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Georgia 2017: Major events that changed us JAMnews, Tbilisi

1

The visa-free regime for Georgian citizens travelling to the EU/Schengen countries came into effect.

What happened: A plane carrying the first passengers travelling to Europe visa-free departed for Poland from Tbilisi International Airport at 04:22 am on 28 March 2017.

Why it is important: Starting from 28 March, Georgian citizens can freely travel to Europe to attend various cultural events and familiarize themselves with the cultures of other countries. According to the European Commission, 173 396 Georgian citizens travelled to the Schengen area visa-free from March (when the visa waiver came into effect) to 30 November 2017.

Photo: David Mdzinarishvili / REUTERS

2

The cyanide case

What happened: Archpriest Giorgi Mamaladze was arrested at Tbilisi International Airport in February this year for the ‘planned murder of a high-ranking cleric’. The court sentenced him to 9 years in prison for the attempted murder of Shorena Tetruashvili (an influential executive assistant to the Georgian Orthodox Church leader Ilia II) using a virulent poison - sodium cyanide. However, he pleaded not guilty and challenged the verdict.

Why it is important: The ‘Cyanide Case' has been termed in Georgia as a ‘lustration process’ which exposed existing problems within the most influential and closed off institution - the Church. As a result, the authority of the Church was undermined. Throughout the year, the clergymen were making scandalous statements in printed media and on TV, accusing each other of money squandering, spinning intrigues at the patriarchal court and struggling for influence. The Cyanide Case will remain topical in 2018 as well.

Photo: David Mdzinarishvili / REUTERS

3

The year of fires

What happened: A total of 13 037 fires were reported in Georgia in 2017 wherein 69 people were killed and 176 injured. At least 990 hectares of forests were destroyed completely.

Why it is important: This year has clearly shown that the fire safety rules are antiquated in Georgia, be it in residential buildings or in four-star hotels. Moreover, it has led to numerous casualties. Firefighters who arrive on scene often lack gas masks, ladders and other necessary equipment. The August wildfire in Borjomi Gorge that engulfed hundreds of hectares of forests proved that the country isn’t ready to respond to emergency situations. There was a lack of fire-fighting machinery, especially aviation, and the response was delayed. In view of the fact that Georgia is quite vulnerable to fires (more than 4 000 hectares of forests were destroyed by fire in Georgia over the past decade), the problem could possibly reoccur in 2018.

Photo: David Tabagari

Photo:David Tabagari

4

A new constitution

What happened: In 2017, the Georgian Constitution was amended for the 21st time. Some important amendments were introduced to the constitution and the procedure for holding presidential elections was also changed. From now on the Head of State will no longer be elected by citizens through a general vote. The electoral system remained unchanged. Experts believe that this will put the ruling party and the opposition in an unequal position.

Why it is important: The opposition and most experts share the opinion that the proposed constitutional amendments will allow Georgian Dream (the current party in power) to further maintain its power. Constitutional experts claim that those amendments offer advantages to a single party and reflect its visions.

Photo: David Mdzinarishvili / REUTERS

5

Decriminalization of cannabis (marijuana)

What happened: On 30 November the Constitutional Court of Georgia recognized the practice of instituting criminal proceedings for the use of marijuana as unconstitutional and annulled the previously existing criminal liability for repeated use of marijuana.

Why it is important: Georgia has one of the most repressive and harshest drug policies around. Public organizations and activists have been demanding changes for years. According to the Council of Europe’s 2015 report, every third person in Georgia is serving a sentence for a drug-related offence.

Photo: Levan Mikadze

6

Afgan Mukhtarli’s case

What happened: Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli who had been living in Tbilisi for a couple of years after being persecuted in Azerbaijan, disappeared in Tbilisi on 29 May. He was later found in an Azerbaijani prison. Mukhtarli claims that he was abducted by Georgian Special Service officers who put a sack over his head and handed him over to Azerbaijani law-enforcers.

Why it is important: Mukhtarli’s case has become an important precedent that seriously marred Georgia’s image of a regional leader in terms of protecting human rights. What further aggravates the situation is that seven months after the incident Georgian law-enforcers still haven’t answered the question on how the journalist disappeared from Tbilisi’s center.

Photo: David Mdzinarishvili / REUTERS

7

Local government elections

What happened: Local government elections were held in Georgia on 21 October. The capital also elected its new mayor, Kakha Kaladze, a candidate from the ruling Georgian Dream party.

Why it is important: The local government elections have proved that Georgia still remains a country with dominant political parties. The elections demonstrated a lack of alternatives to the incumbent government and exposed the problem of a weaker political opposition which has no resources for some real changes at this stage.

Photo: David Mdzinarishvili / REUTERS

8

Georgian football player Guram Kashia’s armband bearing the colors of the LGBT rainbow flag

What happened: Guram Kashia, a defender for the Dutch Eredivisie club Vitesse Arnhem appeared on the field wearing an armband that featured the LGBT rainbow flag. He thus demonstrated his tolerance and support for sexual minority groups.

Why it is important: The Georgian footballer’s actions have caused outrage among the conservative part of Georgian football fans. Kashia has been blamed for ‘betraying’ Georgian ideals and traditions and many have insisted that he should be expelled from the national team. But most important is that Kashia has actually gained more supporters than opponents. Even those who have never shown particular loyalty to the LGBT community have defended the Georgian football player on TV and on social media. Kashia was the first Georgian athlete to openly support one of the most vulnerable groups in Georgia where homophobic sentiments are still very strong. Other renowned athletes have also expressed solidarity with him.

Photo: Getty images

9

USA approved supplying Georgia with Javelin Anti-Tank Missiles

What happened: The USA reiterated its readiness to provide Georgia with 410 Javelin Missiles and 71 Javelin Command Launch Units (CLUs) as well as Basic Skills Trainers (BSTs) and Missile Simulation Rounds (MSR).

Why it is important: Apart from the fact that this third-generation anti-tank system will significantly strengthen the Georgian armed forces and increase the country’s defense capacity, this decision is also important from a political point of view. Georgia had been trying for years to get defensive weapons from the USA and NATO member-states, but without success. The Javelin deal will be the first such contract.

Photo: Nikoloz Urushadze

10

Teens’ murder

What happened: Some terrible events took place in Georgia at the end of this year. Two senior graders were stabbed to death by teens in a group scuffle in the vicinity of Public School #51 in the center of Tbilisi. Another school student was killed by his peer in Samtredia (Imereti region, western Georgia). A 15-year-old boy was also stabbed in the heart during a fight in Tbilisi center.

Why it is important: Bloody fights between school students have exposed some systemic problems in the education, public and judiciary spheres. Experts believe that the Education Ministry should create a uniform policy to eradicate violence at schools, otherwise the problem will become even more acute in 2018.

Photo: Levan Mikadze

11

Counter-terrorist operation

What happened: On 22 November Georgian special task forces stormed an apartment in a densely populated residential area in Tbilisi. The special operation lasted for nearly a day. Ahmed Chatayev, an international terrorist and ISIS field commander was killed during the operation. It was followed by a counter-terrorist operation in the Pankisi Gorge a few weeks later.

Why it is important: The two operations made Georgia face a new reality: The war against terrorism used to be somewhere far away - in Paris, London or Washington, whereas now it’s already here. After ISIS had been practically wiped out in Syria, its militants started seeking refuge in other countries, and it turned out that Georgia was no exception.

Photo: David Mdzinarishvili / REUTERS

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