Tag Archives: domestic affairs

Georgia’s June crisis

Tensions remain high in Tbilisi after Russian lawmaker Sergey Gavrilov occupied the chair of the speaker of the Georgian parliament last month.

On July 20th, it will be almost one month since Georgia experienced one of the deepest and longest open political crises over the decade. Insulted by Russian deputy Sergey Gavrilov’s behavior during the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy when he occupied the chairman’s seat in the parliament of Georgia, some part of local society, in cooperation with political opposition, took to the streets to call for the government to bear responsibility, protest against occupation and remind the western partners that 20 per cent of the country is still under the control of the Kremlin. The initially peaceful protest turned violent and ended with massive clashes between protesters and riot police. Hundreds were injured, including security officers, while some lost their eyesight. As a result, the government was forced to fire the chairman of the parliament, introduce a proportional electoral system and free everyone detained during the unrest. At the same time, a small group of protesters are still demanding the resignation of the head of the ministry of internal affairs, Giorgi Gakharia. On July 7th, Georgian society experienced further frustration after Rustavi 2 TV journalist Giorgi Gabunia, on his show P.S., verbally insulted the President of Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.

This initially provoked universal public outrage, which raised fears that the Kremlin could have initiated additional economic sanctions. Fortunately, Georgia and Russia managed to avoid further escalation of interstate relations. This incident is important for two reasons. Firstly, Rustavi 2 is one of Georgia’s leading TV channels that is capable of shaping and forming public attitudes. Secondly, this channel represents itself as a highly pro-western (and thus, anti-Russian) media agency that strongly supports the parliamentary opposition and June protests. So far, Gabunia’s absolutely provocative and non-journalistic behavior stigmatises the so-called pro-western movement and strengthens the attitudes of Georgia’s larger civil society that parliamentary opposition and the protesters are politically irresponsible and untrustworthy. Furthermore, it may create the false perception that irresponsible journalism is acceptable for the west and fits into western journalistic standards.

We may easily argue that the most critical stage of the protest has passed and the ruling party managed to avoid a further escalation of the situation for now. The political protest that is present on a regular basis in the city center is slowly fading and will probably be in vain. Putting aside the emotional part of the issue, this incident reflected Georgia’s deepening political and economic crisis; furthermore, a lack of alternatives and, most importantly, unreadiness of the youth to bear respective responsibility for its actions. And it seems that this irresponsibility became widespread, which affected Georgian media too.

The “full picture”

If you go through various local and international publications, you may come to conclusion that the Georgian youth were peacefully protesting against Gavrilov’s visit and the long-lasting occupation of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions by the Russian Federation. But factually, these people were peacefully protesting only for a while, and the reasons were much more complex; stagnation of political will and creativity among them. The visit of the Russian Duma deputy was just a trigger that initiated processes on the ground. Georgia is stuck between the past (the parliamentary opposition) and the present (ruling party) and is probably incapable of leading the state into a better future. Debris of the post-revolutionary government, the United National Movement and European Georgia, are lost in the past with an absolutely outdated political agenda, while the ruling party is seemingly unwilling to handle the significant issues that trouble Georgian society, including the status of the judiciary. Additionally, none of these political forces have a clear vision of how to deal with the economic crisis, unemployment and other socio-economic challenges. The status-quo pushes general Georgian society, especially the youth, to look for alternatives that are simply missing at the table. The non-existence of alternatives totally depreciates elections and leads to nihilism.

Provoked by the visit of representative of the “occupant state” and actually driven by despair, some part of Georgian society, including youth, went to the streets to unleash accumulated anger and dissatisfaction. This absolutely fair movement was acceptable for larger Georgian society until political opposition and their devoted activists decided to raise the stakes; the direct call from one of the leaders of the parliamentary opposition, Nika Melia, to “peacefully” relocate the protest into the building of the main legislative body, turned into an attempt to forcefully seize this state institution, the “heart” of Georgian statehood. Police officers and representatives of other security forces were calling on protesters to stop and attempted to prevent them from taking the building for approximately two hours. By the end of the day, Minister of Internal Affairs, Giorgi Gakharia, ordered the dispersal of the already non-peaceful and anti-constitutional protest. Unfortunately, this process was accompanied by the abuse of power and misbehavior by some members of the security forces that led to hundreds of people receiving various injuries, including the loss of eyesight. Georgian society got a new scare.

