March 11, 2013

What Do the Georgians Dream About?

Europe needs to continue working if dreams are to become reality. Otherwise it could happen that another Eastern Partnership country will end up at the wrong destination – the Eurasian Union.

Georgia has been the source of worrisome news ever since the elections of 2012, which were overwhelmingly won by the Bidzina Ivanishvili-led coalition Georgian Dream (GD). It is hard to comprehend the background to those developments without being familiar with the environment, the people involved and the local atmosphere. It is crucial to set aside the ‘ideological glasses’ and separate myths from facts, information war from information and wishful thinking from reality.
Ivanishvili’s son, the rapper Bera, asks in one of his songs, ‘What do Georgians dream about?’ Just like many Estonian people, the Georgians dream about their own home, a job, a worthwhile income etc. They dream about an independent judiciary, a free media, a non-corrupt economy – in short, a European country. Many dream about their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Rose Revolution brought about order in many realms, but it also brought about increasing prices. I wrote in Diplomaatia in 2005, ‘Ordinary citizens who hoped that the Rose Revolution would bring rapid changes and a quick increase in the standard of living are increasingly disappointed.’ The government of the United National Movement (UNM) built highways, government buildings and hotels, but did not sufficiently address the concerns of ordinary citizens. Saakashvili’s government increased pensions fivefold, but was unable to fulfil its promise to increase them to 100 US dollars by 2008. Leaders of the UNM have admitted that although Georgia’s GDP increased, many of its reforms failed to bring about an improvement in people’s living standards.
Who won and who lost last year’s elections?
Saakashvili won the 2004 elections with 97 per cent of the vote. His current approval hovers around 10 to 15 per cent. Such a tumble should make any political party think long and hard.
In my opinion, the 2012 elections were ‘won’ by GD and UNM alike, as well as by the many thousands of observers, because the power transition was peaceful. The biggest ‘losers’ were the think tanks, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI), and the public polling corporation Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR), who predicted an overwhelming victory for UNM. GQR claimed that UNM’s approval ratings were 46 per cent and GD’s approval was 24 per cent. In reality, GD received 55 per cent of votes as opposed to UNM’s 40 per cent. The Gldani prison scandal affected the outcome of the elections, but that alone is not a sufficient explanation for the tumble. The error seems to be in methodology and practice. The Institute of Social Studies and Analysis (ISSA) and Penn Schoen Bertland (PSB) provided a more adequate picture of Georgian domestic politics.
Judging from the viewpoint of democratic development it must be said that GD’s election victory was a positive thing as it is not a monolithic political party but a coalition of nine separate parties. A decade-long undivided reign of a single party is not beneficial to any country. It is clear that two or three larger parties within GD are trying to build a centre of power around them and they will have disagreements on many issues, but I am certain that they will all vote unanimously in matters pertaining to UNM.
The ‘disintegration’ of UNM?
People talk about the disintegration of GD. There has been less talk about the disintegration of UNM. Some leaders of UNM have fled the country. Others have broken with UNM and formed their own factions. Yet others still belong to the faction, but vote separately. The former interior minister Batsho Akhalaia only garnered support from half the representatives. Ivanishvili gave Saakashvili an opportunity to support the constitutional amendments that strip the president of his power to appoint the government without the parliament’s approval. It is unclear what will happen if Saakashvili disagrees with the proposition, but further splintering of UNM is not out of the question.
The Dream’s first hundred days
Ivanishvili presented a report on the government’s first 100 days in office. The prices of electricity, fuel and medicine had dropped. Pensions were set to rise to 150 laris a month (about 70 euros). Kakhetia received emergency assistance. Schools in the periphery will be provided with free bus connections, student allowances and teachers’ salaries will rise. The government will have to fulfil its election promises and pay the debts of the previous government. The possible opening of the Russian market will ameliorate the situation to a degree.
The Georgian government – myths and reality
One of the myths is the ‘inexperience’ of the new government. Comparing the backgrounds of the ministers one has to concede the opposite. Former senior US diplomat Matthew Bryza (currently the director of the International Centre for Defence Studies – ed.) has noted that Ivanishvili brought many good ministers to the government, including the minister of defence Irakli Alasania whom Bryza would trust with his life.
As opposed to many previous defence ministers, Alasania is a veteran of the Abkhazian war and a politician with about twenty years of experience in the field of security. The foreign minister Maia Pandzhikidze, Aleksi Petriashvili, Viktor Dolidze, Tedo Dzhaparidze, Zurab Abashidze et al are all experienced diplomats. Many European ministers lack previous experience as diplomats.
The prison minister Sozar Subari is the former chancellor of justice. The former minister Hatuna Kalmakhelidze was the vice director of the foreign ministry and lacked relevant experience. Kakha Kaladze, the football player from AC Milan has probably the weakest academic background of all the ministers. At the same time, he is the director and owner of many large enterprises. The former minister Vera Kobalia’s working experience was limited to his father’s lavash firm in Vancouver. The validity of her diploma obtained from a Canadian polytechnic institute has been disputed.
The interior minister Irakli Gharibashvili was for many years involved in reforming the Georgian police and armed forces through the Cartu Charity Foundation. Thea Tsulukiani has the upper hand on many a minister of justice in office today. She graduated from the Collège-lycée Ampère in Lyon, France, and in addition to the faculty of the University of Tbilisi, she obtained a master’s degree in public administration (MPA) from one of the world’s best universities – the ÉNA in Paris. Most French top politicians have graduated from that school. She has almost ten years experience of legal work with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and Paris.
Thorns in the Georgian Rechtstaat
The change of government brought to the fore some symptomatic issues in the Georgian Rechtstaat. The European Union has been actively supporting that sphere, either through the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) mission from 2004–2005, the human rights dialogue or the Neighbourhood Policy. There have been many positive developments – prisons have been renovated, laws have been brought up to date etc. At the same time, much has happened that one cannot help but assess in a negative light. According to the statistics 99 per cent of the cases presented by the prosecutor have ended with a guilty verdict. There have been 18 500 charges pressed against officials and the voters expect punishment for the perpetrators and the creation of an independent judiciary.
Most people are of the opinion that there were approximately two hundred political prisoners in the country, as being against the ruling party was equated with treason. It is a telling fact that one of the advisors to the former chief prosecutor Nika Gvaramia was the Soviet time prosecutor Anzor Baluashvili, nicknamed ‘The Executioner’.
In Europe, the names of Sandro Girgvliani, Buta Robakidze, Koba Davitashvili, Amiran Bitsadze and Rati Milorava do not mean anything. In Georgia, there is not a soul who does know those names.
Girgvliani was beaten to death by officers of the ministry of internal affairs after an altercation with Merabishvili’s wife Tako Salakaia and the officials of the ministry of internal affairs Guram Donadze, Data Akhalaia, Oleg Melnikov and others. It has now been established that almost all circumstances regarding Girgvliani’s murder were fabricated. Saakashvili has admitted that that case is a black mark upon his term in office.
Robakidze was murdered by the police in November 2004. Davitashvili, a leader of the Rose Revolution and a contender for the post of the defence minister, was kidnapped in November 2007 and ‘discovered’ later badly beaten up in a military hospital in Gori.
Bitsadze, a two-time world champion and relative of the former speaker of the parliament Nino Burdzhanadze, was kidnapped and found later in a Tbilisi cemetery after being badly beaten.
Milorava, the son of the head of the human rights committee Eka Beselia, was sentenced to one and a half years in prison for an act of minor hooliganism.
Although some deplorable events still take place, in my opinion it is a positive development that incidents of kidnapping, beating and torture are many times rarer today than they were before.
7,000 prisoners have been set free. Among them one can probably find both criminals and innocent people who have been put behind bars. Not everybody who has broken the law is in prison, and not everybody in prison has broken the law.
The number of prisoners in Georgia rose to 25,000, which is three times the European average. Estonia has about 3,000 prisoners; Georgia could have 9,000. In Estonia, five prisoners die each year; in Georgia the number is 150. Between 2005 and 2012, over 700 prisoners died in Georgian prisons. Preliminary investigations showed that the majority of them were murdered.
Hundreds of prisoners need nasal, spinal and genital surgery. Saakashvili has recently admitted that the prison system was infiltrated by sadists who tortured prisoners for personal gain and pleasure.
Five former ministers, the mayor of Tbilisi, three judges and several hundred civil servants have been the subjects of investigation. It is impossible to take a stand regarding those cases without being familiar with the Georgian justice system and the background.
Embassies currently lack effective legal capabilities on the ground, and that includes the EU delegation. From 2004 to 2005 there was a small, but professional Rule of Law Mission, which was closed in 2005.
Today we can argue over whether the 700 prisoners would have died if the mission had been prolonged until autumn 2012 with the addition of police and civil administration components. Or what influence the EU could have had on the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008.
Ivanishvili invited Thomas Hammarberg, the former human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, to observe the rule of law. ODIHR is monitoring the courts. The Harvard University professor Lawrence Lessig has promised to advise the government on democratic reforms and constitutional matters. Should the political will exist, it would be possible to reinforce the EU delegation with a few experts, or to apply the rule of law capabilities of the CSDP.
Political changes are happening in local governments as well. Georgia is one of the few countries in the world where one party was in control of all the local governments. This is not politically sustainable. The situation apparently resulted from a mix of voluntary movement, pressure and opportunism. The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe is conducting an inquiry and will soon set the record straight.
The future of Georgia-Russia relations?
Bryza does not consider Ivanishvili ‘Putin’s puppet’. I am also of the opinion that we are rather dealing with somebody who wanted to shake up and reform the system. Georgia has had no diplomatic relations with Russia after the Russia-Georgia war and they are not going to be renewed in the medium term. Ivanishvili made a smart move by appointing Zurab Abashidze his special envoy in Russian matters, as Abashidze has already met with the Russian vice foreign minister Karassin a few times.
It is clear that both sides will disagree regarding Abkhazia, South Ossetia, NATO, the EU, the Eurasian Union etc., but in the short term commerce, transportation and cultural exchange will probably resume.
The legacy of the Rose Revolution?
Many people think that the legacy of the Rose Revolution will disappear along with Saakashvili. It has been argued that the honour of toppling Eduard Shevardnadze belongs solely to Saakashvili and a few people from his entourage. Not many notice that most leaders of the opposition were the initiators and organisers of the Rose Revolution of  2003–2004.
Zurab Zhvania, the leader of the Revolution and later prime minister is dead, but his family and comrades have rallied behind Ivanishvili. Another revolutionary, former speaker Nino Burdzhanadze took an anti-Saakashvilian stance in 2008, which culminated with visits to Russia and a wave of repressions against his supporters.
Many revolutionary leaders have joined the anti-Saakashvili opposition, such as the brothers Haindrava, brothers Berdzeneshvili, Koba Davitashvili, David Usupashvili, Subari and others.
Ivanishvili was one of the funders of the Revolution and paid for many a positive reform. Who represents the spirit and heritage of the Rose Revolution? Is it the majority of revolutionaries surrounding Ivanishvili, or is it the minority around Saakashvili?
What does Europe dream about?
What is happening in Georgia can be observed either through black or rose-coloured glasses. Neither provides an adequate picture. The Georgians dream of a normal life, a European country, and the European Union. We shall find out at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius what Europe dreams about. Does it dream about Georgia? Georgia hopes to sign an Association Agreement and move forward with the liberalisation of the visa regime. It hopes for a clear statement regarding its EU perspectives. Europe needs to continue working if dreams are to become reality.  Otherwise it could happen that another Eastern Partnership country will end up at the wrong destination – the Eurasian Union.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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