Opening remarks by EU Ambassador Carl Hartzell to the conference on the “Impact of 2021 Local Self-Government Elections on EU-Georgia Relations” hosted by the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) on 9 November 2021
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Thanks for inviting me to participate to today’s event.
I am especially happy to see four esteemed Members of the European Parliament participating as panelists. The fact that two of them also participated actively on the ground in these elections, is further testament to the great interest the European Parliament and the EU pays to this country - and it bodes well for an interesting discussion.
As a close partner to Georgia, the European Union has been actively engaged over many years in support of democratic progress. This has included institution building, work on electoral and other reforms, support to civil society and media, observation missions, and the facilitation of party-to-party dialogue and mediation, among other things.
Our engagement contributed to important agreements reached on 8 March 2020 and 19 April 2021, both of which showed the way beyond the immediate, short-term crises, by pointing the way to longer-term consensual visions for Georgia.
It remains the duty of Georgia’s political leaders to take responsibility for seeing these visions through, to tackle the problems laid in front of them, and to develop policies that allow Georgia not only to stay afloat, but for it to grow to its full potential.
Polarization has become a constant buzzword for describing political life here in Georgia. In the context of elections, this polarization has a tendency to lead to political crises every time. Arguably, the aftermath of the 2020 parliamentary elections was a particularly turbulent chapter. And in this context, the 19 April Agreement was a truly important achievement. It ended a political boycott, gave the Parliament a real chance to address Georgia’s many imminent challenges, and it set out an ambitious and much-needed agenda for further democratic reform. In the fog of political controversy, it shed light on what a shared path forward could look like.
Despite of where things currently stand, the 19 April Agreement has already been a success, if only as an example of how dialogue and compromise can achieve results that grandstanding and a winner-takes-all mentality never can. And once this becomes the norm - and not the exception - is when Georgian democracy will really be turning a page.
Without going into every aspect of the agreement, it is clear that some important aspects of it has already been honoured to Georgia’s benefit. Others are still work in progress, notably the planned constitutional amendment to lower the electoral threshold to 2% for future, fully proportional parliamentary elections. We noted the Government’s promise to uphold the reform commitments related to elections (including the constitutional reforms) and to the judiciary. We therefore consider that these commitments in the 19 April Agreement remain a roadmap.
Elections in Georgia tend to become “existential” political contests, and the 2021 municipal elections were no exception. We followed them closely, and you will have seen the statements I made, together with EU colleagues here, following each of the two rounds.
In these statements, we welcomed the positive impact of the latest round of election reform and a well-administered voting process on Election Day. At the same time, we saw important shortcomings, including the intimidation of candidates and voters, voter pressure, vote buying, the abuse of administrative resources and a sharp imbalance in resources that resulted in an uneven playing field.
After the first round, we stated our opinion that the reported malpractices must not become a norm for elections in Georgia. Unfortunately, the second round frankly did nothing to rebuff such expressions of concern. In the end, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion than the fact that these elections were another missed opportunity. We expect the Georgian authorities and political parties to swiftly and resolutely follow up on the ODIHR recommendations that will be issued with their final report. The EU will be very attentive to this.
The state of the judiciary and judicial reform are another pillar of the 19 April Agreement and of EU-Georgia relations in general. The most recent appointments to the High Council of Justice were yet another setback in this regard. Hasty, non-transparent and non-competitive appointments simply do not increase the trust, accountability or quality of the Judiciary.
And this is to be added to a list of other setbacks witnessed during these past four months, including the appointments to the Supreme Court, the rejection of the EU Macro-Financial Assistance because of unfulfilled judicial reform commitments, the failure to uphold the agreement on the appointment of the Prosecutor General, the unease with which we all learned about the widespread surveillance of ordinary citizens, and a lack of proper investigation into the violence that took place in Tbilisi on 5 July. Clearly, it is now high time to start addressing and shortening this list, and not allow further elements to be added to it.
Of course, we are also following closely the situation of Georgia’s third President in prison, in cooperation with trusted local partners such as the Public Defender. From the outset, the EU made it clear that the upholding of his rights and due legal process are key, and under the full responsibility of the Georgian authorities. These rights include the right to stand trial in transparent, fair and due judicial proceedings and the right to adequate healthcare as well as privacy and dignity whilst in prison. The government of Georgia should make every effort to fully uphold these rights.
Looking to the future of EU-Georgia relations, the Association Agreement still represents our joint roadmap. Our relationship is anchored on our expressed common values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and it carries the promise of economic growth, trade, connectivity and modernization for the benefit of all citizens. As the EU, we remain focussed on cooperating with Georgia on implementing this Agreement, in order to reap its full potential. “More for more” but also “less for less” remain underlying principles underpinning our cooperation. Given Georgia’s stated ambitions for its relations with the EU, we expect Georgia to step up its reform efforts, especially on democratic and judiciary reform where progress has been lagging and where we have witnessed several setbacks.
We are partners and friends. We are determined to stand by the Georgian people. And we will keep pushing for Georgian democracy to deliver for its citizens.
With this, let me thank GYLA for hosting today’s event, but more importantly, for the important democracy work you carry out here in Georgia.