Shared irresponsibility

It is obvious that the government is usually guilty of both success and failure. The ruling Georgian Dream party made dramatic mistakes, including agreeing to hold the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy in the Georgian parliament and its failure to be responsive to the protesters demands and anxieties. Undoubtedly, the government failed to protect those peaceful and unarmed individuals who were attending the protest. At the same time, it has already suffered serious consequences and will feel significant impact during the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2020. But what about the actors who played a significant role in escalating and provoking unrest? Should the political opposition and the protesters also bear some responsibility for the events? We may definitely argue that Georgia cannot transform into a real democratic state unless we introduce the concept of shared responsibility, meaning the government is not always the only actor to blame—every engaged actor must bear its share of responsibility for its own actions and outcomes of these activities. And here we are experiencing serious problems.

Narratives expressed by members of the parliamentary opposition and the protesters simply avoid this issue; they are trying to turn a blind eye to it as if there were no direct attacks on security officers, destruction of state property, attempts to forcefully seize parliament building and general anti-constitutional behavior. John F. Kennedy once said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. The best thing that the protesters and especially the youth could have done for the country was to remain peaceful, but they failed. Today, the best thing they can still do is to share responsibility for June 20th with the government and parliamentary opposition. Unfortunately, neither the opposition nor the youth is ready to do so. This unreadiness for responsibility raises serious questions among larger Georgian society about whether the youth is actually prepared and can be trusted to lead the country.

By and large, Georgia suffers from a political and economic crisis that neither the ruling party nor the parliamentary opposition are probably capable of handling. There is dramatic need for new approaches and creativity through the establishment of alternative political forces and schools of thought. Unfortunately, Georgian society is simply not ready to satisfy this demand and some parts of the society, especially the youth, unleash their anger with political protests. The local parliamentary opposition and protesters are trying to represent the June 20th events as a peaceful protest that was brutally dispersed by the government. This narrative has little to do with the actual facts. Of course, the ruling party made a few significant mistakes, but both the political opposition and protesters played a significant role in escalating and provoking unrest. Thus, all sides should bear some part of the responsibility. Georgian society must realize that the responsibility for the country must be shared among all engaged actors and not only the government. Finally, this recklessness also affected the Georgian media environment. Giorgi Gabunia’s “demarché” against Vladimir Putin was, by all means, extremely damaging non-sense that sent the wrong message regarding Georgian values and journalistic standards and stigmatised political opposition and the protesters as politically irresponsible and untrustworthy actors.

The article was initially published by New Eastern Europe. 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.

God Engaged: Orthodox Christianity in the “Big Game”

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.

Useless Independence?

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.

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’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.

Empathy Lessons: Why Donald Trump’s Presidency is Good for U.S.-Russia Relations

Trump’s presidency might teach Americans a good lesson: They will understand what Russia felt during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s. Trump for the U.S. is an American version of Yeltsin, who put Washington in an awkward position before the world.

Russia’s interference in the 2016 American elections “will have consequences” and Washington will undertake new measures “in response to Russian cyberattacks,” said The White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders during the Feb. 20 press briefing. U.S. President Donald Trump “has been tougher on Russia” than his predecessor Barack Obama, she added. Her statement came after Special Council Robert Mueller accused 13 Russians of meddling in the U.S. presidential elections within the U.S. Justice Department’s ongoing Russia probe.

“It’s very clear that Russia meddled in the election.  It’s also very clear that it didn’t have an impact on the election.  And it’s also very clear that the Trump campaign didn’t collude with the Russians in any way for this process to take place,” highlighted Sanders.

