In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, a neighboring Caucasus country where I planned to take a group of advocates from the Republic of Armenia Chamber of Advocates to view the legal system, pictures of kittens were being broadcast on television instead of regular broadcasts. CNN and BBC were being blocked. It wasn’t like watching reruns of Swan Lake, but it was close, the Georgians told me. (During Soviet times whenever the Soviets wanted to block news, they would broadcast the ballet SwanLake on all the television stations. This went on for weeks. Even today, most residents in former Soviet countries hate SwanLake.) I had to cancel our trip to Georgia due to the state of emergency in the capital, Tbilisi, and people protesting in the streets against President Mikhail Saakashvili. Georgia once was the hope of the Caucasus area with its Rose Revolution, a bloodless coup in 2004. Now, tear gas was in the streets.
Several weeks later, when the political situation calmed down, we traveled by car six hours away to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, to meet with various legal groups and talk with them. First on the agenda was a meeting between the bar presidents of the two countries, Georgia and the Republic of Armenia. The president of the Georgian Bar Association is 26 years-old and has held the position for three years. This young president is consistent with the profile of the country leadership, which has a cabinet dubbed the “kindergarten cabinet” because one-third is under 35 years in age.
The president of the Georgian Bar described a bar association of 3,000 members (out of a country of 5 million citizens). Six months ago, the members of the bar went on strike for two days and refused to go to court. The event that triggered this strike was a riot in the prison in which six people were killed. The prison then refused to let the prisoners see their advocates. The advocates went on strike. After two days, the prison officials relented and the advocates were allowed into the prison. Being an advocate in a former Soviet regime can sometimes mean trying to change a system which has been entrenched for many years.
Two years ago, Forbes magazine reported: “Georgian officials extract 3 percent of corporate revenue in bribes, nearly twice as much as in Russia, says a 2004 report by the International Monetary Fund. Georgia ranks 128 out of 133 countries surveyed for corruption by Transparency International. Half of Georgia lives at or below the poverty level. Justice-starved courts hew to a political agenda. Kidnappings for ransom also occur.” Today, many judges have been replaced and jury trials are scheduled to begin in 2008. The American Bar Association in Tbilisi is training lawyers in trials.
Our delegation from Armenia also met with the Georgia Minister of Justice Legal Aid staff, which employs more than 100 advocates to render legal aid to the poor throughout the country. The average age of the office is 25 and the young advocates are enthusiastic and motivated. When we met with them, the Ministry Building was without heat and no electricity. We walked up flights of stairs and stumbled through dark halls. Of course, we kept our coats on for the entire meeting. The head of the office looked to be no older than 25, but spoke intelligently and passionately of their mission.
The Young Lawyers Association of Georgia (with whom we met) is also a dynamic and energetic group. They have established clinics for domestic violence victims and have “stay-away protective orders” in the law. They operate as a separate organization from the bar association and have their own office and staff.
The trip gave us an infusion of ideas for young advocates, legal aid and bar association development.
Barbara L. Edin is a Maryland attorney working overseas.