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Alasania: They will never be able to resolve the problems by ignoring them

By Mzia Kupunia
Friday, July 10
Georgia’s former UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania has recently established himself as a prominent opposition figure. He has removed his political team from the continual protest rallies and announced he is establishing his own party. The Messenger has interviewed Alasania to hear what he thinks opposition tactics should be and discover his future plans.

For 3 months already the opposition has been rallying outside Parliament demanding President Saakashvili’s resignation, a single demand which has not been met so far and seems likely not to be met at all. So what is the opposition’s strategy or action plan now?

First of all I would disagree that there is only one demand. The opposition has presented a six-point proposal to the Government, however the Government has never shown any interest in discussing it. Of course I want to make clear that the demand for Saakashvili’s resignation came from the public, as the clearest way they could articulate the depth of the problems of this country and the policies of the Government was to demand a change of Government, and the clearest way to doing this was to demand the President’s resignation. We, the opposition, excluded any means of removing the Government other than peaceful ones.

It is very proper for you to mention that only demanding the resignation and not proposing an alternative is not resonating well with public opinion. This is exactly why after two months of protests we reached the point where we wanted to focus more on political, issue-based discussions with the Government. This is what my political team and alliance declared. We are also preparing proposals on the electoral code and commission, changing the electoral environment and constitutional changes, and this is exactly what the opposition should be doing now – not only offering a change of Government, but an alternative vision for the country. As regards elections, I declare we are ready to take part in any early elections, Presidential, Parliamentary or local, if the electoral environment changes. Two months of protests have shown me that these sentiments towards the Government, the anger at the Government over its failed policies, failed war and economic failures will not go away, as was demonstrated on April 9 and on 26 of May. But at the same time, we, the opposition, and I as well, understand that only through street protests we cannot achieve change.

It is very important for us to show more political maturity, more political wisdom, and try to make people understand that we are offering not only change but alternatives, visions of how the problems of our country can be resolved. The only way to do this in practice is to offer an alternative, to try and engage the Government in more meaningful dialogue. Without dialogue with the Government at the negotiating table these changes will not be achievable through peaceful means and this is why we have to do everything we can within this polarized society to make people understand that we are trying to reach agreement with the Government. We have some fundamental differences but we have also some fundamental common ground, for example in foreign policy, how to deal with the consequences of the war, how to deal with Georgia’s place in the European security architecture. These are the things where we really have common ground with the Government.

How far have negotiations with the Government advanced during the month since you declared you were in favour of holding negotiations with the authorities?

Unfortunately things are not at the level we would like to see. There have been just three meetings, one with the Chair of Parliament and two with the President. However I never expected that only two meetings would change things meaningfully. We need to take a systematic approach to these negotiations at all possible levels. This is why our proposals for changing the electoral environment in this country consist of three main elements: the electoral code, media freedom and distancing the police and law enforcement agencies from the electoral process. All of these things can be achieved, I think, during the summer and the first month of autumn, and if political agreement emerges, I think this will give the opposition a good chance to be part of the political process and also give credibility to Government-run processes.

I think the political legacy of Saakashvili will be assessed in terms of how much he fosters democratic change in this country. He will never be able to give Georgia what he promised during his election campaign, there will be no NATO membership during his term, and it’s going to be hard to unite this country in his term, so the only legacy he can leave is democracy and a peaceful transfer of power to the next political force.

What is the maximum you really expect to achieve through protest rallies and negotiations?

We can achieve a change of the election environment which will ensure that the elections are fair and then early elections. I think if we can improve the electoral environment we can more seriously discuss the political calendar: which elections should come first - local, Parliamentary or Presidential.

Could you tell us some of the reasons why Saakashvili should resign?