Indeed, unlike Obama, Trump conducted a tougher policy toward Russia despite his intentions to normalize the relations with Moscow. Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladinmir Putin succeeded in establishing personal chemistry during the G20 summit last summer, but it didn’t help.

“He [Trump] helped push through $700 billion to rebuild our military <…> He has helped export energy to Eastern Europe <…> He has put and upheld sanctions that the Obama administration put in place. He has upheld those. He has closed three diplomatic properties that were Russia’s, here in the United States. He has taken a number of actions against Russia and put pressure on them,” said Sanders.

Ironically, Russia’s political elites were happy with Trump’s victory at the presidential race, because they believed that the billionaire would be more pragmatic with Russia that his counterpart from the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton. Trump repeatedly called for a dialogue with the Kremlin and expressed a lot of kudos to President Putin during the presidential campaign and after it, when he moved to the White House.

No wonder, his victory was met with a big surprise and indignation by the American establishment. Trump is still facing the accusations of colluding with the Kremlin, with both democrats and republicans pointing fingers at Russian hackers, who are to be blame for having hacked the Democratic National Committee’s servers.

Although the question of the “hidden Russian hand” is far from being resolved, the fact that Trump, a non-systemic politician, won presidency may teach Americans a very important lesson.

Trump’s America vs. Yeltsin’s Russia

In 2003 well-known American diplomat Strobe Talbott, a former deputy State Secretary (1994-2001), released a book titled The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy. In this work, he remembers the times of the warm relations between former U.S. President and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin. However, he pays little attention to the Russian perception of the Clinton-Yeltsin friendship.

While American political establishment saw Yeltsin and his team as a positive force, which tried to build democracy in Russia, the Russian political elites and electorate were skeptical about him. They keep viewing him as a failure and don’t approve his pro-Western reforms. 56 percent of Russians believe that the Yeltsin era brought to Russia more problems, but in December 2000, 75 percent of respondents negatively assessed his presidency, according to a 2016 Levada center poll. Only 11 percent of Russians welcome the 1990s liberal reforms in Russia, with 58 percent denouncing them.

Today journalists also write about the Putin-Trump friendship, and the rankings of the American president are also low in the U.S. As a result of the first year of his tenure, his popularity is decreasing, according to recent polls. He has the lowest approval rankings in the U.S. modern history: Two-thirds of Americans believe that Trump’s presidency significantly divided the country, according to AP’s polls. He is supported by 35-37% of the U.S. population, according to the Gallup and CNN researches.

The similarities between the Trump era and the Yeltsin era go far beyond this. More broadly, today the positions of Moscow and Washington are changed: Previously, Russian political elites talked a lot about the U.S. interference in Russia’s domestic affairs, today the American establishment is obsessively concerned with the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the U.S. internal politics. In this situation, one should take into account several factors.

First, every country tries to influence the politics in other states, which are under the realm of its national interest. In this regard, neither Russia nor America can be the exception. Take the 1823 Monroe Doctrine: The U.S. announced both Americas as the continents under its influence. Washington referred to this document to justify its interference in the domestic affairs of those Latin American countries, which conducted unfriendly policy toward the U.S. It was a matter of defending U.S. national interests. And it is normal for Washington’s current policy.

Second, the alleged attempts of the Russian hackers to get into the American servers are not new: there are suspicions that American and Chinese IT specialists also do the hacking.  Even if Russians indeed hacked the U.S. electoral system, this interference could hardly have any impact on the results of the elections.

And this factor does matter, because the key difference between Yeltsin’s Russia and Trump’s America is clear: The Kremlin’s meddling in the U.S. internal politics is not yet proven, while Washington’s interference in Russia’s 1996 presidential election is a matter of fact.

