Eka Beselia left ruling Georgian Dream party. Will this finish her career? What is the future of Beselia?
Read more in Russian here.
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.
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.
On January 5, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the global Orthodox Church and the first among equals, signed a decree “Tomos” in Istanbul granting the Ukrainian Church autonomy from the Russian Orthodox Church (alternatively, the Moscow Patriarchate, abb. ROC) and recognizing its autocephaly (independence). The event was attended by the head of the Ukrainian government, President Petro Poroshenko and other high officials. Earlier, Bartholomew called on leaders of other autocephalous churches, most importantly in Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia, to support his initiative. The decision to remove the Ukrainian Church from the subordination of the ROC which had existed as such for centuries was highly criticized by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate, as a rude violation of religious laws and an obvious political step leading to religious strife and a division in the global Orthodox community.
And while supporters of Bartholomew’s historic move both in Ukraine and abroad, especially in Georgia, react according to how they perceive the victory over the corrupt Russian Orthodox Church controlled by Putin’s regime, it is obvious that there is much more than just the right of Ukrainian people for religious independence at stake here. The Orthodox Christian god has been officially engaged by all sides in the so-called “big game” now: political and ideological rivalry where religion is used for concrete goals. The absolute majority of the so-called pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian analysts and experts fiercely defend Bartholomew’s step as fair and logical, bringing forth arguments about historical justice and more. At the same time, there are those who are not so positive about it. This pessimism comes from a few extremely puzzling moments that are mainly, frequently intentionally, overlooked and neglected.
Orthodox Christianity and Politics
Unlike other Christian denominations, Orthodox Christianity was and still is extremely involved in domestic and foreign politics. Political actors actively attract religious institutions into various state, political and ideological activities to gain electoral support, legitimacy and to justify their activities, while local churches are keen to use this “dependency” to influence political decision-making and, sometimes, even pursue a harsh policy of proselytism. This mutual interdependence and interconnection make it impossible to build a stable secular state without interference from religious institutions and persons in state affairs.
And so, here is perhaps the biggest question that puzzles experts and analysts: was Bartholomew’s initiative purely a religious one? It is pretty questionable that Ecumenical Patriarch would have dared and/or decided to push the topic of an autocephalous Ukrainian Church in the midst of the fight between Kiev and Moscow and, in general, the West and the East, without any serious political back-up; especially if we take into consideration that Bartholomew, in theory, holds sway over more than 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, from which the majority are Russian and when the biggest Orthodox Christian Church is the Moscow Patriarchate.
The second important question regards the strong bond between political elites and local religious institutions that have a place in almost all Orthodox Christian countries. We can easily outline at least three exceptional cases: Russian Federation, Ukraine and Georgia.
The Moscow Patriarchate seems to be a continuation of the Russian state (ad notam, historically given condition) and is being actively used by the Kremlin to pursue its domestic and foreign policies through support and justification from the religious institution and its representatives. At the same time, the State acknowledges the Moscow Patriarchate’s support and backs its frequently questionable domestic (the law on protecting religious feelings) and foreign (dominance over global Orthodox Christian community) initiatives. The same could be seen in Ukraine. Until it received “Tomos,” there were three Orthodox Church branches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church or Kiev Patriarchate (independent), the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (independent) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (abb. UOC, subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate). After accepting autocephaly, the first two independent churches formed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (abb. OCU) that, by initial design and primary mission, was to counter and oppose the UOC that was and still is the leading Orthodox institution in the country. So far, the OCU, a priori, is being considered by all sides and, most importantly, by Poroshenko’s government, as a political tool against the Kremlin; and we may argue that the Ukrainian state will do its best to put the newly formed local autocephalous church at the service of political elites. It is also highly questionable whether the OCU can really counter the UOC without political, ideological, administrative and financial support from the government and affiliated individuals.
Where the Moscow Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine are being used by political elites, the Georgian Orthodox Church (abb. GOC) is intelligently manipulating the Georgian elites; where in the Russian Federation and Ukraine we are witnessing the existence of so-called “pocket churches” that lie as a huge burden both on governments and societies, Georgian society is easily “pocketed” by the Georgian Orthodox Church. As still the most trusted and influential institution in the country, the GOC interferes in almost every single aspect of everyday life in Georgia. This frequently harmful practice restrains the country from transforming into the Western-type secular state it claims it wants to be.
Orthodox Christianity at a Crossroads
The establishment of the Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox Church not only officially involved Orthodox Christian god in global politics, but also led to historic strife; and if decision of the Moscow Patriarchate to cut ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople was somehow a logical retaliation, other autocephalous churches suddenly appeared to be at a crossroads, with only two options – follow Bartholomew or support the ROC. We may argue that no one would want to be involved into this dispute; furthermore, for some autocephalous churches, such as those of Serbia and Georgia, this decision is highly sensitive and is directly attached to important political issues.
It is no secret that Serbia holds strong political, cultural and religious ties with the Russian Federation. Furthermore, Serbian officials openly re-iterate the importance of these ties and are still extremely thankful to the Kremlin for the support given during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Additionally, Moscow was in the vanguard of those states that did not support the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, and Russia is still the main and most important ally of Belgrade in its attempts to bring the partially recognized state under its jurisdiction. It seems the Serbian Orthodox Church will definitely think twice before backing Bartholomew’s decision and by default directly oppose the Moscow Patriarchate.
