The pre-GVote interview with Krzysztof Lisek, the European Parliamentary Permanent Rapporteur for Georgia and head of the observation mission for the presidential election: the Civic Platform MEP told Tomasz Kobylański how the Georgian campaign looked like, about the motives behind the possible departure of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili from his post, and Moscow ‘s reaction to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
Tomasz Kobylański: You have taken part in the observation mission of the European People’s Party in Georgia. What was the situation after the transfer of power to Bidzina Ivanishvili in October last year?
Krzysztof Lisek: Currently Georgia has engrossed in an acute political conflict between the coalition Georgian Dream (GD) headed by PM Ivanishvili and United National Movement (UNM) led by David Bakradze. A year of difficult cohabitation has become a new and undoubtedly difficult experience for Georgia. The UNM, after its unexpected defeat in the [parliamentary] elections and the peaceful transfer of power, is trying to play the role of a constructive – within reasonable limits – opposition. However, hundreds of arrests of the party activists and former government officials, including the former prime minister and Saakashvili’s close associate Ivane Merabishvili, who has been accused of corruption, don’t make it easier. We must also remember that this year President Saakashvili, after 10 years of rule, leave the presidential palace and probably will be replaced by the candidate from the GD. On the other hand, the ruling coalition will also be put on trial. This trial will be the announced Ivanishvili’s resignation from the post of prime minister, which will undoubtedly lead to disorder in the ruling camp.
Why does Ivanishvili intend to resign office?
This is one of the most enigmatic political decision I have ever heard. Twice I asked Ivanishvili about the reasons for his resignation and never received a convincing answer.
And what did he say to you?
He argued that he’s just fulfilling his promise, does not want to monopolize the Georgian politics and wants parliamentary democracy to develop freely – he has done his job and wants to go back to his business. In Georgia, they say that he does not want to be responsible for the weakening of the economy and society’s disillusionment. Yet it is not clear what he wants to do next: on the one hand, someone thinks that Ivanishvili wants to become Father of the Nation, and on the other hand – to run the country “from the back seat of his car”. We warn the Georgian politicians against such scenarios, which are dangerous for any democratic system.
How is this year’s presidential election campaign in Georgia? Have you received signals of any violations?
The campaign is surprisingly calm and generally looks fair. Sometimes there are some difficulties in organizing campaign rallies of the opposition. Recently, it also came to physical attacks on the UNM candidate David Bakradze. But it must be admitted that the police responded decisively and effectively each time.
The Georgian opposition reports the pressure on local media recently.
The question of the independence of Georgian media is under the constant supervision of the EU, EU member states, and the United States. In addition, election observers are paying close attention to this during their observation missions. Talking to journalists of the main Georgian media, I have not noticed any serious signals of possible pressure on the media, which are quite honestly informed about the progress of the campaign.
Giorgi Kandelaki, MP from the United National Movement, in our conversation said that some trends the Georgian media cause concern. As an example he cited the hostile takeover of the Georgian public television by supporters of Prime Minister Ivanishvili, who previously also proposed merging with the TV channel TV9, owned by the Prime Minister’s wife.
The European Union has made it clear to Prime Minister Ivanishvili that the media should remain independent, and I find the idea of creating a “family” television outrageous. Media pluralism, which in spite of all we have in Georgia, should be retained.
Probably, at the Eastern Partnership Summit in November in Vilnius, they will initiate the Association Agreement between the EU and Georgia. Is the election important in this context?
In Georgia during the last year’s parliamentary elections, there was something that had’t previously happened to this region – a democratic and fair elections, and a peaceful transfer of power. The presidential elections are to confirm that the Georgians understand the principles of Western democracy and accept them as their own. I also hope that the new president of Georgia will try to overcome the existing division of the Georgian society and become a mediator, not a conflict party. I also expect that he will confirm Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, which now are supported by 80% of the population. Further integration process, ie signing of the Association Agreement, will be probably accomplished within a year or two, but it mainly depends on the progress of Georgia in carrying out the necessary reforms. We will also closely monitor the functioning of the democratic system, including the use of so-called “selective justice” towards the opposition activists.
“The presidential elections are to confirm that the Georgians understand the principles of Western democracy and accept them as their own”
Are there currently such attempts?
The European Parliament controls the legal situation with already described earlier Merabishvili. We hope that his trial will be carried out in accordance with European standards, including the full provision him with the right to protection and decent conditions of detention. However, I myself, after a meeting with Merabishvili and indictments prosecutors, believe that the reasons for his arrest are poorly documented and to a large degree politically motivated.
The main contenders in the elections this year are the leader of the National Movement Giorgi Bakradze and Margvelashvili from the Georgian Dream. Who has a better chance of winning?
At present, polls shows a few tens of percent advantages of the candidate from the GD, but at the same time, most likely, there will be a run-off vote with the two candidates. Besides Margvelashvili whose support hovers around 40%, and Bakradze with support over 20%, from the rest candidates we can mark out Nino Burjanadze – the former head of the parliament, who is supported by almost 10% of the voters. Other candidates (the CEC has registered 23 candidates) are supported only by a small number of voters.
Which candidate in the run-off vote is more likely to get the vote of Burjanadze?
Nino Burjanadze criticizes the UNM candidate even more harshly than the camp of Ivanishvili. On the other hand, she also accuses the GD of not drawing conclusions after the criminal, in her opinion, activities of the previous government. I think that in the run-off she will not support anyone. Her goal in achieving good results in the election will be early parliamentary elections. Paradoxically, but neither the coalition nor the parliamentary opposition does not support this idea.
What could be Moscow’s response to the initialling of the Association Agreement in Vilnius?
The Russian authorities react very nervously to the pro-Western strategic choice made by Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Another gas blackmail of Ukraine or the ban on wine import from Moldova prove that once again. But towards Georgia there are no such signals; quite the contrary, Russia is trying to increase its economic participation. For example, a Russian consortium has bought the production of the famous Borjomi mineral water. Russia also has announced investment in the rail infrastructure and energy. This could mean that the Kremlin is trying to implement a different tactic, hoping perhaps to insinuate themselves into confidence of a part of the ruling elite of Georgia.
And what is the public support of the government of Prime Minister Ivanishvili?
The government of Ivanishvili still enjoys more than 50% support, but on the other hand, we are seeing the first signs of disappointment with his rule. People’s support for the prime minister and his coalition is slowly but steadily declining. According to the U.S. research institutions NDI and IRI, Ivanishvili has lost more than 10% during the year.
What does this mean?
Ivanishvili has made a lot of promises during the election campaign, he was talking about reducing the price of electricity, gas, and fuel. And on the other hand, about increasing wages and pensions. Meanwhile, the Georgian economy is slowing down. Although the GDP continues to grow, the growth rate fell by half. Also foreign direct investments have decreased. Investors from Turkey and Arab countries noted the unfavorable rhetoric of some members of the ruling coalition and are awaiting further developments. Billion dollars from Prime Minister’s private property, which was allocated by him for the country’s development, may be not sufficient. The ordinary citizens of Georgia, and especially Tbilisi, start to feel lack of safety. The amnesty, when a few thousand of criminals were released from prisons, has led to an increase in the number of break-ins, burglaries, and robberies. On the streets for the first time after the elections in 2012 one can hear: “Under Misha [Saakashvili – author’s note] it was safe at least, and there was no corruption”.
Krzysztof Lisek: a Civic Platform MP of the European Parliament, the European Parliamentary Permanent Rapporteur for Georgia and Head of the European Parliaa ment observation mission for the presidential elections of October 27, 2013.
Translated by MA