After the failure to implement effective economic reforms and the military defeat in the first Chechen war, Yeltsin approval rankings plummeted below 10% in February 1995. He was about to fail the presidential elections, while the communists were taking the lead: their party won 22 percent of votes as a result of the Dec. 17 parliamentary election in 1995, with the Yeltsin-led party having garnered no more than 10 percent. Thanks to Russian business and American spin-doctors, Yeltsin won the presidency for the second time, as Times wrote.

Bitter pill

Yeltsin’s presidency was not easy for Russia. Everybody ridiculed the country at that time. Today everyone mocks the United States because of Trump: his presidency is a big embarrassment for America. And this feeling is aggravated, because Moscow laughs at Washington and its ongoing Russia probe. The fact that Moscow overtly expressed its pleasure over Trump’s election fuels the anger within the American establishment, which develops fertile soil for new McCarthyism or another Witch Hunt: The American political elites are feeling their vulnerability and the lack of confidence [in the 1950s the U.S. went through the era of spying mania, with communists or those who allegedly had links with them having been prosecuted — Rethinking Russia].

Yet even though Trump is a nightmare for a liberal America, his presidency could be a bitter, yet healing pill, that allows Washington to put itself in Russia’s shoes in order to understand it and the origins of anti-Americanism in the country. Who knows, but in the long-term this will be good for U.S.-Russia relations. It remains to be seen.

The article was initially published by analytical outlet ReThinkingRussia. It is available here.

The Georgian crusade against Kiev: Can Saakashvili bring together the Ukrainian opposition into a new Maidan?*

The campaign of Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia (two consecutive terms from January 2004 to November 2013) and the ex-governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region (2015-2016), against Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko reached its apex and now it is close to the end.

On Dec. 17, Saakashvili’s supporters made an attempt to seize the building of the October palace in Kiev: the campaigners broke the entrance doors, got through the National Guard into the building, but the police stopped them with fire-extinguishers. As a result of the failed seizure more than 30 police officers and protesters got injured. The Ukrainian authorities imposed criminal charges against those who tried to seize the palace, while Saakashvili described this incident as the orchestrated provocation.

The relations between Saakashvili and the Ukrainian president sharply declined in July 2017, when he was forcefully resigned from the position of the governor of the Odessa region. On Sept. 10, the former Georgian president illegally crossed the borders of Ukraine through Poland to bring together the Ukrainian opposition against President Petro Poroshenko. This is how the Georgian-Ukrainian saga has been developing. After Saakashvili’s direct calls for overthrowing the current regime in Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities have no choice, but keep him at bay from the domestic policymaking.

Amidst this background increasing number of experts are concerned with the repetition of the events of 2014 — a new revolution or the Saakashvili-initiated Maidan. However, many forget about the fact that numerous foreign politicians, including the Georgian ones, have been involved into Ukraine’s internal policymaking for years.

The Georgian trace in Kiev: A new old story

The very fact that Saakashvili has been participating in the Ukrainian political life since 2003 (and he makes no bones about it) is remarkable in its nature. It was the time when Georgian professional revolutionaries from the organization “Kmara” (in Georgian it means enough) trained their Ukrainian counterparts from the group “It is Time!” how to conduct protests and oust undesirable governments.

“Kmara” was very active during the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, which toppled the government of President Eduard Shevarnadze. After these events a new government under Saakashvili actively supported political changes in Kiev both on grassroots and governmental levels.

It is not secret that the representatives of the organization “It is Time” used the same methods, which they learned from their Georgian colleagues. Moreover, Saakashvili personally knew ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who got power as a result of the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, and was an ardent supporter of the latter’s government.

One could also remember the scandal between Tbilisi and Kiev in 2010, when almost 2,000 people were sent to monitor the presidential election in Ukraine as unofficial observers. Yet Ukraine’s central electoral commission denied them in registration: Viktor Yunukovich’s Party of Regions accused then-Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko of using the Georgian observers to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. At the same time, the Georgian opposition accused Saakashvili’s government of attempting to interfere in the election of the friendly country, which could result in the crisis in the Georgian-Ukrainian relations.