I think there are a lot of things he can be criticised for. First of all, in my view, he did not take advantage of all international mechanisms and the possibility of direct talks with the Abkhaz and Ossetian sides to prevent the Russian provocation to escalate a major war. Secondly, even when this provocation occurred, the Georgian Army and defence system were not adequately prepared for this, although we spent a billion and a half from the budget on the defence system. Not a single element of the defence system was ready for this kind of provocation, although we were told that it was. The third is economic hardship. There is no strategy to drag the country out of its economic crisis. All of these things of course have culminated in the demand that he should resign.

But again, demanding Saakashvili’s resignation does not absolve us from realistically approaching the problems of this country. If he does not resign, that means we should still go forward with changing the country’s internal politics and creating the environment for holding free elections in. It should not be understood that if this demand is not met, we will just drop everything else we need to achieve. No, actually I think it was a mistake having only one demand to begin with, but now we are reaching a new phase when we are learning from our past experience. I hope the Government will also learn, and the first thing they have to learn is that they will never be able to resolve the problems by ignoring them. So they also have a reason to meaningfully engage in negotiations.

Can you say which of the steps the opposition has taken so far you believe were a mistake?

I would like to have seen better and more effective communication between the opposition and not only the citizens of the capital but also the regions. This communication should have been continual, and it should have consisted not only of criticism but of solutions. This is what we are going to do now and is one of the lessons learnt from past experience. I think we did a good job generally by holding the marches and demonstrations peacefully, and this also showed that Georgia, as a society, is fundamentally European. It also strengthens the notion that we have to be part of the European security architecture and a wider European community.

You have said that your team will no longer take part in the rallies, however the New Rights Party, which is part of the Alliance for Georgia, is still part of the “radical” opposition. Don’t these two things contradict each other?

First of all we are three political entities, which have come together in an alliance to achieve certain goals. But we have never lost our own political identities. In Georgia we have some technical differences within the political entities, one sees some actions as more effective or productive and others perhaps not. There was one single instance when we had a serious difference of opinion, the issue of blocking the railways, but this difference was demonstrated and we are not shy about talking about this. It is our strength that we can talk about these things openly. But we also have significant areas of agreement, and we announced this week that we are consequently working jointly on amendments to the election code and constitution. The alliance will continue to do what it was before and it has been suggested that we add more allies and more strategic partners to the Alliance. This regrouping is ongoing.

You have declared that you are establishing your own party. However in previous interviews you stated that there are already plenty of political parties in Georgia and therefore no need for one more. Why did you decide to create a new one now, and how different will it be from the other parties?

Yes, I said that there are a lot of political parties in Georgia, but I never excluded the possibility of forming a new one. I think a political organisation always seeks to peacefully come into power and participate in elections. I have talked to some political parties about this and it was not a surprise for them that I was setting up my own party. The party is an instrument which gives you the opportunity to keep in touch and communicate with society. This is one of the major reasons we are doing this. It was also a public demand: more and more people were coming to me and my associates saying that they wanted to be part of a political force led by us, so this was a third stimulus for putting our party together.

Who will be financing your party?

You know that the fundraising environment in this country is very hostile. We need to have a combination of sources of assistance available now. We are going to reach out to NGOs and international donor organisations to get as much institutional help as we can, and are already doing this. Training and all our resources have to be paid for by the party, like the Government is paying millions to PR firms and other organisations. We cannot afford to do this and will therefore seek, and are already seeking, institutional support. We are also seeking out business people who are sympathetic to our cause but afraid to legally associate with us, because the tax police is very focused on these issues and on repressing businesses. So we are thinking about how we can create mechanisms so these people can be secure and have a guarantee they will not be attacked if they support us. So this is what we are thinking about. Hopefully this will work.

Many analysts and ordinary citizens see you as a realistic candidate for the Presidency. Do you have this ambition?

In politics you have to have the understanding that elected office is an instrument for achieving the goals you have set for your country, the promises you have made to your people. Certainly this is something I am ready for, but it has to come in due time, after due process, and this is why my primary focus now is to indicate to my people more effectively what I am going to do differently to this Government. The second most important thing is to change the electoral environment so we can have fair elections. In the environment we have now there is no point in having elections.