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Repression Despite the Rose Revolution

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2004/12/23/006.html Thursday, December 23, 2004. Page 8. Repression Despite the Rose Revolution By Lawrence A. Uzzell Of
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 24, 2004
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      Thursday, December 23, 2004. Page 8.

      Repression Despite the Rose Revolution

      By Lawrence A. Uzzell

      Of all the former Soviet republics, only one has
      signed a formal concordat with its historically
      dominant church but with no other religion. Only one
      has failed to enact a law spelling out the rights of
      minority religions to publish, build houses of worship
      and own property. In practice this republic allows
      even less religious freedom than Russia.

      But unlike Russia, this republic is moving as fast as
      it can toward NATO membership. It boasts a president
      with a U.S. law degree, a rapidly growing U.S.-trained
      army and a larger flow of U.S. financial aid per
      capita than any other country in the world except
      Israel. Yet most of the protests against human rights
      violations come not from Washington but from activists
      in its own capital, Tbilisi.

      When Mikheil Saakashvili won power in Georgia's Rose
      Revolution a year ago, activists were euphoric. Now
      they complain that in some respects human rights are
      actually shrinking. For example, a survey published in
      October by Reporters Without Borders ranked Georgia
      94th among 167 countries in freedom of the press. A
      year earlier Georgia stood at 73rd of 166.

      Judges are also experiencing new restrictions; one
      lawmaker, a member of Saakashvili's own party, said
      last month that the zealous fight against corruption
      had turned the courts into "mere recording chambers"
      for government prosecutors. Ghia Nodia of the Caucasus
      Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development
      suggested in October that Saakashvili and his circle
      are suffering from a classic case of "prolonged
      revolutionary syndrome," which makes them rationalize
      setting aside the rule of law.

      Georgia now has somewhat more religious freedom than
      it did a year ago -- but was starting from a low base.
      During the last years of the Eduard Shevardnadze
      administration it became common practice for
      ultranationalist mobs to raid the worship services of
      Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses and other unpopular
      minorities, beating up worshippers and burning their
      Bibles. The police and the courts made little effort
      to stop such pogroms; the mobs felt such impunity that
      sometimes they even videotaped their own attacks. The
      most notorious leader of this reign of terror -- Basil
      Mkalavishvili, a defrocked priest of the Georgian
      Orthodox Church -- was finally arrested in March. A
      leader of the Jehovah's Witnesses told Felix Corley of
      the Forum 18 News Service last month that "there has
      been no violence against us in the past year -- it
      stopped with the change in power." Baptists and
      Lutherans, however, have continued to suffer low-level
      violence such as vandalism of their church buildings.

      Genuine freedom requires more than the absence of mob
      violence. To this day it remains virtually impossible
      for religious believers outside the Georgian Orthodox
      Church to build new places of worship. When minorities
      such as the Baptists, Lutherans and dissident "True
      Orthodox" seek permission to build, the secular
      authorities routinely find excuses to say no.
      Sometimes, the authorities claim that the 2002
      concordat with the Georgian Orthodox Church gives it
      the right to veto building applications by other
      religious bodies.

      The consensus among minority religious leaders is that
      they will continue to suffer such restrictions until
      Georgia enacts a law explicitly authorizing them to
      organize as legal entities like other NGOs with
      institutional rights of property ownership, financial
      operations and the like. In the words of Malkhaz
      Songulashvili, head of Georgia's Baptists, "Without
      legal status we don't exist in law." Government
      officials have discussed the possibility of such
      legislation with Songulashvili and others, but
      concrete progress remains elusive.

      Last year's Rose Revolution was a genuine triumph of
      democracy over a profoundly corrupt government. But
      such victories can soon turn hollow -- as Russians
      learned in the 1990s, and as Ukrainians may learn in
      the near future. Saakashvili needs to think less about
      maximizing his own power and more about building a
      solid base for freedom, including religious freedom.

      Lawrence A. Uzzell is president of International
      Religious Freedom Watch. He contributed this comment
      to The Moscow Times.
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