The second wave of the Georgian interference in the domestic affairs of Ukraine started in 2014, with the Euromaidan movement: in the beginning of the protests the Saakashvili coalition, which lost both the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013, was actively engaged in the internal policy of Ukraine. The former Georgian president regularly took the floor before the protesters, with his calls for overthrowing the Yanukovich regime.

After the Euromaidan protests, his colleagues were appointed to the key positions in the post-revolutionary government of Ukraine. Saakashvili himself was promoted to the position of the governor of the Odessa region. But he failed to implement his reforms and apply the Georgian experience in Ukraine, because he could not come up with a compromise with the Ukrainian government.

Because Georgia required the extradition of Saakashvili, a political refugee, who faced criminal charges in his home country, the diplomatic ties between Tbilisi and Kiev were in decline.

Moreover, the deterioration in the Georgian-Ukrainian relations could be also explained with Kiev’s rhetoric:  Ukrainian politicians accused the Georgian Dream, a new ruling party, and its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili of having close ties with Kremlin.

Will Saakashvili bring together the opposition for a new Maidan?

Despite Saakashvili’s perseverance, he and his supporters are hardly likely to orchestrate a new revolution.  There is no reason to expect another Maidan so far.

First, the revolutionary potential of the Ukrainian society is exhausted. One should remember that between the first revolution in 2004 and the second one in 2014 there were 10 peaceful years. So, the Ukrainians had enough time to weigh up all the pros and cons of the Orange revolution and prepare to a new one in 2014, which took place after ex-President Yanukovich didn’t sign the Association Agreement with the EU. Today the Ukrainian population is still recovering from the 2014 events and not ready to take to streets again. Moreover, the society cannot fight on two fronts — with its own authorities, on the one hand, and with Donbas, on the other hand. Now the Ukrainians are interested in maintaining the country’s territorial integrity, which could be easily undermined by another upheaval.

Second, the political diversity in Ukraine could prevent a new revolution: Today people interpret the domestic political events and the reasons of the revolutionary movement in different ways. Today there is no unifying idea, which could bring people together. During the Euromaidan people were inspired by the idea of the common European path, today there is no such trend. The rhetoric of Saakashvili, who seeks to organize another coup d’état, is too radical for most Ukrainians, who are fed up with these calls for overthrowing Ukraine’s current government. After all, any upheaval goes beyond the well-established democratic frames and might be met with criticism in the West.

The fight with corruption could not be an option as well: this campaign can’t bring people together and reinvigorate the revolutionary movement. Thus, Saakashvili’s unilateral attempts, supported by Yulia Timoshenko, produce the impression that we are witnessing nothing but another political rivalry within the country.

Finally, the possibility of a new revolution is very dim, because the Ukrainian government learned how to deal with emerging protests, became more sustainable and has a sort of immunity against a new upheaval. And the experience of the Euromaidan is helpful in this regard. Poroshenko takes into account the experience of his predecessor and is reforming the country’s law enforcement forces to be able to withstand any social unrest in future.

Foreign factors

Foreign factors are also not in favor of the Saakashvili-led Maidan in Ukraine. Yes, the former Georgian president enjoys the support of some representatives from the Western countries, for example, in the U.S.  Yet today he does get a free ride from his Western patrons. Yes, he could get some financial support and guarantees to launch the political activity in Ukraine, but it is the West that determines the limits of the allowable, and Saakashvili should know this.

That’s why his opportunities today are very limited.  Both Ukraine and the West are fed up with the perennial instability and internal conflicts.  All this means that the Saakashvili-led revolution is hardly likely to take place. The question of his political activity will be resolved depending on the level of his radicalism.

Yet if he is removed from the political rivalry, this will mark the end of the Georgian political influence on the Ukrainian policymaking. It will also raise the question about the future of the Georgian troops in eastern Ukraine, which are loyal to the ideals of the Saakashvili government.

