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Georgia needs new ideas and a strategic vision for the future

An interview with Kornely Kakachia, the director of the Georgian Institute of Politics. Interviewer: Wojciech Wojtasiewicz.

October 30, 2020 - Kornely Kakachia Wojciech Wojtasiewicz - Interviews

Kornely Kakachia. Photo: Private

WOJCIECH WOJTASIEWICZ: What is the atmosphere like before the parliamentary elections in Georgia? What does the electoral campaign look like?

KORNELY KAKACHIA: The atmosphere, the environment, before the elections was quite polarised, which is normal in Georgia. Now, the only new thing is that the opposition is very fragmented because they cannot find a common language. It seems that even opposition parties fight their own fight, which is a big advantage for the ruling party, since the only way to defeat the Georgian Dream is with a united opposition. Most likely that will not as there are too many internal problems and too many big egos. Also, it seems as though the Georgian Dream’s government is benefiting from the COVID-19 situation, since Georgia is in the green zone (as of the time of the interview – editor’s note). Georgians consider the fight against the pandemic as a success. Their ratings were very bad a year ago after the so-called “Gavrilov Event”, but now they have a better chance. Much will depend on how the government will cope with that problem. If they cannot manage COVID-19 cases during one month, they might lose these elections, since this the really the only advantage they have. They do not have any special successes in terms of social or economic reforms.

I saw several surveys regarding the Georgian public’s positive attitude towards the government’s fight against COVID-19, but didn’t the lockdown and the closure of its airspace have a very bad effect on the economy?

It is true. The social and economic conditions have worsened significantly, but the people understand this since they know that is happening across the world. They believe there will be some positive results. A result means there would be fewer infections. Of course, everybody wants to work, but I think, overall, the public accepted it as it is. . There are some segments of society who are not, especially those working in the hospitality and tourism sectors.

How do you evaluate the reaction of the government regarding the economic crisis? Have they introduced any programme to help Georgians, especially with tourism?

There were some programmes to solve that problem, but this summer it was very popular to support internal tourism. Most Georgians went to Batumi and now we are seeing a rise in coronavirus cases there. But, of course, this could not fully replace international tourism. Most of the income Georgia receives is from that kind of tourism. I do not think the government has anything else to offer, except for social benefits for children and others. They paid for three months’ electricity bills, gas, but they cannot offer something substantial; that would dramatically change the social-economic situation.

I would like to come back to the upcoming parliamentary elections and ask you about the opposition. You mentioned that opposition parties are not able to unite or to form an electoral coalition. Don’t you think it was not necessary, because this year the threshold is only one per cent and most of them will easily enter parliament. They will already be thinking about a coalition in parliament. What about the majoritarian component of the parliamentary elections? Whether the opposition is able to indicate common candidates in all 30 single-member constituencies?

It became a little bit problematic because Mikheil Saakashvili announced that he actually does not see things that way. He believes that the United National Movement (Saakashvili’s political party – editor’s note) tried to build a coalition to unite the opposition, but it did not work. That is why he now sends some signals that it will be a fight between him and the Georgian Dream. I think this is, again, the story we had a few years ago, when the two parties were polarising Georgian society. He does not care about other political parties in the opposition. In fact, he brings his selfish ego here and his own political party, so now he is only backing his coalition.. Regarding the majoritarian constituencies, there have been some agreements, but in some areas it fell apart. In Tbilisi, for example, the United National Movement put up their own candidate against the candidate of European Georgia (another opposition party).

How do you evaluate the March 8th agreement between the opposition and the ruling party regarding the change of the electoral system from a mixed to more proportional system (120 proportional and 30 majoritarian deputies, instead of respectively 77 and 73)? Will it have any influence on the final results of voting?

I think this is a positive agreement. Even small parties now have a chance to get into parliament, as there is only a one per cent threshold. It will somehow lessen the polarisation. Before it was not possible with the five per cent threshold. Only two political parties were benefiting from this – Georgian Dream and the United National Movement. Now, we may have a multi-party system in the next parliament which is beneficial for Georgian democracy. But of course the two main parties will still have a larger representation than the rest. But they will also need support from smaller parties, and this is very positive trend in general.

