point to Subari as to 'why my country's a democracy.' "
This is key for a government whose democratic image has helped it garner support from the West, and a reason Subari said he is allowed to operate so freely, although his term ends in September and it is doubtful that Parliament will reappoint him. He points to small signs of progress: Fewer properties demolished without due process and an opposition TV station successfully suing to be allowed to air political content.
"It would be impossible in other countries to have such a critical ombudsman toward the government," he said. "But, in Georgia, it's possible. Not because I am a good or a bad ombudsman, but because it would be a huge scandal to change the law or arrest the ombudsman. In Georgia, it would be a problem for the image."