Yes, Saakashvili contributed a lot to the post-Soviet space, but many stakeholders are tired with him and want his show to come to an end.

 

*In the Russian version, the author used the term “Mikhomaidan” which consists of two words — the first name of former Georgian President “Mikheil” and “Maidan”. This neologism means the capability of Saakashvili to organize a new revolution in Ukraine. The Russian headlines reads: “The Georgian crusade against Kiev: Is “Mikhomaidan” possible?

The original article was published by an international analytical center ReThinkingRussia. It is available here.

Out with the Russian Framework: the Untold Story of the Georgian March

On July 13, members of various conservatist, nationalist and ultra-nationalist groups, alongside numerous regular citizens, marched in Tbilisi with pretty unpopular demands that irritated Georgia’s so called liberal elite. In response to the “Georgian March,” on July 23, a counter-strike was held by the Movement for Liberty – European Georgia that united representatives of various political powers and social movements protesting against what they believed to be an expression of fascist and xenophobic attitudes. The majority of international experts and actors condemned the Georgian March as a negative that could affect the country’s image and push away potential investors.

And while we may generally agree with the lion’s share of said allegations, there are very important issues that have yet to be openly discussed.

The demands

Beyond populist moves and statements, we can easily outline the three main demands the participants of the Georgian March made: 1) tighten migration laws; 2) deal with harmful practices in clubs/bars managed by migrants; and 3) restrict the activities of foreign-funded NGOs.

Migration is probably one of the most challenging issues that both developed and developing states face. Regardless of whether the targeted migrants represent a small group consisting the local population, or foreigners, what matters is that their number is obviously increasing. Foreign migrants mainly come from Asia or developing countries and work to occupy appreciable and “sensitive” areas – small and medium-sized businesses and the agricultural sector. In the wake of poor social and economic conditions, some citizens are feeling increasingly abandoned and “unprotected” by the government in the face of comparatively financially well-backed migrants. There is nothing more dangerous than this process, as it will undoubtedly lead to a xenophobic backlash, and it is unlikely that focusing on the significant number of Georgians illegally living abroad will somehow solve the problem.

The second Georgian March demand deals with increased facts of prostitution and other dubious activities in various places of entertainment. It is a paradox that while so-called liberal elites advocate rule of law, they rarely recognize that illegal prostitution exists in Georgia and is a common practice in many Turkish and Iranian clubs. Furthermore, there have been cases of child prostitution. This is not the first time the topic has been raised. A few years ago, there were calls to check a number of buildings in the settlement of Gonio, near the border with Turkey, where allegedly illegal prostitution was taking place. The government hushed up the affair. Another challenge is the harmful practice of price exploitation used at the same entertainment venues with the aim of gaining maximum profit from tourists visiting Tbilisi. Such cases often end in threats and fights that can cause significant harm to Georgia’s tourism sector reputation. And while we do not need to focus on the ethnic or national belonging of the owners of said venues, we should recognize the problem and take respective steps before it is too late.

Finally, the march organizers demanded the restriction of activities of foreign-funded NGOs. Georgia’s non-governmental sector has played a crucial role in building democratic institutions and practices. We need to keep this in mind. But, at the same time, we should realize that the third sector has transformed over the years. Nowadays, some current non-governmental movements are so actively involved in the country’s everyday life and, in particular, political processes, that it is sometimes too complicated to draw a clear line between political party, private sector and civil society. The best example is the ongoing constitutional reform where it seems that every single actor, including NGOs and INGOs, is lobbying specific political and business agendas. The issue is even more addled if we recognize the well-established so-called ‘revolving door’ principle in the country (the movement of individuals between positions in the private and the public sectors). So far, it is logical that more and more questions are being raised about the total and absolute dependence of these movements on foreign aid. This issue is nothing new in academic debates abroad, but in Georgia it is still a taboo.

