Prison brutality in Georgia reveals the dark side of post-Soviet empire

Georgia should open itself to a full European inquiry into this terrible episode.

The appalling brutality revealed within Georgian prisons is a stark reminder of how much remains to be done to make the post-Soviet republics fit and proper places for their citizens to live in. Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili has moved quickly to fire the Interior Minister (who is close to him) and suspend all prison officers. He should go further in restoring international confidence by asking the European Union or the Council of Europe to create a Commission of Inquiry into the film showing horrific abuse of prisoners by Georgian state functionaries.

The EU foreign policy supremo, Catherine Ashton, was right to declare that she was "appalled by the shocking footage of abuses committed against inmates in Gldani prison." Some of the graphic video footage showed a weeping half-naked male prisoner at a jail in Tbilisi begging for mercy before apparently being raped with a stick, while other images showed prison guards brutally kicking an inmate

The footage was released by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire Georgian oligarch who is worth a third of the country's GDP. Having made his fortune in Russia, Ivanishvili now wants to take over the Georgian government. He is funding the Georgian Dream opposition movement which has brought together the extremely heterogenous anti-Saakashvili forces for the parliamentary elections early next month. 

Saakashvili stands down as president in 2013 and has been told by just about every international visitor (myself included) that he should not try and do a Putin by seeking to prolong his decade-long domination of Georgian politics through another office. Whether his replacement should be a fabulously rich oligarch is an open question. Ivanishvili has supported the conservative Georgian Orthodox church and education charities. But as elsewhere in the post Soviet region, the ultra-rich avert their eyes to what is going on in prisons or orphanages and undertake little of the charitable reforms that involve working with the very poor and under-class.

The brutality now revealed does not sink to the depths of what happens in Russian prisons. The death of the British-linked lawyer Sergei Magnitsky at the hands of Russian police and Putin’s prison officials, shows how the torture and unacceptable treatment of prisoners in the post-Soviet states is difficult to eliminate. But for Georgia, which claimed to have broken with the practices of the past, to be seen to allow inhumane Abu Grahib-style treatment shows how much more needs to be done.

All nations are defined by what they do to their citizens behind closed doors and how they treat those confined in prison or asylums. The Georgian state has failed that test and all its politicians – in government or those funded by a billionaire oligarch - who fight with each other for access to power and money should step back and think about how Georgia can become a nation in full conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights. There are always politicians who dislike the ECHR but European values are defined by how Europe’s state and politicians treat the weak, not by how they flatter the powerful and the rich.

Georgia should open itself to a full European inquiry into this terrible episode and agree to implement any recommendations from the EU or the Council of Europe on the treatment of prisoners and the application of justice. Russia has always refused to accept such norms but Georgia should cooperate fully and request European help in reforming its justice and prison system to ensure such tragedies never happen again.

Denis MacShane MP is a former Minister for Europe and visits Georgia regularly. He is chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on Georgia and meets with opposition as well as government politicians.

Follow him on Twitter - @denismacshane.

Georgian students hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against torture in prisons in Tbilisi on September 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide