Category Archives: GeorgiaToday

NATO’s “Small Talk”

On March 26, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg arrived in Tbilisi and met high officials, including PM Giorgi Bakhtadze and President Salome Zurabishvili. During his “blitzkrieg” visit, Stoltenberg firmly re-iterated the Alliance’s official standpoint once again: Georgia will become a member of the military bloc and Russia has no rights or power to oppose it. Yet, according to mainstream media outlets, this time Secretary-General added “very soon,” wording that offered more concrete timing and raised hopes that the so-called MAP (Membership Action Plan) will finally be granted to the small Caucasus country.

Unarguable, such high-level visits are extremely important to maintaining Georgia’s aspirations for NATO membership and, generally, to keep spirits high on the ground. But Tbilisi has been hearing such promises of commitment on a regular basis for the last decade, with visits from NATO officials having become something of an annual tradition. We can easily argue that Jens Stoltenberg’s trip to Tbilisi was another example of NATO “small talk” without real outcomes for MAP issuance, but with more serious consequences for local society and its perception of the real ongoing processes in global politics.

NATO & Democracy

NATO has little to do with democracy. The Alliance is a military bloc based on ideology and with concrete geopolitical interests; in this case, democracy is just an additional advantage. These assumptions must be made clear when it comes issuing membership. It is obvious that, according to Western democratic standards, neither Georgia nor Ukraine are actually ready to satisfy such strong requirements; to say nothing of the 2008 period when Tbilisi and Kiev hoped to get MAP and had strong support from the US government. The promise given by the Bucharest Summit Declaration to open doors for these two states in the future was clearly the result of geopolitical calculations that dealt with strengthening the Eastern flank of the bloc and bringing NATO forces closer to the Russian border.

So far, using lack of democracy in Georgia as an explanatory variable for MAP refusal is an outdated trick to avoid naming the real reasons; seemingly, the only group of people who might still trust such arguments are regular citizens.

Russia, Rights & the Black Sea Region

Despite loud claims that Russia has no rights and no powers to oppose Georgia’s integration, it actually has. Moscow’s geopolitical interests stopped Tbilisi from getting MAP in 2008 and it is the only opinion that matters when it comes to the decision-making process. Putting aside political rhetoric, Russia does not need special rights to counter NATO’s policy on the Eastern flank. Every single political actor by default has the right to protect its own political, economic and social standpoints. Thus, the Kremlin has the right to defend its national interests without being granted “permission” from the West or any other actor. What actually matters is whether Russia also has the economic and military strength to back up any protest. Even though Moscow is no match for Washington in general, the state currently possesses enough accumulated power to counter the West, especially near its borders and geopolitically important life-space. Furthermore, the Russian policy of containing NATO enlargement is perceived as crucial by the majority of society; this is not constructed by Putin’s regime but a factual given. As such, the Kremlin will do its best not to let Tbilisi or Kiev be granted Alliance membership.

Whether officially noted or not, the highest and most influential political actors in the West are well-aware of Russia’s NATO fears; additionally, Georgia’s strategic partners understand that, historically, Moscow has always been keen to fight such threats by all means necessary. That is why they are not in a hurry to give a green light for the next stage of the military bloc enlargement. Even worse, NATO representatives are unsure whether bringing the organization to the Black Sea region will actually lead to more stability and prosperity or, by intervening in the so-called Russian “zone of interest,” instead lead to a direct or indirect military clash that will destabilize the whole post-Soviet space. Today, the West, and Western European states in particular, are not ready to be involved in such dramatic processes.

Negative effects of the NATO “small talk”

While looking at NATO’s annual “small talk” in Georgia, we need to raise another issue that deals with negative consequences. First, such harsh and provocative statements by high-rank officials create and maintain false expectations and perceptions of global political processes. Georgian society is being kept in a virtual reality where Russia allegedly has no rights and powers while Tbilisi’s NATO membership issue has been stretched over a decade due to unrealistic claims of a “lack of democracy.” Secondly, NATO has been transformed into a fixed idea, an obsession that clouds the judgement of local elites and regular citizens alike, while human resources are shifted from improving domestic challenges to the desperate effort to get that MAP. People have really started to believe that once in the military Alliance, democratic institutions will appear by default and the Russian threat will simply vanish. It’s a bitter pill that at the end of the day may lead to dramatic nihilism and even to a foreign policy shift, as happened with Turkey and its European integration dreams. Ad notam, that is why all main elitist INGOs and NGOs in Georgia tried hard to put the issue of foreign policy orientation into the new constitution. This is the third possible negative outcome of a short-sighted NATO policy.

By and large, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Tbilisi is important for the country to feel the Alliance’s support. But it could have been even more positive if the organization’s high-officials had held back from giving false promises and “small talk” about granting MAP to Georgia; especially using the argument that Russia has nothing to do with NATO enlargement. These assumptions mislead local elites as well as society. Georgia has achieved a respectable enough level of democracy to appeal and to start slowly becoming an inherent part of the military bloc. But this aspiration will not be satisfied unless the Kremlin stops opposing it. Moscow does not need permission to defend its national interests; moreover, it has enough strength to do so. At the same time, NATO’s annual “small talk” has significant negative outcomes for Georgia. People are being kept in a bubble of falsehood where the basic laws of global politics are abandoned; secondly, the issue itself has become so politicized that it clouds the judgement of decision-makers on the ground who put more effort into becoming a NATO member than into building democratic institutions. And finally, the absence of real outcomes of Georgian-NATO cooperation may push for more nihilism and even to a foreign policy shift.

The article was originally published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

Georgia’s North Macedonian Dream

On March 12, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated the 20th anniversary of the membership of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. Prominent American politician and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright re-iterated NATO’s open-door policy and assured Georgia and Ukraine that they will become Alliance members once the two countries are ready. Earlier, on June 12, 2018, Greece and the Republic of Macedonia signed the so-called Prespa Agreement according to which the latter will change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia while Greece will finally agree to support its long-standing aspirations of acquiring the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). Currently, the Republic of North Macedonia is on its way to joining the military bloc. The latest happenings raised new hopes among the so-called pro-NATO groups in Georgia that their state is next on the list.

Meanwhile, there are serious doubts as to whether the offering of NATO membership to the Republic of North Macedonia is a real precedent for Georgia and Ukraine. These Eastern European states face far more serious challenges attached to global politics, geopolitics and confrontation between the West and the East. At present, it is unlikely the North Macedonian experience can be readily applied.

Names Matter

The name dispute is a long-standing confrontation with old roots. Macedonia is a historical region associated with Greece and Alexander the Great. Nowadays, ancient Macedonia approximately corresponds with the modern Greek region of Macedonia and has little to do with the Republic of North Macedonia. Athens blamed Skopje of trying to assign symbols and figures that were initially perceived as part of Greek culture. Furthermore, there were fears of irredentism. Millions of Greeks identify themselves as Macedonians, and officials in Athens had concerns this might lead to some concepts of so-called United Macedonia threatening the territorial integrity of the state.

So far, the case of the Republic of North Macedonia is unique and inapplicable to Georgia and Ukraine due to its comparative simplicity. The only actor that opposed Macedonia joining NATO was Alliance member Greece. No global politics was involved. Furthermore, there was only one demand that Athens had for Skopje – to change its constitutional name. Generally speaking, the whole dispute surrounded the name of the state and the main challenge was to persuade local elites to negotiate and make a deal using a “win-win” approach. Former confronting sides belonged to so-called small actors that are more vulnerable to external pressure and influence.

The Georgia Case

Whether you perceive NATO as a military bloc, democracy promoter, hybrid organization or something else, it is obvious that modern Ukraine is not ready to join the club. This lack of readiness can be seen on every level of the state build-up. On the opposite side, there is Georgia, which has by all means managed to satisfy NATO requirements; Tbilisi does not need to be ready for Alliance membership because it already is. Thus, we need to abandon this frequently-used-by-various-Western-high officials argument and be clear about the real challenges, recognizing that they are much more complicated than Athens and Skopje.

Perhaps the biggest need is to acknowledge separatism and irredentism as actually-happened facts. Georgia has two separatist regions supported by its northern neighbor, the Russian Federation. Additionally, at least some actors in Tbilisi realize that, besides the Russian factor, there are also significant issues to deal with on the ground, especially when it comes to conflict in the Abkhazia region. An even more complicated situation is seen in Ukraine, where the Crimean Peninsula was integrated by the Kremlin into the state while self-proclaimed Donbas and Luhansk on the east receive military and financial support.

We also need to consider Moscow and its geopolitical agenda. Unlike Greece and Macedonia, Russia is a “great power”. Of course, it is no match for the USSR, US and/or China, but it still possesses enough accumulated military power, backed by a vast territory and natural resources, to promote national interests and counter any other global actor. The Kremlin perceives both Georgia and Ukraine as zones of influence, “living space” and “security belt” and so the integration of these two states into NATO is a direct threat to its fundamental interests. And there is no point presenting the Alliance as a Russia-friendly military bloc: the Kremlin will perceive it as a threat while NATO prospers and Russia is not a member.

Unfortunately for Tbilisi and Kiev, their separatist regions have become battlefields between the united West and the East, meaning Russia, China and all those actors that aspire to shake the existing global political order, with the US on top. This fact makes it even more complicated to solve disputes on the ground due to their transformation from local (especially in Georgia’s case) to global: global actors are involved, and their goals go far beyond simple conflict resolution.

The reasons outlined above are real challenges that Georgia and Ukraine experience on their way to NATO membership. And while on the ground, Alliance representatives may speak about an open-door policy, but factually these “doors” will be opened only verbally.

By and large, the so-called Macedonian precedent has nothing to do with NATO aspirations for Tbilisi and Kiev. The name dispute between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia was comparatively simple, while Georgia and Ukraine face extremely serious challenges, including separatism, irredentism, the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda and, of course, war for the future of global politics.

Thus, Georgia will need to wait a while on the list. But it is highly important for these two countries to continue state building, whether with MAP or not; officials must finally understand and accept that the ongoing build-up is not for NATO but for the prosperity of the people on the ground.

The article was initially published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

The Lucifer Effect: How to Turn Georgian Judges Good

Archil Sikharulidze & Teimuraz Sikharulidze

Georgia has a plethora of issues needing attention and reform, but there is probably no topic as significant and crucial as the judiciary. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Georgian governments have been trying hard to build a comprehensive, sophisticated, independent and, most importantly, publicly trusted judicial system. Unfortunately, these attempts have been unsuccessful, largely due to the unwillingness of the ruling political powers to give up such a strong and influential mechanism, a tool still widely used by ruling regimes in non-democratic states to oppress and punish counterparts.

The current rulers, Georgian Dream, are today pushing for another grand reform that, in theory, should finally put into the judiciary some widely accepted, recognized and embedded democratic standards such as the check-and-balances model. This process is chock-full of controversy due to a number of highly questionable decisions that have so far been made, among them the appointment of judges who are blamed for unlawful past judgements in extremely sensitive and scandalous criminal cases. The majority of local and foreign experts and NGO/INGOs expressed their astonishment at the appointments and are calling on the government to show the political will to truly reform the system.

In the wake of such turbulence, Irakli Kobakhidze, Chairman of Parliament, poured fuel on the fire during a TV appearance on February 5 where he commented on the appointments, stating that those judges who had misdemeanors in the past had in fact been “made good” as a result of systemic and environmental changes. These remarks were considered by some as unacceptable and unethical. But if we put political and ideological rivalry as well as populism aside, it is obvious that Kobakhidze’s statements perfectly fit into the social psychology paradigm and reflect a working policy that, at the end of the day, must be pursued with minor changes.

The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil

Social Psychology is a field that studies the influence of social processes and environment on people’s behavior. It basically argues that individual behavior is not determined solely by a human being’s personal character, ethics, values and attitudes; obviously, it is highly sensitive to external impact and/or pressure that independent variables such as environment or a stressful situation may have. Human beings are not, by default, “bad” or “good”, meaning that their behavior is not pre-determined by nature but rather conditioned by a set of internal and external characteristics that may force “good” people to turn “bad” and “bad” people to turn “good”.

One the most prominent representatives of the Social Psychology school is Stanford University Professor, Philip Zimbardo, who argued these ideas in his prominent work The Lucifer Effect (TLE), How Good People Turn Evil. Zimbardo takes a look at the so-called Stanford Experiment and misbehavior of American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He is confident in his judgements that the cases prove the significant role of the system and environment on the behavior of individuals who had previously never had records of violence and misconduct but who were keen to engage in such actions once affected and pushed by external factors.

Irakli Kobakhidze’s comments may sound cynical and irrelevant, but actually the creation of a healthy, free, independent and transparent environment/system is crucial for the establishment of publicly trusted institutions that will contribute to a judicial system that supports “good” people and keeps away and/or sets a working framework for the “bad”. Kobakhidze raised the important issue of systemic change but did so in a non-diplomatic manner and without explanation.

Applying the Framework

Before arguing the steps the government needs to take to achieve a successful reform, we should speak about at least two important issues that are frequently overlooked.

Readiness to Obey

While debating the judicial system reform, analysts often undermine the importance of the Georgian mentality and political culture. Representatives of Georgian society, as well as elites, frequently talk about building a publicly trusted institution, but, factually, neither side is really ready to contribute to the building.

This reality is determined by the widely-shared perception that a fair and free court is a court that makes “respective” judgements which are acceptable for everyone. But this is practically impossible, as the “loser” always opposes and questions the judgement made and, thus, questions the judiciary. Furthermore, representatives of Georgian society have no general culture of obeying court decisions unless they are victorious. As such, at the end of the day, the demand for an impartial, fair and free trial is never-ending.

Another obstacle is the local political culture that, according to the best traditions of Georgian mentality, is tolerant only towards those institutions which are politically and ideologically acceptable and beneficial. Mikhail Saakashvili’s regime had no issues with the corrupt judicial system of the time until it was subordinated to the political elite. Yet, representatives of the former ruling movement are dissatisfied with this less (but still) corrupt institution under Georgian Dream governance. The unwillingness of local political powers to give up the judiciary as a political mechanism prevents the establishment of a truly independent institution.

Thus, it makes no sense to debate judicial system reform unless we bring significant changes into the Georgian mentality and local political culture.

Must Dos

We should express and keep in mind three basic assumptions. The first: there is no way we can build a judiciary that is fully trusted by all, meaning that we will never have a system that is acceptable for everyone; hence, we need to learn to obey judgements unless they are clearly partial. Second, we need to make it clear to local political powers that the judiciary is not a subordinated-to-the-ruling-elite political mechanism or weapon. Finally, we cannot afford to fire every judge who had a past misconduct; Georgian society does not have the human resources required to repeat Saakashvili’s period formula of “fire everyone and hire new staff”. As such, we must work with those people who are in the system today.

Based on these three pillars, the government should push for systemic and environmental change, meaning that “good” people are not pushed to do bad and “bad” people are turned “good” or are kept out of the system. Those judges who had a strong background of misconduct must be severely punished and expelled from the judiciary, while others are given chance to prove their professionalism and devotion to the new democratic standards. The idea of life-long judges must be temporarily abandoned. The existing political reality and human resources are not enough to pursue this approach. Rather, we need a long-standing project, perhaps “judge of the future”, which will prepare a new generation of public servants who will be appointed on a life-long basis later on. These decisions ensure that the most prominent “guilty judges” are punished, others are given a second chance, relatives of victims get at least minimum justice and Georgian society has time to establish a functional judiciary with trusted life-long judges.

By and large, the judiciary reform is probably one of the most relevant and sensitive topics today. Kobakhidze’s arguments are not by default false; moreover, his views totally fit into the Social Psychology paradigm which argues for a healthy system and environment to prevent “good” people turning “bad”: the “bad” may turn “good” if they are put into such conditions. Georgian society needs not only to reform the judiciary but also to reform its mentality and political culture. Furthermore, it needs to recognize that we cannot simply fire everyone who does not satisfy the high moral and ethical standards- Georgia lacks the human resources for that. That said, it is wise to punish those who deserve it (within reasonable and existing limits) while continuing to cooperate with others. The idea of life-long judges must be postponed in order to prepare a new generation of public servants to be appointed according to the approach later on.

The article was originally published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

Goodbye, Mr. President

President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, officially refused to participate in the upcoming presidential elections to be held on October 28. It will be the last time Georgian society gets to elect their president directly. The main political parties have already presented their candidates, while the ruling team Georgian Dream made the decision not to do so and is betting on independent candidate Salome Zurabishvili.

The political campaign is ongoing and the presidential candidates have already promised the electorate they will integrate the country into NATO and the EU, contribute to the de-occupation of the separatist regions, build better state institutions and accomplish numerous other grand goals, while local and foreign experts/observers have been discussing possible significant changes that the state will experience thereafter.

This fierce race of political promises in combination with continuing debates among experts once more proves that there is a strong misunderstanding of the changes that came to light due to the constitutional amendments of 2010 and 2017. The presidential institution has lost the lion’s share of its power; the President is not an all-powerful political figure anymore. One can hope that the next President will avoid the predecessor’s policy, which can be summed up by the term “The Margvelashvili Syndrome.”

No Longer King

On October 15, 2010, Georgian Parliament, where political party the Unified National Movement (UNM) had a constitutional majority, approved controversial constitutional amendments. According to state officials, the aim of the changes was to offer more checks and balances in the country’s political system. The new constitution totally changed Georgia’s political system, shifting it from presidential to parliamentary. After the so-called Rose Revolution (November 2003), the ruling party UNM introduced the first wave of constitutional amendments in 2004 that helped Mikhail Saakashvili, as acting President, to accumulate unprecedented political powers, and the state went to a super-presidential model. Constitutional amendments accepted in 2010 curbed the presidential powers by boosting the role of the Prime-Minister (PM) and Parliament. In 2012, Georgia held parliamentary elections that ended this transition: Georgia became a state with a parliamentary system where the President still holds some powers but where most duties are allocated to the Georgian Parliament and the head of the government, the PM.

In April 2017, the ruling party Georgian Dream went further by accepting new constitutional amendments that, according to official statements, should have, once and for all, anchored the parliamentary nature of Georgia’s political system. The President of Georgia ultimately became a public figure rather than political.

Thus, promises that are kindly and actively given by presidential candidates are in fact political manipulations; Georgia’s presidential institution simply does not have the respective political clout to pursue or set any independent policy. On the other hand, statements made by various domestic and external observers regarding possible significant changes in the country’s political life come from a lack of understanding of the internal processes and awareness of the constitutional amendments.

Of course, the institution of the presidency may, in theory, play an important role during crises or other turbulences; moreover, the President can be an important public figure on the chessboard. But this is possible only in a country where the political system has evolved enough to produce politicians/public figures with strong and respective backgrounds; individuals capable of gaining massive support and acknowledgement from society. Undoubtedly, that’s not the Georgian case.

The Margvelashvili Syndrome and The Institution of the Presidency

Margvelashvili’s term has yet to be carefully analyzed; but, at the same time, we can easily outline a few very important tendencies that may be defined as the Margvelashvili Syndrome, which includes: misunderstanding of the institution of the presidency, a fruitless fight for power/influence, and a lack of nation-building.

Probably the biggest failure of the acting President was his fundamental misunderstanding of duties and obligations that were and are delegated to the institution of the presidency. As mentioned above, the constitutional amendments of 2010 relocated most powers to the PM and Parliament. The President was no more the key player in Georgia’s political system, and yet Margvelashvili lacked understanding of this new reality. His short-lived “honeymoon” with Georgian tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili and coalition Georgian Dream (the coalition) drove him to pursue an independent policy that he was actually unable to carry out. Margvelashvili claimed that the ruling party was trying to undermine the presidential institution. Even though this statement may be somehow correct, the acting President knew perfectly well that this process of “undermining” had been initiated by the previous government. It was and is logical that in a parliamentary system, the institution of the presidency is not considered a counter-balance to parliament and government but rather as an emergency “button”. Margvelashvili’s real purpose should have been to strengthen democratic institutions and processes through political dialogue rather than making open appraisals against the ruling party.

The Fight for Power and Influence

The second failure is directly attached to the first. Margvelashvili and his administration’s inability (or unwillingness) to recognize the changed nature of the institution of the presidency led to a useless fight for power and political influence. The confrontation was pointless for two important variables: the constitutional majority that the Georgian Dream holds and the fact that Margvelashvili himself was elected thanks to support from Ivanishvili and the coalition. By continuously vetoing the government’s legislative initiatives, the Georgian President only pushed the majority of voters to turn their backs on him, while Georgian Dream easily overturned his vetoes thanks to absolute dominance in Parliament. By and large, Margvelashvili did not have enough politically delegated powers (officially and unofficially) to oppose the ruling political establishment.

No nation-building

And finally, the third variable can be described as a lack of important activities towards nation-building. As a president elected according to the new constitution, Margvelashvili’s main purpose was to pursue dialogue with the government and push for further nation-building processes. The President should have used various platforms not for political messages and struggles as he was so fiercely doing, but for advocating issues regarding democracy, democratic institutions and socio-economic challenges. As a former head of GIPA (Georgian Institute of Public Affairs), one of the leading non-public institutions, he had all the necessary skills, knowledge and network to spread his word among Georgian students; through an existent platform, working hard to help the youth to understand and promote the principles of democratic governance; to be occupied doing something that Georgia’s political elites are too busy to do – nation-building. Of course, he had meetings with students, but Margvelashvili’s messages were often overshadowed by the “cockfight” between the himself and Parliament.

Crucial Mistakes

Apart from the Margvelashvili Syndrome described above, we need to speak about two other equally important mistakes that the acting President made: an absolute reliance on the NGO platform and the abolishment of presidential funding.

After the collapse of the Margvelashvili-Ivanishvili and Margvelashvili-Coalition Georgian Dream tandems, the acting President of Georgia was forced to look for new allies and he found them in the face of local non-governmental and civil society organizations (NGO/CSOs). Margvelashvili’s “honeymoon” with these NGO/CSOs was logical and pragmatic but he made a serious mistake by relying totally on this platform. Instead of working with students and the electorate in general, he was focused on gaining from non-governmental organizations, their representatives and supporters. The NGO/CSOs had total support from the President while dealing with the government’s legislative initiatives. This policy ensured the positive attitudes of civil society but significantly distanced Margvelashvili from mainstream voters, who sometimes thought that the President was overly keen on pleasing the NGO/CSOs.

The former President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, made lots of mistakes. But, at the same time, he knew that youth and students were, are and always will be the best political investment; and he actively invested. Saakashvili established various scholarships, studentships and other awards to motivate schoolchildren and students to study, to develop and, of course, to be satisfied with the existing political regime. Most importantly, Saakashvili was active in providing students with financial assistance to continue their education abroad with money taken from the Presidential Reserve Fund. The fund is controlled by the President and the goal is to support the establishment and development of democratic values and state institutes countrywide. But where Margvelashvili spent it on various projects, including opening Soviet occupation exhibitions and centers all over the country, Saakashvili gave Georgian students the chance to study in the best universities of the world. Saakashvili invested in the future electorate while Margvelashvili did not.

By and large, Georgia’s presidential elections are not as crucial as some would like to argue. The institution of the presidency has no powers to set or modify the country’s political course. The President is not a key political figure anymore but rather a public figure who may be important once the state has the respective political culture. The future Georgian President must keep this in mind to avoid the Margvelashvili Syndrome and not spent his/her term in useless “cockfights” with the ruling force; contributing to nation-building is the number one priority. And finally, the coming President must work not only with the CSO/NGOs but with Georgian society in general; especially with youth and students.

The article was originally published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

Georgia Enslaved!

On July 24, Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian tycoon and Chairman of the ruling party Georgian Dream, gave a long-awaited interview to Channel One journalist Maka Tsintsadze in which he unleashed a stream of criticism of the country’s financial system, claiming that the two leading bank institutions, TBC and Bank of Georgia, have “swallowed” the state and stuck people in endless debts. Then he called this policy “shameful”.

These statements may be perceived as historic because this is the first time in Georgian modern history that a high state official has openly and decisively attacked “business” and the “business environment” that was step-by-step established following the collapse of the Soviet Union. For years, Georgian governments were not only aware of the existing economic processes in the country but were very keen to support particular political-economic approaches, which ultimately lead to a reality where every fifth individual in the state lives in poverty today. It is interesting as to why the current government and its leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili (who is an active businessman himself), were forced to openly criticize two leading bank institutions and the business environment in general. The answer is simple: Georgia can’t move on unless some significant changes are made to it is political-economic paradigm.

Shifting Paradigms

When explaining why Marxism took such extreme forms (for example, military communism) in post-Empire Russia, prominent Russian philosopher and political thinker Nikolai Berdyaev argued that it was a result of an old tradition set by Orthodoxy. For centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church demanded blind loyalty from its “flock” that dismantled critical thinking within the ranks. As a result, the new political-economic theory of Karl Marx that would have been slowly analyzed, criticized and assessed by every Western society, was turned into another dogma; another form of totalitarian thinking in Russia.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was not only an appraisal against totalitarianism and a fight for national self-determination, but also a shift from planned economy to market. It was and still is logical that independent Georgian society wanted to abandon everything that the Soviet period had established, including the government’s involvement in everyday life. Local political and economic philosophers immediately picked up the so-called liberal-economic model, wholeheartedly preaching the “laissez-faire” model where the private sector was totally free from government interventions, while every single citizen was left “tete-a-tete” (Eng. “head to head”) against business. Furthermore, Georgian governments have actively tried to create the best possible hothouse conditions for the sector, frequently turning a blind eye to the growing gap between the business and Georgian societies. This approach can be easily reflected by a statement of former Georgian Minister of Economy (June–December 2004), Minister for Reform Coordination (February 2008 – February 2009), Kakha Bendukidze, who argued that it is possible to privatize everything except your own mother.

Local political-economic thinkers became enslaved by the so-called liberal model, pushing it despite opposition. As Russia before, they managed to transform this frequently criticized model into a new undisputable dogma.

The Win-Lose Game

Ivanishvili’s expression of a “swallowed” state perfectly reflects the existing socio-economic situation on the ground. Nowadays, the obsession of local elites to push the liberal economic model, without taking into consideration some important variables such as concurrency and mentality, have led to the establishment of a “win-lose” game. In this game, business is always the winner and the consumer is always the loser. Every single deal is, by default, much more profitable for the financial institution than the citizen. Moreover, the private sector feels totally untouchable and as yet has been unpunishable. In 2015, former Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili questioned why the price of oil on the local market continued to be high despite the cost of commodities falling around the globe. Garibashvili was highly criticized by various actors for interference in private sector matters. In April 2018, former finance minister Mamuka Bakhtadze (current PM) criticized the leading banks of the country for not pushing the state’s economy forward. Bakhtadze argued that the banking system should be driving Georgia’s economic development; a grand mission that is not pursued by the leading local financial institutions. Bakhtadze, as Garibashvili before him, was so harshly attacked that he was pushed to give some “explanations.” But Ivanishvili’s case is totally different. As a Georgian tycoon, the richest and most influential political-economic figure, he can finally break through barriers and focus on those clearly existent flaws. In 2012, Georgian society hoped that Bidzina Ivanishvili would lead the country to a better future. He has a chance to do it by pushing forward changes to the country’s financial system, transforming the “win-lose” game to “win-win”.

By and large, this tendency of ruling representatives expressing their dissatisfaction with the existing financial system is a reflection of dramatic socio-economic conditions. The Georgian state and society has become enslaved by its own business actors whose activities have frequently a more negative than positive impact; moreover, this negative impact is so immense that even state officials (who are actually to blame for its establishment) are pushed to recognize it. Georgian business holds both the state and society restrained and thus blocks state-development. The country’s political elite must free itself from “liberal fanaticism” and start implementing the necessary political-economic methods to ensure that local financial institutions are as free and independent as socially possible, working on the market, state and society simultaneously. Only in this scenario can the existing “win-lose” game be replaced by the “win-win” model. Only then will Georgia finally be able to move forward.

This article was initially published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

Georgia’s Public Figures Selection Methodology: The “Zidanes y Pavones” Policy

On June 13, Georgia’s PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili resigned from his position citing a disagreement with the leader of ruling party Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili. On June 20, Georgian parliament held a confidence vote and appointed Mamuka Bakhtadze, 36, former minister of finance of Georgia, as the new PM. Earlier, Bakhtadze’s nomination was highly criticized by the political opposition and some members of local civil society as a step backward. They argued that even though Kvirikashvili had serious political and economic flaws, he was comparatively more independent from Georgia’s “kingmaker” Ivanishvili than his predecessor Irakli Garibashvili (Nov. 2013 – Dec. 2015). The government’s critics believe that an inexperienced, little-known and young Bakhtadze has been chosen by Ivanishvili as a replacement for Kvirikashvili to strengthen/restore his informal grasp on power in the country.

We can debate whether these allegations are right or wrong, but it is undoubted reality that there is a pretty questionable selection methodology in Georgia. Apart from nepotism and other painful reflections of the 90s, there is still something puzzling in this “human resources” approach, which we can define as the “Zidanes y Pavones” policy.

“Zidanes y Pavones”

In the early 2000s, Florentino Perez, current President of Real Madrid C.F. (a professional football club based in Madrid, Spain) announced a policy of club management that was formulated as “Zidanes y Pavones”. In theory, it meant the aspiration of the club to purchase world-leading football players from all around the globe and use “homegrown wonder kids” to make the team totally unbeatable on the field as well as a financially successful market brand. To achieve the goals, Real Madrid bought such prominent football players as Luis Figo (2000-2005), Zinedine Zidane (2001-2006), Ronaldo (2002-2007), and David Beckham (2003-2007) while wholeheartedly supporting very talented “homegrown” wonder boy, Francisco Pavon. Unfortunately, in practice, this approach appeared to be flawed. Though Perez managed to build a well-known and well-bought brand, he failed to secure this success on the field. The club went four years without success in the Spanish Football League between 2003 and 2007 and would fail to qualify beyond the last 16 of the Champions League for seven consecutive seasons after 2004. Perez was forced to leave his post in February 2006. Analysts outline three main reasons as to why this policy failed. The first was divisions in the team. Real Madrid was split into “superstars” and “ordinary” players that complicated interaction between members and factually made it impossible to build a strong united and consolidated team. The second reason was the tremendous pressure that all players faced. In the wake of continuous demands from club management to show the highest possible results, both “superstars” and “homegrowns” had no actual time to adjust, settle, develop and, most importantly, grow professionally. And finally, the accent was put more on the financial part of the policy rather than football itself. There was no sense investing so much money into expensive football players when Real Madrid could have pursued a more pragmatic and game-oriented policy. “Superstars” and “homegrown wonder kids” are attractive concepts but, at the end of the day, a team needs hard-working and game-oriented players who will create a core, rather than market-oriented stars and inexperienced youth. All in all, the “stars” attracted and “wonder kids” tried, but without the backbone of honored and experienced players who passed through fire water and copper pipes, Real Madrid failed to be an effective and efficient football team.

Saakashvili’s “Pavones”

From the beginning of his governance, Saakashvili expressed willingness to engage youth in policy and decision-making processes. This approach was probably highly welcomed by all sides. But unfortunately, Saakashvili pursued a very strict “Pavones” policy, meaning that in his statements the Georgian President called citizens above the age 35 as “flashy” and unnecessary. He believed that the only way to get rid of the so-called “soviet mentality” was to make a bet on “Zidanes” (Georgian emigrants) and, mostly, “homegrown wonder kids” (local human resources) to lead the country to a better future.

Probably the most prominent “Zidane” in Saakashvili’s cabinet was a Georgian emigrant from Paris, Salome Zurabishvili. Zurabishvili, who had been a French career diplomat since 1974, was appointed as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia in March 20, 2004. This decision was a marketing step to make Tbilisi more recognizable and attractive for the Western world. On the other hand, Georgia has witnessed the rise of “homegrown wonder kids” such as Kakha Lomaia, Giga Bokeria, Gigi Ugulava, Irakli Okruashvili, Vano Merabishili, Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, of course, Vera Kobalia.

Saakashvili’s team, like Real Madrid, had initial positive success, especially in handling corruption and reforming the education system. But, very soon, the Georgian “Zidane” rose against Saakashvili and finished her public servant career without significant results. Kakha Lomaia’s “breakthrough” in the education sphere was pretty soon continued by a poor and blank chain of questionable and, we may argue, ineffective decisions that still effect the education system of Georgia today. Saakashvili’s beloved “son,” Irakli Okruashvili, was too arrogant, selfish and self-confident- leading to his exile and political downfall.

Generally speaking, Saakashvili’s “Pavones” were highly motivated for change, but frequently had no idea how to go about it effectively and efficiently; they had no respective experience and, simply, no time to grow professionally. The pressure that Saakashvili unleashed on them was too oppressive and Georgia’s “Pavones” started making serious mistakes that resulted in criminal punishments for Gigi Ugulava, Vano Merabishvili and some other “homegrown wonder kids” later on. By the end of Saakashvili’s term, Georgian society had no understanding of the merits that Saakashvili had applied in his selection methodology; the best examples are the appointments of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze (Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance, Dec. 2009-Sept. 2012) and Vera Kobalia (Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, Jul. 2010-Oct. 2012).

The Same Old Story with Georgian Dream

There were hopes that Saakashvili’s policy that put forward “Pavones” and totally overlooked experienced and honored local human resources would be re-thought by PM Bidzina Ivanishvili. Unfortunately, these expectations were misleading. Ivanishvili shared his predecessor’s policy and, as an example, appointed Archil Kbilashvili as Prosecutor General. Kbilashvili’s (Oct. 2012-Nov. 2013) approach to a few very sensitive criminal cases lead to his early resignation and total disappearance from the public eye. During an open-door debate with political opposition and other members of Georgian civil society, Ivanishvili was asked by Aleko Elisashvili (Georgian politician, civil activist) whether Kbilashvili had the respective experience and/or expertise handling not only criminal cases but, generally speaking, to occupy the position of Prosecutor General. The Georgian PM noted that Archil was a “good” guy but “a little bit inexperienced.:

Another example of the “Pavones” policy was the appointment of Irakli Garibashvili as a Prime Minister of Georgia. Garibashvili (Nov. 2013-Dec. 2015), who was in his early 30s at that time and had no idea of politics at all, was highly criticized by all actors. His approach to state-management and political rhetoric was full of inconsistencies and showed a clear lack of understanding of political processes; by and large, he was unaware of the rules of the game. At the same time, Georgian Dream had its own “Zidane”; not an immigrant but, as Kvirikashvili argued, a person with tremendous managerial skills and knowledge of “how to-do” and “how to-fix” things – Aleksandre Jejelava. Jejelava (Minister of Education and Science, Jun. 2016-Nov. 2017), who, in accordance with existing traditions, had no serious experience in public service, was “Zidane” due to his status of a certified international level trainer and for the “catchy” phrases he liked to throw around. These were his only achievements in the position and we may definitely assess Jejelava’s progress by the formula – he came, he said and he left to continue his studies.

Bakhtadze’s appointment as a PM was probably irritating for many Georgians due to a fact that people are sick and tired of this “Zidanes y Pavones” policy that brings useless “stars” and arrogant, selfish and self-confident “homegrown wonder kids” to power. Georgian society has already experienced the outcomes of such a policy – partial success with significant flaws. There is no doubt that Georgia needs “Zidanes” to be attractive and “Pavones” to have gifted youth, but Tbilisi needs more a system where the backbone of state institutions will be experienced and honored resources. Until that time, Georgia, like Real Madrid, will face challenges with effectiveness and efficiency. Currently, this is expressed by poor and blank state institutions with no clear vision; and, of course, continuous reshuffling of cabinet ministers every two-three years.

The article was initially published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

No “Free Cheese” for Women

On March 23, Georgian MPs voted down the so-called Gender Quotas Bill. The bill obtained 66 votes from Georgian Dream while 14 representatives of the party voted against it. The initiative failed to gather the necessary 76 votes to pass the legislative threshold. MPs from the European Georgia and the Alliance of Patriots did not attend the voting. Two of the six United National Movement legislators (four were absent) voted in favor of the bill.

The bill is a new grand project decisively promoted by various well-respected Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), supposedly aimed at pushing Georgian society to more gender equality. There were probably no doubts that, backed by Georgia’s strategic partners, these CSOs would have persuaded the government to accept a gender quotation mechanism; but, contradictory to expectations, the bill did not gain the respective support. This failure raises some important questions about Georgian society and the non-governmental sector and the nature of their affairs.

The Gender Quota Bill

In June 2017, a group of 118 Tbilisi-based and regional CSOs, in collaboration with international women’s rights organizations, introduced a new bill – the Gender Quota Mechanism. According to the initiative, women are highly underrepresented in the country’s political life. The statement is based on the 2016 Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum that ranks Georgia 114th out of 144 in terms of women’s participation in politics. The bill proposed to oblige political parties and self-governments to balance the number of their male and female representatives. In case of absence of gender parity, political parties would be denied registration for elections. If approved, it would have resulted in at least 38 female lawmakers in the next parliament and at least 75 (half of the legislative body) female lawmakers from 2024. In theory, the mechanism is perceived as a ‘temporary’ means to empower women’s participation in politics and an increase in their role in the decision-making process in general.

This legislative initiative was warmly received by senior lawmakers from three parliamentary parties of Georgia, including the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, the European Georgia part and the United National Movement. Georgia’s Prime Minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, also supported it, arguing that it would promote gender equality and push forward the democratization process. Finally, it got a green light from the Ambassadorial Working Group, which unites the diplomatic corps accredited in Georgia.

Post-voting outcry

Arguably, it is the first case in the last decade when, despite strong support from senior officials and the country’s strategic partners, local CSOs failed to pass the project.

While the government immediately pointed out a lack of political consensus on the matter among its members and promised to continue pushing forward the bill, members of CSOs were highly frustrated and angered. As previously mentioned, there were no doubts that the bill would be accepted. They offer two main narratives for this fact.

The most popular is to argue the retrograde nature of Georgian society which does not move with the times or with the so-called “civilized world”. The second argument was voiced by prominent local women’s rights activist, Baia Pataraia. Pataraia argued that by taking down the initiative, parliament members once again proved that Georgian men are generally afraid to empower women because this can potentially break down the strict patriarchal order currently prevailing on the ground. “Men are not willing to engage with women in direct and fair competition due to fears to be simply outmaneuvered by female counterparts,” she says.

Yet there is a large group of people, including a significant number of women, who were skeptical about the bill from the get-go and thus, had no reaction at all. They argued that quotas will not lead to strengthening the role of women in the decision-making process but rather, once again, break the meritocracy principle. Women in Georgia need more space for self-development, education and career promotion rather than artificially allocated seats in the legislative body. Women should be more involved in the decision-making process based on their professionalism and education rather than gender.

What went wrong?

What is intriguing in this case is that there was no serious outcry on the issue from regular civilians; no harsh debates on social media or other platforms. Just quick and aggressive tweets from CSO representatives and their supporters; that’s all. Why?

Not ready, not interested

According to a poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in 2014, 64% of respondents argued that there was no gender equality in the country. Additionally, approximately 70% believed that the number of women MPs should be increased. But, it seems that readiness to involve women in the decision-making process does not mean, by default, readiness to delegate these powers for free, based only on gender belonging. The reason probably lies in the poor reality on the ground. There is a challenge with the so-called “merit-based system” in Georgia. The system which, in theory, should ensure that only those people occupy senior positions who are worthy (education, work experience) – the meritocracy principle. Undoubtedly, this practice is rarely applied on the ground. So far, we may argue that Georgian society, and its men, are simply not ready to replace male MPs/senior officials frequently appointed or elected for no reason at all, with women MPs/senior officials with only their gender behind them.

Contradictory to Pataraia’s position, we can argue that Georgian MPs are not afraid of women but rather of every single individual who may challenge their power and social status. Hence, local society and men are simply not interested in modifying the existing system to a more gender neutral one where gender parity is still based on nepotism, loyalty to the existing government and other questionable “merits”. But rather, there is interest in promoting meritocracy, creating a basis for a fair, competitive environment where both male and female individuals will be able to reflect their knowledge, skills and professionalism in general to be hired for real achievements and merits rather than belonging to particular families, groups, institutions or gender classes.

Discontent

Failure to push forward the Gender Quota Bill proves something that representatives of various groups are aware of but are not willing to recognize – there is a growing gap between the non-governmental sector and Georgian society. This gap appeared due to various processes, but one of the most important is the evolution of local NGOs from purely social movements (late 90s and the beginning of 2000s) to very active political actors nowadays. There is an increasing feeling that, like every political actor, local NGOs have their own social, economic and political agenda which is frequently not in harmony with the demands of the masses on the ground. Far worse, the more this sector is involved in the politics, the less credible it becomes for the Georgian electorate.

This discontent had led to a situation where society was not ready or interested in accepting the bill, but CSOs were still pushing for it due to strong external support. The ruling party got stuck between two lines of fire. On the one hand, Georgian Dream is definitely willing to please the CSOs and strategic partners to score more political points but, on the other hand, it realizes that voting for projects that are not well-received among its electorate may lead to dramatic consequences during the next elections. As a result, the bill failed to pass the parliamentary vote but the Chairmen, Irakli Kobakhidze, promised CSOs and Georgia’s strategic partners to continue working on it.

The Gender Quota Bill is an interesting initiative that may or may not lead to more gender equality. But its failure to pass parliamentary voting shows that regular citizens are more interested in establishing a fair, competitive environment in the country in general to ensure that individuals are hired based on their achievements and merits rather than their belonging to various groups, institutions and/or gender classes. Georgian society is ready to involve women in the decision-making process due to their professionalism, and not in connection with their gender. At the same time, there is a strong feeling among regular citizens that local CSOs have their own political, social and economic agenda that frequently does fails to match the demands existing on the ground. This leads to a growing discontent between Georgian society and CSOs; CSOs that, in theory, should represent Georgian society and its interests.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

The Kvirikashvili Initiative & Georgia’s Overblown Sense of Political Self-Importance

On March 9, Georgia’s PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili called on the Russian Federation to initiate constructive dialogue. Moreover, he expressed readiness to start direct talks with representatives of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia. This initiative was a response of the local government to an incident involving Georgian citizen and former military staff member Archil Tatunashvili, who was arrested on February 22 by so-called South Ossetian KGB agents and transferred to Tskhinvali. He later died in the city hospital in dubious circumstances, supposedly “from a heart attack.”

Kvirikashvili’s statement had a double-effect. On the one hand, some praised it as a politically balanced and well-thought out decision while others, including the country’s leading oppositional forces, considered the call a total capitulation to the separatist forces and the Kremlin. Some even argued that the government is pursuing more of a retreat-approach than a cooperation-policy. Finally, there were allegations that direct talks with the separatist regions may lead to their international recognition and legitimization.

It is doubtless complicated to foresee the implications of the initiative in general, but the critical reactions from various actors once more prove that some members of local political, civil society and academic elites are unaware of the situation on the ground in terms of the Georgian-Russian confrontation. The critiques seem to be more political-ideological than a result of serious political analysis.

The Georgian-Russian Confrontation

First, we need to bear in mind that there is no Georgian-Russian confrontation. Mikhail Saakashvili’s grand goal was to involve the West in these inter-state relations, it being a significant political, economic and military power, in order to counter Moscow. He managed to do so and it is no secret that the so-called August 2008 War was and is still considered by Georgia’s strategic allies and the Kremlin as a confrontation between the West and the Russian Federation. Nowadays, Georgian-Russian relations are no longer considered only in the scopes of West-Russia affairs; but issues dealing with separatist regions and the unilateral recognition of statehoods of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia still fall under the West-Russia confrontation paradigm. This paradigm restrains Georgia as a political player, and its capabilities are miserable; pressed from all sides by actors whose ambitions and interests go far beyond Georgian-Ossetian, Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Russian confrontation issues.

As yet, it is pretty questionable as to whether we can demand from Kvirikashvili’s government a “proper” reaction to the significant misdeeds done by representatives of the separatist regions and/or Moscow; questionable because Georgian officials are put simply, strangled on the ground to such extent they can be considered more as observers than members of a fully-recognized political actor. We can argue that the negative assessment of the initiative from the main local political opposition forces is merely a PR campaign, but what seems most disturbing is the inadequate reaction from civil society and academic staff members, who called for the taking of “respective measures;” this being more a reflection of lack of awareness and, of course, a perfect example of an overblown sense of political self-importance.

Modern Georgia does not possess the respective political, economic or military mechanisms to influence either the West nor the East (Russian Federation) or even the separatist regions. Generally, the game is on totally another level and the only thing that local government can do is to try and keep the existing status-quo.

The West-East Confrontation

Political processes that are in place in the separatist regions of Georgia and Ukraine (including military confrontation in the Eastern part) are crucial for the West, especially for the American establishment. This importance is due to the effect they have on the existing global political order; the fate of the international system depends on the outcomes of these processes.

It is no secret that the global world order established after the Cold War by the West is under serious assault. The Russian Federation, China, India, Brazil are countries already making significant steps to put forward their own national interests that erode the post-Cold War system and threaten its integrity and stability; furthermore, the states are working hard to finally balance America’s political, economic and military power on an international level. Russia’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia as independent states, as well as the annexation of Crimea, are important parts of this erosion process. Moscow is trying to break crucial laws of the system established by the West and prove that it can unilaterally decide and handle global political tasks itself. In Georgia’s case, these topics deal with such fundamental principles as sovereignty and territorial integrity.

One of the main pillars of the post-Cold War global order is reflected in the undisputed nature of member states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. An exception can be made if there is a consolidated decision inside a society supported by international law and with approval from the West. The Kremlin broke this sacred formula and without “approval,” crafted two new “sovereign” subjects of the international system. For the US and its allies, this is very dangerous precedent that may firmly lead to the rise of a new wave of separatism in general. But, most significant, this is an open appraisal against the system and the rules set by the West, and if Russia succeeds, the global world order’s stability and integrity will be broken and will start to unravel. Ultimately, the West will lose its privileged position and US its status of the world’s “sheriff.” The American political establishment is aware of the apocalyptic picture and will do its best to avoid this undesirable scenario.

Hence, Kvirikashvili’s initiate to start direct talks with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia will definitely not lead to recognition of the unrecognized regimes by the West and international society as a whole. This is simply impossible because the issue is not about Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity anymore; it is already about the stability of the system. And Georgia’s strategic partners will not provide us with respective triggers to make decisions that may somehow initiate dramatic developments. The West will not recognize either Abkhazia, or the so-called South Ossetia while the processes on the ground are kept out of the scopes of international law; something that will never be good for the Kremlin. At present, it matters not whether the Georgian government will have a direct or indirect dialogue with Sukhumi and/or Tskhinvali. This is another example of an overblown sense of political self-importance.

The Kvirikashvili Initiative

Basing on the judgements given above, it is questionable whether we can accuse Giorgi Kvirikashvili of treason and/or concessions. We may argue that the Georgian government is using all accessible means to handle the conflict. Moreover, it once more proclaimed readiness for open dialogue and, according to the same Western standards, showed political maturity. Kvirikashvili has opted for a pragmatic and balanced policy based on careful analysis of the power balance on the ground. By making a reserved statement, despite the painful incident with Archil Tatunashili’s death, Georgia gained the so-called ‘moral superiority’ over governments of the separatist regions and Moscow, too. Tbilisi proved that it is still the only constructive political actor in the conflict.

With regards to statements made by the United National Movement and Movement for Liberty, we should keep in mind that these oppositional parties are built around the Russian narrative. Radical opposition to Moscow is the only thing that makes them different from other pro-Western groups. Thus, they cannot go beyond this ideological platform, beyond the “Russian framework”.

Georgia’s political, economic and military powers are miserable. Nowadays, Tbilisi lacks the mechanisms to influence processes in the conflicting regions at all. Moreover, the zone of Georgian-Russian confrontation is, in practice, a field of West vs Russia rivalry where the fate of the existing political order is being handled. So far, Georgia is more an observer than an actual political power. The only thing that local government should do is to cooperate with strategic partners, remind them about its national interests and hope for a better future; and, of course, to try to maintain the status-quo on the ground. The Kvirikashvili initiative perfectly reflects these realities and is an attempt to use all accessible means to bring stability and peace to civilians.

The article was originally published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

TSU 100 Years: Pride & Dissatisfaction

On February 8 Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (abbr. TSU or Tbilisi State University) marked its 100th anniversary under the patronage of UNESCO. The National Bank of Georgia even issued a collector coin in denomination of 5 GEL to mark the event. Georgia’s highest officials as well as prominent local and foreign figures praised Tbilisi State University for its history and contribution. On the other hand, some of the university’s current students and alumnus criticized the anniversary ceremony as a huge waste of money for an institution facing serious challenges. The negative backlash was so strong, especially in social media, that some representatives of TSU’s academic staff expressed their disappointment and confusion.

And while we should definitely celebrate the 100-year achievement, the criticism is not entirely baseless.

The Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, the first-ever national university in the Caucasus, was established on February 8, 1918. The university’s founding fathers were prominent Georgian scientists who had the aspiration to found a European-type higher school in Georgia, based on Georgian educational traditions. The Council of Professors appointed Petre Melikishvili, a Georgian chemist, as the first rector. Tbilisi State University has changed its official name two times: Comrade Stalin Tbilisi State University (from June 9, 1938 to June 7, 1989) and Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (from June 7, 1989 to present). Currently, TSU is the leading research university in the Caucasus.

Times Higher Education data shows that TSU is the only Georgian university to have been included in the TOP 1000 best universities in the world. In 2017 it was ranked as >800, in 2018 – 1001+. TSU’s full data is following (from 100): teaching score – 16.2%, research – 8.7%, citations – 2.7, industry income – 32.3, international outlook – 40.9.

According to QS World University Rankings, no Georgian university has ever been included in the TOP 959.

The beginning of the twentieth century was full of turbulent political events and it was an outstanding achievement for any country to be able to establish a university. So far, it has been a pleasure for Georgia to host the oldest academic/research institution in the Caucasian region. At the same time, it is important to ensure that not only history makes it special but also a strong academic profile and the capability to move the country’s science forward. And here is the main reason for the abovementioned backlash.

Let’s outline at least a few critical flaws of Tbilisi State University that are causing sincere confusion, anger and aggression from its current students and alumnus.

There is no doubt that Tbilisi State University is a leading institution in the Caucasus. Furthermore, it is the most respected and recognized research university abroad in the region. It attracts Georgia’s brightest minds and hosts plenty of foreign researchers working on various topics. All in all, graduating from TSU is a great honor for the representatives of each generation in the country. But, paradoxically, these facts are not reflected in its mostly low, according to statistics, academic profile. There are all necessary variables in place to make the university internationally competitive, but somehow it fails to do so. The question is raised as to why? We may openly argue that there are well-known internal systemic gaps that, unfortunately, some of TSU’s current students and graduates think are not respectively challenged by the university’s administration and academic staff for objective and, frequently, subjective/mercantile reasons.

Finances

TSU might be the best example of a research university without actual research. When we speak about “research” we mean coming in accordance with existing international standards. These standards have evolved over the years and currently, inevitably, demand respective financial resources to be allocated. Simply, you cannot conduct high-level academic projects if you do not have money to pay staff and undertake at least a minimum amount of so-called field works. But Tbilisi State University is out of money. It is a paradox that the leading research institution in the Caucasus does not have even scientific grant schemes to finance research projects. It is totally dependent on external support from, for example, the Shota Rustaveli National Science Foundation, SOROS Foundation Georgia, various embassies and other agencies. At present, we have a research university without the ability (or, maybe the willingness) to accumulate internal financial resources to support its postgraduate students (especially, PhD) and, thus, execute the institution’s highest goal – promoting science in the country. A research university without finances does not exist as well as, generally, science. As a result, students applying to Tbilisi State University hoping to become scientist-researchers are often disappointed.

Negligence

Students coming to TSU will be surprised not only to find that the university is actually out of money but also by existing attitudes among administration members and academic staff. These attitudes can be clearly defined as negligence. It is no secret that representatives of the university have serious issues with motivation to support and guide students. And this feeling only grows over years. By the end of studies, the only thing a TSU student is sure of is that neither the university nor his/her lecturers care about future perspectives of their alumnus. There is serious lack of understanding among them, especially academic staff, that students represent, first of all, the institution itself. We may argue that this is the reason behind the financial negligence, too. Tbilisi State University is trying hard to avoid investing in its own students and graduates. Probably, that is why TSU’s prominent alumnus were so angered by the fact that the university administration decided to pay more than 60,000 GEL to the Public Broadcaster for advertisement rather than finance student-oriented activities, especially in research areas.

Academic Staff

Probably the most sensitive and painful issue is related to TSU’s academic staff. In theory, these people should lecture and guide students, but in fact we often see the opposite. There is no sense among TSU’s students that their lecturers really care. Moreover, once you face the challenge of writing a Master’s paper, you realize that there is pretty low motivation among academic staff members to supervise and guide you. This is even more evident if you apply for a PhD program. Once you are enrolled, you might find that your supervisor is often keep exceedingly busy by activities that have nothing to do with university or science at all. The lion’s share of TSU’s academic staff members are also active members or even founders of other research institutions, NGOs and movements. Working at TSU is not a full-time job for them but rather a source of secured minimum financial income and high social status.

All in all, it is a significant achievement to have a century-old university that is highly praised by the international academic society. But TSU in practice does not satisfy the international standards to be a globally competitive research institution. Moreover, it does not generally provide its own students and graduates with respective financial and academic support. These challenges must be faced and dealt with to ensure that history is not the only thing that we can be proud of with regards to Tbilisi State University.

The article was initially published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

The Georgian KIS Policy: Quick, Simple & Cheap!

Archil Sikharulidze & Teona Mamukishvili

The Georgian political establishment has already summarized 2017 and given promises to further develop democratic practices on the ground, ensuring economic and social security, equality and, of course, equity. And while members of the Georgian Dream are mainly satisfied with the decision-making, there is an issue that is causing significant alarm. Particularly, there are fears that the ruling party is repeating the mistakes of its predecessor, the United National Movement, by following an old and time-tested policy to solve complex tasks that can be reflected by an abbreviature – KIS. What is more astonishing is that some members of Georgian civil society directly or indirectly play a significant role in this process by pushing the government to pursue the above mentioned policy.

What is KIS policy?

The abbreviature KIS comes from the software developing sphere and means, “Keep it Simple.” The idea behind it is that any complicated programming code should be written in an elegant yet clear way to facilitate other software developers in better understanding the code, the reason it is written in the given manner and, generally the whole program. By doing so, we significantly shorten the time period of further development and integration. And while this general line is applicable to any decision-making process, in Georgian political culture, it overwhelmingly means a scheme containing three policy-making statements: quick, simple and cheap.

To understand what these statements are about, we should analyze them based on two unfortunate cases that happened in Tbilisi this past year. Particularly, on September 25, a 3-year-old child fell from the second floor of the 206th kindergarten of Zemo Ponichala and on December 1 two 16-year-old boys died in a school scuffle.

Quick

The first policy-making statement is probably the most common in Georgia: things must be done quickly (especially when it comes to cases that undermine the prestige of the ruling political elite), deal with pretty sensitive issues, or/and enthrall the eye of the mainstream media. This is also where representatives of civil society play a significant role. Local civil society has a tendency to overreact and by doing so (and continuing to hype various topics), they often push political elites to make decisions as fast as possible. The main narrative behind the decision-making process in such cases is not to solve the issue in general but rather to calm and stabilize the situation.

Notably, in the above two cases, the Georgian government decided to, in the case of the kindergarten incident, punish the director, caregivers and, finally, to increase security measures by putting the children behind bars. The same punishment scenario took place in the school and, according to tradition, security forces such as resource officers and patrol police were mobilized to tighten control in public schools.

Quick decisions are not bad when they are followed by in-depth analysis and strategic planning. In the Georgian case, quick decision-making is not immediately or even in the near future accompanied by any such action.

Simple

Quick decisions that aim to stabilize a situation are usually simple decisions. Simplicity is frequently a positive happening, but not in those cases needing us to deal with complex issues and challenges.

It is no secret that local kindergartens are not capable of satisfying the existing demand for child spaces. Moreover, there are serious doubts being raised as to the professionalism and skills of the caregivers, and to the quality of services given. This state institution is also experiencing a shortage of pedagogues who are able to ensure the physical safety of the children in their care. Taking into account international standards, according to which caregivers do not belong to “security services” and are devoted to promoting the healthy development of children, it is questionable how simply putting a young generation of Georgians behind security bars can deal with the source of the problem rather than its logical consequence.

The same analysis is applicable to the school incident. Georgian schools do not lack “security” institutions; they lack “healthy,” safe environments and inter-personal communication focused on multidimensional (staff, children, families, community, policy) responsibilities to promote the raising of socially responsible youths. This can be achieved only by involving supportive professionals: social workers, specialist pedagogues, psychologists and other related professionals.

The fact that the Georgian government by default considers using security services as a main tool for handling these issues raises questions as to whether it realizes the necessity of raising a new generation of educated citizens devoted to democratic principles.

Cheap

The third important statement, of course, deals with finances. It is not only fast to put bars, take punitive measures, and send police officers to schools, but also simple and comparatively pretty cheap. Representatives of the Georgian political establishment might assume that there are not enough financial resources in the country to hire and prepare high-level professionals to eradicate the issues in the Georgian education system. So far, it has been more logical to use the existing resources (the same resource officers and police) or/and cheap techniques (bars) to contain these problems. Such argumentation is not only wrong but also financially unprofitable. A well-managed infusion of money will undoubtedly lead to the development of strong, effective and efficient institutions that, in turn, will create the respective basis for improved financial and social prosperity.

By and large, the Georgian government should abandon the time-tested KIS policy when dealing with complex tasks. The formula “quick-simple-cheap” is not applicable in such cases. Instead, representatives of the local political elite should pursue a logical long-term policy oriented on eradication of the source of the problems rather than containment. We need a policy-making approach that is based on comprehensive strategic planning with an infusion of the respective financial resources.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.