So far, the issues raised by participants of the march are pretty relevant and we need to start debates and discussions even if we do not share the general pathos of the movement. Further, it is crucial to avoid stepping on the same rake twice by avoiding clichés.

What We Shouldn’t Do

There are two important things that we should stop doing if we aspire to building a unified democratic society. First of all, we need to finally abandon the so-called ‘Russian framework’. Secondly, we must stop fragmenting Georgian society into ‘desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ elements.

The ‘Russian framework’

The Russian way has been a popular political method in Georgia for years. Mikhail Saakashvili and his United National Movement started using it to consolidate society around a ruling government, slandering different “unnecessary” groups and blaming hidden forces for various conspiracy theories. Russia may or may not be involved, but it is evident that blaming the so-called fifth column, Moscow’s intelligence services and other covert organizations, for every unpleasant meeting or riot is guaranteed by default. Unfortunately, the Georgian March was automatically analyzed in the given theoretical framework. By doing so, the government and opponents easily managed to turn a blind eye to the topics raised and, generally, flaws within the existing political order. We may boldly assume that the counter march led by the Movement for Liberty – European Georgia on July 23 with the slogan “No to Russian Fascism” is a continuation of this process. Additionally, it is the reflection of the total inability of Georgian actors to think beyond the ‘Russian framework’ and analyze events based on the current local political, social and economic conditions rather than external factors. Briefly, there is nothing that Georgia’s so called liberal elites can offer except the old “corny” story about Moscow’s menace. We should learn from Russia rather than further contributing to our fears.

‘Desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ elements

There is widely-shared assumption among Georgian liberals that they are more tolerant than those who belong to conservatist or other movements. But, in fact, this is a more-or-less false statement. Georgian society in general is highly aggressive, non-tolerant toward approaches that to some extent significantly differ from the mainstream and has a tendency of continuous internal destructive confrontation. Furthermore, Georgian society fragments itself into ‘desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ elements. Local liberal elites are no exception as they automatically create humiliating labels for those people or groups of people who do not share their main postulates regarding NATO and EU integration, Russian politics, immigration laws, land regulations, etc. This is a self-protection mechanism which stimulates a counter-response. As a result, terms such as ‘fascist,’ ‘Nazi,’ ‘traitor’ and other high-flying words are used on a regular basis by all involved parties.

Something similar happened with the Georgian March. Opposed to some arguments, the first unfriendly catchword was thrown by the members of so-called liberal elites and marchers were given a highly hostile reception before, during and after the event. Moreover, whether participants belonged to any particular group or were just citizens dissatisfied with the current state policy, was neither here nor there as they were all by default proclaimed enemies of the State. This was a huge mistake. We need to keep in mind that all that glitters is not gold- not everyone participating in the event belonged to ultra-radical groups with financial assistance from the Kremlin; and, consequently, do not represent ‘non-desirable’ state elements.

What Next?

Georgia’s political and other elites must stop using the ‘Russian framework’ to turn a blind eye to the challenges that such marches raise; they should work hard to start open debates to show their readiness for dialogue and awareness of the existing political, social and economic challenges. Moreover, there should be no further attempts to split society into ‘desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ groups and elements. The fact that some issues may be or are brought up by questionable groups in a questionable manner does not undermine their importance. Issues expressed by the Georgian March have some logic as well as empirics behind them and we need to talk about them. If not, the existing dissatisfaction will undoubtedly increase and such marches will be seen on a growing basis.

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

Veni Vidi Vici!

The newly elected parliament of Georgia approved the cabinet of ministries headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili On October 25. The Georgian tycoon kept his word given to the citizens of Georgia to celebrate victory over the already former ruling party UNM (United National Movement) in the parliamentary elections held on October 2 and become Prime-Minister of the state.

Earlier, neither political position, nor opposition seriously considered his statements, noting that Ivanishvili hadn’t had experience of being a politician. As a result, many had expected that he could have shared the fate of another Georgian tycoon– Badri Patarkatsishvili, who once challenged the UNM. Finally, Patarkatsishvili was forced to flee from the country and later found dead at home under odd circumstances. But the realm proved opposite.

