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Georgia between effective or democratic government

By Tedo Japaridze
Tuesday, May 19
“Each generation has to stand up for democracy. It can't take anything for granted and may have to fight fundamental battles anew”- Margaret Thatcher

Sometimes political debate stands in the way of efficiency but, although tiring, democracy is better than the alternative. The resolve to use power efficiently works for Georgia, but democracy is not expendable. We need to be resolute and determined as tough times lie ahead; this is possible with relying on a more solid democratic foundation, and the rule of law.

It’s evident that there will be a global recession, which Georgia cannot avoid. But the country is also heading towards 2020 parliamentary elections in October. Right now, we cannot afford to divide the country amongst winners and losers, if we ever could afford it. We need a more diffused sense of power.

International observers hailed our 2012 parliamentary elections as “the first peaceful transfer of power,” fully aware that these took place in a toxic environment in which the opposition prevailed despite the heavy-handed repression of the Saakashvilli regime. What made this electoral encounter different was the fact that the incumbent lost and, facing heavy international pressure, was forced to concede. That was a democratic triumph with a lasting legacy. We no longer fear to speak and express our critical opinion.

Days before that transfer of power in 2012 (which was not that peaceful as some Western observers believe), I attended a meeting with the soon-to-be Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, and U.S Senators James Risch and Jeanne Shaheen. On the eve of those elections our American and European colleagues were still too impressed by Georgia’s reformist zeal following the Rose Revolution to risk support for the opposition. The objective of that meeting was to convince our distinguished guests to make a leap of faith and accept that Georgia was ready to be more representative, even at the danger of being less ‘efficient.’ "So, how are you going to rule Georgia, Mr. Ivanishvili?” The question emerged, to which the answer was “I am not going to rule Georgia - I am going to govern an institutionalised democracy with a full-scale engagement of the civil society.”

The Senators were taken aback. This response did not fit their pre-conceived notion of the man painted in the West as ‘a Russian oligarch’ ready to use his money to buy political influence. Unexpectedly, the Senators found a person committed to make genuine change.

The expectation of real change made me join the Georgian Dream in December 2011. Many were met, others less so. But I remember with a sense of pride how the awe-inspiring fear the Saakashvili regime stirred after years of unchecked power evaporated into nothingness within a day. We can still speak without fear and we must use this power of freedom.

This year Georgia faces elections that many pollsters and pundits agree the Georgian Dream (GD) could lose. That is a kind of healthy insecurity for every democracy. But the omens are not good. The government and the opposition are going back and forth on their promise to reform the electoral code and each looks determined to win at all costs. We cannot fail to affirm confidence in our democracy nor should that depend on western intervention. Our Western friends and allies may help, assist, but this is our democracy, our own project that we must build with care and diligence, accepting mediation or arbitration, but not relying on it systemically.

Democracy is a heavy burden, which our authorities and the opposition should take upon their shoulders and embark on that never-ending journey of perfection though excruciating and frequently disorderly processes. As Winston Churchill sarcastically admitted in 1947, “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The citizens of Georgia must never again be forced to choose between ‘effective’ and ‘representative’ democracy. Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime was ‘effective’ in dealing with corruption, even as he crushed individual freedoms and maintained a heavy-handed grip over the media. The Georgian Dream was hailed for bolstering individual liberties, making torture and institutionalized blackmail unacceptable while, during Prime-Minister Giorgio Kvirikashvili’s term, the country bolstered its effectiveness brand as well as its democratic aura, acknowledged by foreign counterparts and experts.

We made progress and should not look back. However, right now, the Georgian electorate does not have attractive choices.

Due to its semi-authoritarian roots, Saakashvili’s UNM and its latest ‘European Democrats’ reincarnation does not have the moral authority to call out the failures of the GD Government. Georgia is trapped in a ‘Catch 22’ situation: the government does not regard the opposition as the future government and the opposition is not acting as a future government. We must expect better and more of each other.

Would kings still walk among us naked while we pretend they are dressed in their finest garments? It is my hope that the emerging Lelo movement led by Mamuka Khazaradze can be a third force that transcends the sterile polarization of our political system offering a substantial reformist choice in the forthcoming elections.

As far as I am concerned, change always begins at home. We can’t for yet another electoral cycle reuse and recycle old slogans. The dream is that Georgia, while retaining its long-term commitment to European and Euro-Atlantic integration, tries to learn from the Swiss experience. Like Switzerland, Georgia is a country with a strategic location but without lucrative resources – oil, gas, gold, diamonds, and rare earths.

Geopolitical giants surround us. But we are also a revolving door, a gateway between the Middle East, Central Europe, Central Asia, and the CIS. Like the Swiss, we need citizen-soldiers to defend our sovereignty, but we also need to create bonds of instrumental interdependence with our neighbors. To get there, we need to remain committed to our western trajectory and turn our fateful geography into an opportunity. We cannot achieve that without accommodation to a new reality.

In the 1990s, it was about oil. US leadership sponsored Georgia’s engagement in the energy highway that placed Georgia on the map. In the 2000s the EU invested in Georgia’s infrastructure and we are now a regional renewable energy hub, not least due to Turkish foreign direct investment. We are beginning to build on this brand. Georgia and Switzerland are the only countries in the world boasting free trade agreements with China and the EU, whilst working on a similar deal with India.

The Anaklia Deep-Sea project is one more example of how our location and good governance can turn our difficult neighborhood into opportunity, and especially for the post-Covid19 period, when the geopolitical and geo-economic game in our region will be reshuffled and Georgia will be once again seeking to imbue its location with meaning and play a role. The new corridors, hubs, entrees, and reliable seaports are projects that take years and to play role ‘software’ will not suffice. We need hardware, be it pipelines, railways, or ports.

For where we are and what we are, we must remain the good news in a region that could use good news. Covid-19 was no exception to this rule and we have much to be pleased about. But if we are to protect all that we have collectively achieved for over a generation, we must also learn to project an image of social cohesion and political resilience and trust democracy, like Switzerland. And that requires a democracy that does not choose between effectiveness and representation. We need both.

Tedo Japaridze is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, a former Chairman of Committee on Foreign Relations in Georgian Parliament, a former national Security Adviser.