I understand that way of thinking, but is it not possible that all the opposition parties could be able to form a parliamentary majority? Such a majority, however, would consist of many different forces like the centre-right UNM and European Georgia, but also the leftist Labour Party…

It could be very difficult to agree on a common political programme regarding the economy or even foreign policy. The only thing that unites them is their opposition to the Georgian Dream. All the parties have their own grievances about each other. It will be very difficult to maintain this kind of solidarity if they get into parliament. However, Georgia needs consensus based political system and its time to move in that direction.

How do you assess the attitude of the United National Movement and European Georgia, which did not participate in the final voting regarding constitutional amendments connected with changes to the electoral system? They refused to support the changes until all so-called political prisoners were freed. President Salome Zourabichvili pardoned Gigi Ugulava and Irakli Okruashvili, but Giorgi Rurua is still in prison.

I think that the opposition knew that the government would not release him, so of course they could not lead this case, so probably that is why they did not participate. For them it is very important to support him, but in general it proved difficult to mobilize large public support.. It seems that the issue of the March agreement was more important and it outweighed the case of Rurua.

Let’s talk about the political programme of the opposition parties. Some of them reached an agreement regarding reforms of the justice system. What are their priorities regarding other sectors? What does the opposition propose to the Georgian public?

The rule of law something the opposition was able to agree on. It is a most problematic part of Georgian political system. An agreement was crucial, especially for voters who are convinced on that issue. But I do not know if it is enough. An agreement on only one or two cases is not enough. What the voters may want is a challenger, like a united opposition – one slogan, one programme, one vision about the future of Georgia.

You mentioned Saakashvili and his announced return to Georgian politics. How is it possible that the current chairman and political council of the United National Movement decided to nominate him as the candidate for the post of prime minister when he is so unpopular, even among opposition voters?

 Saakashvili was ruling the country for a long time. He is like an good old book. If somebody offers you an old book, which you have read many times, and asks you to read it again – not everybody may get interested. He is really a polarising figure. The voters do not want to return to the past. . And I am not sure that Saakashvili gets it. . There are also many people who feel animosity towards him and his way of governance. . He has some support among his loyalist, not enough to win elections, but enough to occupy the second position in Georgian politics. Moreover, , according to Georgian law, there are many cases filed against him, so it will not be easy for him to become prime minister in case his coalition will prevail in upcoming election..

It is clear that Saakashvili is egocentric, but how is it possible that the other leaders of the UNM do not understand that he will not help them win?

This is the problem. As soon as he intrudes into Georgian politics, with his the idea that he may return to Georgia, is beneficial for the Georgian Dream. This is what they want, because for ruling regime it is beneficial to stay alone with the UNM. That’s the game they know how to win. But the Georgian Dream is not ready for more sophisticated scenario.

What are the biggest achievements and failures of Georgian Dream’s rule?

When we are talking about achievements GD more or less continued a pro-western course of previous governments, with some tactical changes which also included attempts to accommodate Kremlins geopolitical interest. However, they failed with the normalisation policy with Russia. It proved naïve, thinking that if they changed the rhetoric towards Russia, the Kremlin would stop meddling in Georgian affairs. It did not happen. The Georgian Dream has had some success, especially early one with health sector . They introduced universal health insurance, but it was not so successful at the end as it was impossible to sustain that system. They also tried to address inequality problems , but could not get any meaningful results. In terms of foreign policy, there was success when GD lead government signed the association agreement with the European Union, negotiations which already started during Saakashvili’s reign.

What about the condition of the democracy and human rights?

Democracy has suffered because the government tries to consolidate their power trying to control the media, church, courts and even civil society; and I think it is very bad sign. In this way, Georgia is backsliding a bit. If the Georgian Dream wins the elections for the third time it could be a huge challenge for Georgia’s unconsolidated democracy. We have problems with informal governance and elite corruption which precludes Georgia to move forward.