This situation is even more challenging for the Georgian Orthodox Church. Despite fierce support for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from local pro-Western forces and parts of Georgian society, which perceive these events as the restoration of historical justice, it is obvious the situation is much more complicated. Georgia has two separatist regions (Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia) which were recognized as independent states by the Russian Federation, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria. Despite supporting Abkhazian “sovereignty,” the Russian Orthodox Church does not officially recognize the Abkhazian Orthodox Church (abb. AOC) and it is, de jure, still subordinated to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Representatives of the GOC are afraid that by recognizing the establishment of the Ukrainian autocephalous Church, they may directly push the Moscow Patriarchate to recognize the AOC. Some may argue that the ROC has de facto already done so and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church are working secretly on the ground, and yet there is a huge difference between official recognition and masked activities. Finally, Georgia has been surrounded by non-Christian nations for centuries with the Moscow Patriarchate its only neighboring religious ally; thus, this historical memory is also present.
Without doubt, the Ukrainian people deserve the right to have religious institutions that reflect their attitudes and aspirations. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether the reception of autocephaly was and is something that Ukraine really needed. Will it solve the country’s challenges and lead to the unification of society? Unlikely.
As said above, the Poroshenko’s government sees autocephaly as a pre-election campaign project that should, in theory, raise support among the local electorate and help its leader to keep his presidential post. This is despite the unpleasant fact that Poroshenko failed to lead the state into a better future. Particularly, we may argue that Ukraine was always and still is in dramatic need of independence from its own oligarchs and other questionable figures rather than autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate. The reasoning that the inability of every single pro-Western revolutionary movement and leader to handle the corruption and other anti-state practices lies in the dependence of the Ukrainian Church from the Moscow Patriarchate is highly dubious. The reception of autocephaly will not lead to a dismantling of the corrupt political system that exists in Ukraine, as that is just how Poroshenko wants it to be.
Secondly, frequently both international and domestic observers overlook the issue of social divisions in Ukraine. Approximately half of the eastern population are ethnic Russians, and these will most likely not transfer from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, especially taking when taking into consideration the political context. Furthermore, even among Ukrainians there are plenty who are devoted to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church subordinated to the ROC. Thus, the establishment of an autocephalous church may further deepen the social divisions that have developed due to various questionable decisions made over time by the political elite, such as the controversial language bill restricting and downgrading use of the Russian language in Ukraine.
In conclusion, the establishment of the Ukrainian autocephalous Church can be perceived as an official engagement of the Orthodox Christian god in global politics, where all involved actors try to use religious institutions and affiliated individuals for their own political and ideological interests while local churches try to grab their own benefits. Other autocephalous churches, especially in Serbia and Georgia, now find themselves at a crossroads that may lead to some extremely interesting political developments in the future. If the Georgian Orthodox Church backs Bartholomew’s initiative, we may witness the appearance of another partially recognized Church, the Abkhazian, which will result in the further deterioration of Georgian-Russian relations. At the same time, the Ukrainian autocephalous Church may be not the answer that the majority of Ukrainians hoped for, as it is uncertain how it will help the country to finally escape its corrupt circle or build the modern prosperous and secular state that they seek.
Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia signed military agreement that will strengthen cooperation between miitary institutions of these countries and, so far, ensure more safety in the South Caucasus region.
Georgia held presidential elections and, for the first time in the country’s political history, the state will hold the second tour. This may be easily considered as a huge blow for the ruling political force, Georgia Dream. Local political opposition united around Grigol Vashadze, presidential candidate of United National Movement. Some foreign and local experts/observers may think that fierce political rivalry between position and opposition is a sign of positive democratic changes; furthermore, that Vashadze’s victory will have positive effect. Contrary to this perception, Vashadze’s success won’t lead country to better future but rather to unfortunate past.
On October 28, 2018 Salome Zurabishvili, an independent presidential candidate supported by the ruling party Georgian Dream and its leader Georgian typhoon Bidzina Ivanishvili failed to win in the first tour of the presidential elections in Georgia. Zurabishvili managed to surpass her opponent from United National Movement, Grigol Vashadze only by small margin. In the wake of this tremendous success of the opposition, various experts analyze possible outcomes of Vashadze’s presidency. Previously, Vashadze argued that he will pardon former Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili and his fellow teammates. Georgian political observer, Archil Sikharulidze gives a short comment on possible return of Saakashvili and the reasons behind opposition’s victory.
You can read more in Russian here.
On October 29, 2018 Smirnov’s Museum in Tbilisi held event conducted by Yevgeny Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Center dedicated to birthday of the prominent Russian politician and scholar. During the happening, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Systemic Political Research, Archil Sikharulidze gave short presentation on topic – Yevgeny Primakov: Russian Politician or Georgia’s Soft Power?
Additional information is available in Russian here.
On 28th of October 2018 Georgia will hold the last direct presidential elections. Currently ongoing pre-election campaign once more proves that the most effective and widely-used political narrative deals with the so-called pro-Russian forces working on the Kremling to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This political mechanism of mutual libeling, discrediting and stigmatization is a part of securitisation process of Russia in Georgia. The article examines basic principles of securitisaion theory and its appliance to Georgian political culture.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.