Challenging the oligarch strongman of Georgia

Anna Dolidze has faced authoritarian leaders before. Now she is back on the barricades, as the authorities are tightening the reins.

Anna Dolidze

This article is a part of the campaign #12 Women on the Barricades, developed by The Norwegian Helsinki Committee in collaboration with illustrator Jenny Jordahl. We present 12 portraits of women standing on the barricades of other women, focusing on the greatest human rights challenges facing women in Europe today – and what needs to be done to overcome them. Read about the 11 other women on www.nhc.no/en/12womenonthebarricades

Today we have façade justice, façade law enforcement bodies, façade democracy, façade governance”, said Anna Dolidze recently, thereby challenging Georgia’s behind-the-scenes ruler, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.  

In 2004, at the age of 23, she was head of Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), a leading human rights group in the Caucasus, and a supporter of the Rose Revolution that brought the young and charismatic Mikheil Saakashvili to power. 

Shortly afterwards she became one of his staunchest critics. 

Dolidze is not yet forty years old, but she has seen Georgia go through political upheavals and several armed conflicts. For almost twenty years, she has worked to keep Georgia on the path towards democracy, respect for human rights and tolerance. 

Today she is an independent member of the High Council of Justice, the body tasked with appointing judges to the high courts of Georgia, and in addition, an internationally recognized human rights lawyer. 

The Soviet legacy 

Even if Georgia has taken long steps away from its authoritarian heritage, the growing pains are not over. The country seems to follow a peculiar rhythmwhere democratic gains are followed by backlashes, perhaps a result of having deferred dealing with the 70 yearlong Soviet dictatorship.  

In late spring, there were huge demonstrations in Tbilisi against perceived Russian influence in the country. The government responded with batons and rubber bullets. 

 The main opposition TV-channel was taken over by a new owner with connections to the government this summer, and the politician responsible for the brutal crackdown in May has returned to the government as prime minister. 

The attack on the independence of the judiciary, that Dolidze criticized, is part of the picture. The government seems to want to limit space for criticism, possibly in order to ensure that there are no unpleasant surprises in the parliamentary election next year. 

Land of fairytales 

Old castles, beautiful churches and remnants of pre-Hellenic civilizations crown the hills, and the capital Tbilisi is a fascinating mix of old and new. In the beginning of last century, Knut Hamsun called it the land of fairytales. But Georgia is situated in a volatile neighborhood. 

After independence in 1991, the economy collapsed and civil war broke out. In the middle of the nineties, the old communist leader Eduard Shevardnadze returned and ended the armed conflicts. But his government was cripplingly corrupt and fell in the Rose Revolution. 

Just as she was unapologetically skeptical of his predecessor, Dolidze became one of Saakashvili’s staunchest critics. She headed a campaign aimed at investigating a murder that the government allegedly had a hand in. The efforts resulted in her exile in Canada, Europe and the United States. 

“I want to return to Georgia,” she said at the time, “but I also want to live without having to worry about what could happen tomorrow and if my family will return when they leave the house.” 

In 2008war broke out between Georgia and Russia, and four years later Saakashvili was forced from power after his party lost a parliamentary election to the opposition coalition called Georgian Dream. In 2015Dolidze entered government as a deputy minister of defense, and the next year she became the president’s representative in Parliament. 

2020 – A decisive year 

Both inside and outside the governmental institutions, Dolidze has remained an uncompromising defender of human rights. For this reason she ended up in conflict with Georgian Dream, which many see as a vehicle controlled by Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili. 

She is now out of politics, but remains a well-known and respected voice in Georgia. 

Historically, it seems Georgia makes a democratic leap forward every eighth or ninth year, before the pendulum goes back again. If this scenario is repeated, 2020 may see another transition in connection with the elections. 

In parallel with opinion polls suggesting that Georgian Dream is becoming increasingly unpopular, the government is tightening the reins. They probably remember how a broad coalition of civil society groups and independent media, supported by the international community, were able to protect the integrity of the electoral process that dethroned Saakashvili in 2012. 

The signs are ominous, but hopefully next years election will be free and fair. If Georgia is to avoid stumbling into the authoritarian ditch, one thing is certain: Anna Dolidze will play a central role.  

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