Do you see any difference between UNM and GD times regarding political freedoms, especially freedom of assembly?

Yes, there was some progress after 2012 but after 8 years of GD rule we have not progressed much. Now what we hear from ruling elites is that eight years is not enough to make real changes. This is an old narrative which we had heard many, many times with different autocratic governments.

What’s their political agenda for the next four years? Who is on Georgian Dream’s electoral list? Are there any new people?

Not much really. Out of first 20 people in the list there are only few new faces in their list, mostly with bureaucracy background. There are lot of old faces as well. I do not think GD had any chance of entice new people. They recruited them from the outside of party system – athletes, artists and others. It indicates that the GDs as political party is not consolidated and is still weak. Regarding the political agenda for the next four years, there is not much promising as well. They promise to continue their policies and improve social-economic conditions. But in general we see no new vision or strategy on how to rule the country.

Is there any influence of Russia on the current Georgian government? The opposition has accused Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream of destroying the project of the Anaklia deep port.

As mentioned earlier, current government is trying to take Russian interests into account, in hopes that Moscow may reciprocate. They initiated so called normalization policy with Russia co-operating in some areas(trade, culture, economy) with Moscow, however they stumbled in many areas including security and foreign policy. GD government also didn’t support Anaklia project allegedly due to direct pressure from Moscow. In some sense, compared to opposition they are less antagonistic and more neutral towards Russia.

What will be the priorities of the current government regarding foreign policy, if they stay in power? The perspective of Georgia’s membership in the EU and NATO seems to be quite far away. So is there any danger of changing the geopolitical orientation of Georgia’s foreign policy?

I do not think it is possible. The majority of the Georgian public, especially the younger generation, support the Euro-Atlantic course. Even if some political forces will try to do it, there is a large consensus on that. Every political party knows it very well. Last summer was a good lesson for the Georgian Dream. Even though NATO\EU membership may not come soon, Georgians understand that and are ready to do its own homework, to continue reforms and to consolidate its own democracy.

How do you see the growing influence of far-right forces in Georgia, for example the Georgian March?

It is very interesting phenomenon. The Georgian March’s participation in the parliamentary elections will be a test. We will see how much support they have in society.

What is the economical and psychological condition of Georgian society after almost 30 years of the transformation? Do you see any similarities between the current situation and the when Eduard Shevardnadze was in power? Do you see the same apathy?

I think in that sense there are similarities. Georgians still emigrate abroad due to the dire social-economic conditions there. Georgia needs new ideas on how to continue with reforms and how to come up with a new vision for the next five-ten years, which is unfortunately missing. The public is waiting for this new paradigm, which may somehow reflect popular ideas among public. As we can see from different opinion polls, the most important issues are social and economic – salaries, employment, etc. Georgians want to political parties to cope with this sort of problems and to respond to these demands.

Why isn’t it possible to establish a third political force in Georgia? I expected that after Gavrilov’s night young people, who were the leaders of those protests, would create a new force. Why do we still have such aa polarisation between Georgian Dream and the Untied National Movement?

Because they dominated Georgian politics last 15 years. The leader of one of those parties is a billionaire and the other is a former president. And they both benefit from the polarisation. They will not be happy with other political parties joining the field. There have been some attempts to change the reality from smaller parties, like Mamuka Khazaradze’s Lelo. However, it remains seen how they will manage tough competition as newcomers. Along with other new parties they still do not have enough experience in dealing with the regions and how to influence a wide range of voters..

Kornely Kakachia is a professor of political science at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, Georgia, and the director of Tbilisi-based think tank, the Georgian Institute of Politics. His current research focuses on Georgian domestic and foreign policy, security issues of the wider Black Sea area and comparative party politics.

Wojciech Wojtasiewicz is a journalist, a regular contributor to the Polish Nowa Europa Wschodnia and a member of the Association “Bridge to Georgia”. He has been published in Polityka, Krytyka Polityczna, Newsweek, and Open Democracy, among others.

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