The biggest challenge in Georgia right now is the state of democracy
An interview with Khatia Dekanoidze, a leader of the main Georgian opposition party – United National Movement and candidate for mayor of Kutaisi, the second biggest city in Georgia. Interviewer: Wojciech Wojtasiewicz
WOJCIECH WOJTASIEWICZ: How do you evaluate the results of the local elections? Do you see them as a success of the opposition? Have you noticed any inaccuracies or falsifications during the election day?
KHATIA DEKANOIDZE: The main battle took place actually in Tbilisi and in the other big cities. And I have to say that those battles were successful for the opposition. We have won it. Overall in Tbilisi, Rustavi, Zugdidi, Kutaisi and the other big cities the opposition has more votes than Georgian Dream. And it is very important. Despite the fact that there was fraud and the pressure was high, the people in the big cities decided not to vote for Georgian Dream. For instance, in Tbilisi we will have a run-off regarding the mayor election. In Kutaisi we won in the first round. In Zugdidi we have a majority in the sakrebulo (city council). In Rustavi, the situation is the same. So this is the main indicator of the Georgian people, especially in the urban areas. They are fed up with the Georgian Dream. Unfortunately, the scale of the falsifications was very high, especially the pressure on voters. This scale of pressure was even higher in the small villages and towns. This means that falsifications took place not only on the election day, but also prior, when the security services put pressure on people. They took away a lot of ID cards so they could not vote for the opposition. There were also cases of bribing and vote buying. This is also indicated in the OSCE ODIHR and US Embassy statements.
The authorities heavily used administrative resources as the main way to rig elections. In the big cities they were less able to press people, despite the fact that they were trying to. In Kutaisi I had a lot of conferences about this on election day. People from the Georgian Dream were outside electoral commissions, paying money, like 200 lari (around 55 euros) to choose 41 – the number of the ruling party on the ballots. The second round will be very important. I am planning on winning in the run-off in Kutaisi. I think it is really important to take away the big cities from the Georgian Dream and show the people’s will, because the turnout of people who came to vote was very high.
You estimated the results of voting in the big cities, but generally in the whole country the Georgian Dream received almost 47 per cent of votes, more than was indicated in the Charles Michel agreement to not to announce snap parliamentary elections if GD was over 43 per cent. How do you see these results?
Without using administrative resources and conducting falsifications the Georgian Dream would not have been able to receive such big support within the country. Let me just mention that the state is a huge employer, because of the poor economic conditions. More than 200,000 people work in the public administration. You probably heard about the scandal, which we had regarding state security services last month. They were tapping cellphones of ambassadors, bishops, priests and opposition leaders. My calls were also monitored. The state security services are controlled by the Georgian Dream; they have captured the whole state administration. Unfortunately, we do not have democracy, it is rather an oligarchy and kleptocracy. Georgia is a classic example of a captured state.
The authorities claim they won 47 per cent of the vote, but in reality the ruling party has weak support. One sign was when they built up stages in many big cities to celebrate their victory, but after the announcement of the exit polls the stages quickly disappeared. This is a visible indication how the big cities are not in favour of the Georgian Dream. The fight against the regime is difficult. But I think that there will be snap elections soon. I am certain because there is a lot of pressure. There is a negative image among the international partners and the Georgian Dream is stopping the integration process with the European Union and NATO. And people are fed up with them.
How can you force the Georgian Dream to announce the snap elections?
It will come with the political process and the pressure of the population. I think they will not be able to maintain their structure for a long time.
Will you organise demonstrations in Tbilisi and other big cities?
The priority of the struggle now is to win the run-off elections. We are focused on the cities. When there will be results, we will be observing the political process and we will be fighting. I do not exclude demonstrations.
Is the opposition united enough before the second round of voting? Have you spoken already with other opposition political parties, especially Giorgi Gakharia’s For Georgia party, and their candidates about support in the other cities in the run-off?
I have spoken a lot with the pro-western opposition parties and they stated that they would support our candidates everywhere. I have not spoken with Gakharia’s party and I do not know its attitude. I think that if Gakharia is really an opposition politician, he has to call on his supporters to vote for the opposition candidates.
The opposition claims that Georgia needs a coalition government. Why do you think that it would be better for Georgia to have more than one ruling party?
Because it acts as a kind of balance. Georgia is a parliamentary republic and when you have checks and balances between different political forces it means that you are more responsible to each other and also to the people. It also means that we will be working together for the rule of law, democracy and criminal justice policies and some other reforms. I think that for democracy one party rule is not a very good sign.
Are you not afraid that a government which will consist of many parties could have problems with conducting coherent policy?
The pro-western opposition is kind of divided. We are different, we have different ideologies, but co-operation is a sign of democracy and mutual understanding. We all have to work in favour of Georgia and we must understand that. The parties’ interests must be behind the state’s interests. I think a coalition government would be a very good solution for Georgia and nobody can really keep the whole power and capture the state. I have very good co-operation in Kutaisi with some other opposition parties.
What would be the biggest challenges for a future coalition government?