“Veni Vidi Vici” (or “I came, I saw, I conquered”) is a Latin sentence reportedly written by Julius Caesar in 47 BC as a comment on his short war with Pharnaces II of Pontus in the city of Zela (currently known as Zile, in Turkey). Veni, Vidi, and Vici are first person perfect forms of the three Latin verbs Venire, Videre, and Vincere.

‘Veni’ (‘he came’)

Ivanishvili appeared in the right place at the right time. The political opposition of Georgia was dismantled and fragmented; the UNM had no doubts that it would have won the parliamentary elections; as a result, Georgian civil society as well as international organizations and strategic partners were afraid that the ruling party could repeat the path passed by Vladimir Putin in the past; particularly, the UNM could win the parliamentary elections, form a one-party parliament and Mikhail Saakashvili would have occupied the post of Prime-Minister of Georgia, thus keeping reins of power over the country after his second-presidential term would have passed.

Though challenging the government at the right time, Ivanishvili instantly became a leader who had enough power to unite the oppositional forces around him and restore the trust of the voters towards a discredited Georgian opposition; on the other hand, he appeared as a long-expected appropriate alternative for the existing government in the eyes of the West.

‘Vidi’ (‘he saw’)

The Georgian tycoon not only ‘came’ in the right place at the right time, but also he clearly analyzed and understood the distributions of the forces on the political battlefield of Georgia. He used past experience of his predecessor to avoid common mistakes.

One of the main flaws of his predecessors was the abandonment of the strategic partners of Georgia, such as the US and the EU. Broadly speaking, neither Levan Gachechiladze (former leader of Georgian opposition who lost presidential elections held in 2008), nor Badri Patarkatsishvili, had the political support of the West. The Western allies considered both politicians as inappropriate alternatives to the regime of Saakashvili and his political team.

Consequently, the first political step of Ivanishvili was to consolidate the pro-Western political parties and through them, assure the West that the new force must be allowed to govern the country; and that the new government will maintain a pro-Western orientation as well as the aspiration to join NATO.

On October 15, the newly appointed US ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, attending a civil Society Forum noted that, “we are confident that Georgia’s future is in good hands.” The gained ‘confidence’ of the US is a result of the right perception of distribution of forces on the political battlefield of Georgia, as well as the tremendous work done by Ivanishvili to prove that he is ‘axios’ (‘worthy’).

‘Vici’ (‘he conquered’)

As a result of his calculated actions, Ivanishvili became a leader of the joint Georgian opposition backed by the support of Georgia’s strategic Western allies. The victory over the UNM, which already exceeded all limits of trust and confidence, was inevitable.

The inevitability relied on two realms. The first one was the external and internal political realities. The victory of the UNM would have directly been considered as a duplication of the well-known and unappreciated political system of Russia. Both, the West, as well as Georgia’s civil society, desired to avoid such a deviation from the process of democratic development.

On the other hand, it was clear that the political misdeeds of the ruling party resulted in the loss of credibility and support of the voters; while Bidzina Ivanishvili, famous for his charity activities was ‘in the prime of his political life’. Consequently, the Georgian tycoon ‘conquered’ the reins of power despite harsh opposition from the ruling party and its leader Saakashvili.

Ivanishvili revealed the skills of the leader and politician through having a clear understanding of the political ‘game rules’ and the distribution of forces that led to the flash and absolute victory over the former ruling party in the parliamentary elections held on October 2.

Despite the fact that his team didn’t get a constitutional majority as the Georgian tycoon was aiming for on October 25, it’s definitely his ‘triumph’ on the political battlefield, which can be described as ‘Veni Vidi Vici!’ (‘He came, he saw, he conquered’). And Georgia’s civil society as well as the West should keep a close eye on him and his political team to be sure that the ‘triumph’ won’t lead the country in the wrong direction.

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