Tough start for Georgia's new ombudsperson
The election of an independent ombudsperson through a transparent process was among the 12 conditions the country must fulfill to become an EU membership candidate.
Last week the Georgian parliament ended a months-long stalemate by electing MP Levan Ioseliani as the country's new ombudsperson. But he faces an uphill battle in gaining the public's trust given the circumstances of his appointment and his political past.
March 7 will undoubtedly go down as one of the most memorable dates in the career of Ioseliani, the now-former MP from the opposition Citizens party.
In a vote taking place at around 3 p.m. local time, 96 MPs from both the ruling party and the opposition backed his candidacy as a new public defender, and nobody voted against him.
His election was supposed to be the single plenary highlight of the legislative day. Ioseliani had become a compromise solution after the election of a new ombudsperson (a.k.a. public defender) -- seen as one of the tests on Georgia's path to becoming an EU membership candidate -- was prolonged amid the failure of the rival parties to agree on a single candidate.
But in a surprise schedule change later in the day, the ruling Georgian Dream party and its allies proceeded with the first-reading adoption of a widely opposed "foreign agent" bill, making Ioseliani's election a footnote to a much bigger story.
Hours after assuming his new role, he was faced with his first major challenge: the "foreign agent" vote inspired tens of thousands of Georgians to protest outside the parliament, and police dispersed crowds using pepper spray, water cannons, and tear gas. Ioseliani arrived at the scene to observe firsthand, only to face a frosty welcome: A group of protesters chanted "slave" as he walked past and pelted him with eggs.
Some had found his first statement in his new official capacity as insufficiently critical of the police response. And getting Georgian Dream's support on the same day the ruling party voted for what many saw as a treacherous Kremlin-inspired bill did not help his reputation either.
But Ioseliani himself attributed the attacks to his political past.
"Some like me for my political past and some don't," he told reporters as police escorted him away from the protest site. "Some expressed this more aggressively. But never mind."
The political career of Ioseliani and his party has indeed been marked by ups and downs, with periods of winning the trust of the opposition and the public and losing it again. A lawyer, Ioseliani teamed up with Aleko Elisashvili, who had made a successful transition from media and activism into politics, and their small Citizens party gained two seats in the first parliamentary election they contested in 2020.
The electoral success was soon overshadowed by a controversial parliamentary boycott and ensuing government crisis. The Citizens were one of the first to call for the joint opposition boycott of what they saw as illegitimate and unfair elections.
But as the crisis was drawn out and the boycott failed to garner public support or Western sympathy, the party was also the first to end it. And even if three months later many other opposition parties would join them in the parliament thanks to the EU-brokered deal of April 2021, the Citizens could not shake their reputation as strikebreakers.
It was the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year later that revived the party's image: Elisashvili took up arms for Ukraine and, after the successful defense of Kyiv, returned with the reputation of a courageous warrior. While he was fighting, Ioseliani, then a deputy chairman of the parliament, was actively involved in organizing a parliamentary delegation to war-ravaged Bucha as ruling party leaders were dragging their feet in responding to an invitation from their Ukrainian colleagues.
In the end, a joint delegation of opposition and ruling party MPs arrived in Ukraine, and many were moved by images of Ioseliani and Elisashvili's emotional reunion. The party started to regain trust and respect as a rather moderate force in the deeply polarized political life of the country.
This was apparently a key factor in the choice of Ioseliani for the ombudsperson's position.
The tenure of his predecessor, Nino Lomjaria, ended last December. A "transparent" process of the election of a new "independent" ombudsperson was last on the list of 12 demands on which the EU conditioned Georgia's candidate status last year.
With much Western scrutiny of the process and the ruling party's earlier attempts at sabotaging independent public agencies, many saw the election of a new ombudsperson as a key test for Georgia's candidacy bid. It would also show the ability of the political class to overcome polarization, the EU's number one demand.
At least 90 MP votes are required to elect an ombudsperson, which in the current legislature requires consensus between the ruling party and the opposition. But initial attempts to elect Lomjaria's successor through a more inclusive process failed: Georgia's leading human rights watchdogs picked three candidates who received some of the highest grades from a special nine-member commission composed of various professionals, and then also got the opposition’s backing. But they were turned down by Georgian Dream, which offered five different candidates of its own.
That stalemate ended when the Citizens party offered Ioseliani as a new candidate in late February.
"He is a man who can build consensus," Elisashvili said, explaining the decision. The idea was quickly embraced by the ruling party and got enough support from a number of opposition MPs. A week later Ioseliani had the job.
The rapid process drew a backlash from human rights organizations who said it lacked due transparency and public legitimacy. Some of the major opposition forces chose to sit out the vote.
"The process was conducted without public engagement and participation, which is incompatible with the EU's 12th recommendation, violates Paris Principles adopted by the United Nations, and does not earn the public's trust," over a dozen watchdogs said in a March 7 statement.
But Ioseliani has already embarked on his six-year term. He will have some big shoes to fill: His predecessor's uncompromising stances toward government and powerful institutions such as the Georgian Orthodox Church earned her a reputation as a fierce and credible human rights advocate, including in the eyes of the West.
Many of Ioseliani's views seem to be in line with his predecessor's, including viewing the jailing of opposition media director Nika Gvaramia as politically motivated. His party was also a vocal critic of the ruling party's "foreign agent" bills and on March 13 Ioseliani released a statement criticizing police conduct against peaceful protesters during the March 7-9 rallies.
And he also pledged not to revise his predecessor’s legacy in handling the case and rights of the jailed and ailing former President Mikheil Saakashvili. Lomjaria had assembled a group of independent doctors to supervise the ex-president’s health and later vouched for deferring his sentence on health grounds.
This leaves the rest of the public, as well as the country's Western partners, in wait-and-see mode. Some have warned against rushed judgments, recalling that many of his predecessors, including Lomjaria, had faced similar questions in the beginning, only to later prove their critics wrong.
But Georgia's past also knows reverse character developments. The most prominent example is Sozar Subari, a former ombudsperson who now leads the group of ruling party-aligned MPs that drafted the repressive "foreign agent" bill.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.