The biggest challenge in Georgia right now is the state of democracy. First and foremost, we have to get rid of the oligarchs. This is a huge challenge for the Georgian state right now. Other problems include growing Russian influence, also Russian infiltration in Georgia, state capture and corruption. The economy is also another serious issue. People are getting poor. We have state structures and institutions under the influence of Ivanishvili. For instance, the minister of internal affairs is a person who used to be his personal bodyguard. Frankly put, it is very scary when you cannot find real justice in the court or in the prosecution’s office. A coalition government would rebuild the state. Of course there is the challenge of co-operating with each other. But we can do it. We understand that we are different, but we have to work together in favour of our country.
How would you improve the economic situation in Georgia?
The unemployment is increasing and the economy is in really bad condition. There are no investments coming in. Foreign investors won’t come if they know that they do not have reliable courts where they can fight for their property rights. This happened with the Anaklia Deep Sea port project. We see it right now in the Pandora papers, that Ivanishvili did not want this project to be a real economic and security platform. Let’s see what will happen with Philip Morris, which was fighting for its rights in the court. Let’s see what will happen with independent media. They are under constant persecution. So when investors see that the corruption is so high and they do not have any rights, because of the politicised courts and politically-dependent judges, of course they will not come. That is why in Georgia there is backsliding.
Also, the government does not do anything to create new jobs. It uses administrative resources for its own purposes. I think that in planning a new economy we have to establish a small e-government, because now the budget of the government’s administration is really huge. A taxation system with low taxes is very important and can attract more business. Otherwise this country will not have a future.
Did Mikheil Saakashvili’s return to Georgia before the local elections help or harm the opposition’s chances?
I visited him in prison. We spoke for two hours. He is on a hunger strike. Actually I do not agree with some other opposition parties, which got one or two per cent of votes, and who said that this is because of the polarisation created by Saakashvili’s return. The United National Movement is the largest opposition party. Despite that fact, during the local elections we gave up 10 majoritarian districts in Tbilisi. The candidate for the post of Tbilisi mayor was nominated from our party – Nika Melia, but candidates in huge majoritarian districts were indicated by our coalition partners from Girchi-More Freedom, Droa and European Georgia. It was the same situation in the other cities and towns almost in the whole country. Compared with 2016, 2017 and 2018 the trend for UNM’s support is growing. Before, we had around 23-25 per cent of support; now it is 31 per cent. All opposition parties had the opportunity to talk to their voters. You just cannot underline that it is somebody’s fault that you have just one per cent.
So Misha Saakashvili arrived. He was very peaceful. He was arrested by the police. The Georgian Dream claimed that he arrived to create a revolution; which is not true. Now he is in jail, but the Georgian Dream still fears him. That is why the prime minister Irakli Garibashvili said that if Saakashvili will not shut up, and I am quoting him, that the prosecutor’s office will add more charges against him. This is clear evidence for Strasbourg that this is a political prosecution.
Did you know in advance that he was going to cross the Georgian border illegally?
He told me that he did not cross the border illegally.
So how was it possible that he was not stopped at the border?
I do not know. Because there is no state here. Everybody in the Georgian Dream was denying the whole day that he was in Georgia. Frankly, I was not aware that he was coming. But we have to understand that the criminal charges against Saakashvili do not have any legal background. The case against him was only recognised in Georgia and Russia. Interpol refused to put him on its list. He was traveling freely, meeting with a lot of people. So how is it possible that a person with criminal charges is able to travel and participate in international conferences? This is a political prosecution because in Georgia we do not have independent courts. When we were in power we always had problems with the judiciary system, but this problem is much worse now.
What is the personal and political future for Saakashvili?
He is in Georgia right now. He wanted to come back to participate in these very important events. I know that he will be free very soon. Despite the angry statements from the government and prime minister, no country can have a former president so long in prison and keep power, especially a country which claims it has European aspirations.
Do you think that European politicians will help free him?
For sure our strategic partners are concerned about that. I cannot really tell you right now what the exact political scenario will be, but this political scenario is taking place now and includes the run-off elections to win the big cities and weaken the regime even more. It was his choice and he understood the risks. He is still an important political figure in Georgia, he is a former president. It does not matter if someone has a positive or negative attitude towards Saakashvili, he is the third president and he did a tremendous job for this country. Yes, we made mistakes, even a lot of mistakes, there were problems with the criminal justice system. But Georgia was then, as someone once said, a beacon of democracy.
Do you see any special place for Saakashvili in Georgian politics in the future? Is he going to be a prime minister of Georgia or a kind of mentor?
He has said that he does not want any kind of position. There will be a coalition government.
And who would be the candidate of UNM for the post of the prime minister?
We are not talking about it right now. The main goal is to first win in the big cities.
I heard about some personal troubles between Saakashvili and the chairman of UNM, Nika Melia. Is it true?
This is what the Georgian Dream is constantly repeating.
I heard this from political analysts…
Personally, I do not see any political disagreement or problems in their relationship. Both of them are my friends. We are very equal in this party. We have our own rights and opinions about everything. So this is a party consisting of different people, with different attitudes and solutions. It is absolutely natural. This is an exaggerated opinion disseminated by the Georgian Dream.
Do you plan to organise a rally to support Saakashvili and demand his release from prison?
We had one rally in Rustavi, next to the prison where Misha is. Of course, there will be some rallies and protests. It is important to understand that it is not about a concrete political party and or concrete politicians; it is about the country. A former president is in prison and this is the saddest thing that can happen for our country.
Khatia Dekanoidze is a leader in the United National Movement political party – the main opposition party. He is also the candidate for mayor of Kutaisi in the second round of the local elections.
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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