There is less tension and more focus on substantive issues in run-up to the May 30 local elections, then in previous campaigns and “that’s very healthy for development of political culture in Georgia,” Peter Semneby, EU’s special representative for South Caucasus, said in an interview with Civil.Ge on May 15.
In the interview Semneby, who arrived in Tbilisi on May 11, also speaks about EU’s “non-recognition and engagement policy” with Georgia’s two breakaway regions, as well as about human rights and media-related issues.
“I hope that once the new constitution is adopted and following that a new electoral code is also adopted, they will remain in place for some time without being instrumentalized in the day-to-day political struggles,” he said.
Q.: You had series of meetings this week in Tbilisi with many of the election stakeholders, opposition parties and officials. You have an experience of watching closely Georgia’s previous elections as well and how would you describe the current situation in run up to May 30 local elections?
A.: This is a different election. This is not an election at national level, which means that it’s not a jackpot that’s at stake this time; there are number of local races, which are also based on local issues, that are closer to voters.
There is more of the focus on substantive issues, then I’ve seen in previous campaigns; there is less tension and I think that’s very healthy for development of political culture in Georgia.
There are obviously still issues of some dispute. There are several opposition parties, that have decided not to take part [in the local elections]; there are others who are not satisfied with a way that some of the lessons from previous elections have been taken into account; although one has also to realize that many of the remedies will take some time to realize.
The central electoral commission has made a good start in identifying the issues that need to be addressed. Some of them they have dealt with and [on] others I expect that they will continue to work.
Q.: Politicians, observers, officials, including from EU say these elections will be a test for Georgia’s democratic reform commitments. Can you elaborate how can EU’s policy change towards Georgia depending on the conduct of elections?
A.: It’s clear that after a very problematic period, if these elections are conducted well and if it will demonstrate both the development of the political and democratic culture in the country and if there is focus on the substance, rather than the whole framework of the elections, it will mean that Georgia may also be moving towards more stable institutional framework in terms of political process.
Good elections will also mean, that after two very contentious elections – presidential and parliamentary [in 2008], Georgia has politically been able to overcome some of the consequences of the previous difficult situation.
At the same time, the elections are only one part of a larger agenda. It is also important that the constitutional reform moves forward. I was satisfied to see few days ago that the constitutional commission has adopted proposal. I was also able to speak with the chairman of the constitutional commission [Avtandil Demetrashvili].
Above all it is important Georgia develops a consensus on constitutional and institutional set up. It’s not helpful if in every election campaign the focus of the political discussion is on the framework of election itself to detriment of substance. So I hope that once the new constitution is adopted and following that a new electoral code is also adopted, they will remain in place for some time without being instrumentalized in the day-to-day political struggles.
Q.: Last April, when the opposition launched street protest rallies, you said if those demonstrations ended without resolving “the fundamental, underlying” political issues, the similar political standoff might reoccur. You also said that it was an opportunity to break the cycle of resolving issues in the streets. A year later, do you think that opportunity was used to break that cycle of resolving disputes in the streets or you think it’s early to say that as local elections are still ahead?
A.: I think there is a serious effort from many of the political forces to participate in these elections – that’s obviously good. If all the participants in the election continue to observer few very basic principles, I don’t see any reason why result itself should be challenged in the way we have seen in the past.
Q.: Do you see parties are now in line of observing those principles?
A.: All the participants in the election and those who organize it, they have to exercise responsibility, they have to exercise restraint, there are certain things and certain argument that do not belong to political discussion. They also have to exercise mutual respect. Responsibility, restraint and respect are important in context like this.
Q.: So do you think we are today closer to breaking that cycle of resolving disputes in the streets?
A.: I hope so. I don’t sense at all the kind of tension that we had at that time [last April] and that is positive.
Non-Recognition and Engagement
Q.: EU has adopted “parameters for non-recognition and engagement policy” for breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Does that policy includes any specific measures that EU plans to undertake in respect of those regions, also in the context of the Georgian government’s State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation?
A.: The basis for the work that we have done is the need, on the one hand, to have a clearly defined line on formal issues – that is the non-recognition part; but also to make sure that there is European footprint that we are able to engage with people in these regions, that we can provide them with vision that goes beyond the very confined situation that they find themselves today.
Both the non-recognition and engagement are indispensable parts of one policy, because non-recognition without engagement is counterproductive; it will only lead to raising barriers between the Georgians and people in these regions. But engagement without non-recognition part is a policy that would mean risk that any step that we take could be instrumentalized in various ways and misused to stake claims in this dispute about status. Engagement is not about status, but in order to disassociate engagement from the status we have to be clear where we stand on the status issue.
What it means is that we would encourage and develop contacts across the confrontation lines, the administrative boundaries in order to make sure to reestablish personal links, to develop joint interests, which are to large extent economic interests, and this could mean small scale business development, it could mean infrastructure across the administrative boundaries. It could involve measures related to social issues, healthcare, focusing on communities on the both sides and also IDP community.
But in order to then broaden the perspectives of people living in these territories we also need to look at other issues such as how to provide them with education opportunities.
There are some tricky issues involved here – travel issues are among those and here is where it does become tricky when combining non-recognition part with engagement part. But fundamentally it is important when we speak about travel policy to make sure that people in these regions are not only pushed in one direction, but to make sure that door remains open in all directions – obviously towards Tbilisi and also towards Europe.
And we have been following the Georgian strategy quite closely and there are many parts of strategy that are very much in line with thoughts and principles of the policy that we have developed. And we are also putting advice at the disposal of the Georgian government in the further work on action plan to implement this strategy.
Q.: How does this policy of non-recognition and engagement addresses the Abkhaz position, saying that they want direct EU engagement and not through Tbilisi?
A.: These parameters are some general principles on what we want to achieve. There are of course many technical issues that will still require a lot of discussion and the key to do that is to engage effectively in the discussion, obviously with the Georgian government, but also with people in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali.
Q.: You have traveled to Abkhazia for several times and what was the reaction on that policy from your interlocutors there?
A.: The reaction of interlocutors in Abkhazia is positive and therefore I think we have good basis to move forward.
Q.: But there is also Russia…
A.: But we are not making a secret out of what we are doing, we are absolutely transparent about this work.
Media, Human Rights
Q.: Last year in your article for British think-tank Foreign Policy Center’s publication Spotlight on Georgia you suggested establishment of “an independent media oversight mechanism” to address concerns regarding lack of transparency of ownership of media outlets. Do you discuss such mechanism in your current discussions with Georgian interlocutors?
A.: It was written already some time ago…
Q.: But this problem still remains, according to EU’s recent progress report on Georgia’s implementation of European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) action plan.
A.: Yes. There are several issues that we have in the focus of our attention in the media sphere. It’s the management and oversight of public broadcaster; there have been some changes there. It is transparency of ownership of broadcasting stations, which is still on the agenda and it is the issue of how to handle complaints, how to assess and develop professional standards and ethics of journalists. Much of this is a work in progress. There are quite lot of advisory activities going on, that I hope will lead to concrete actions.
One of the problems that we see in the context of the electoral campaign is that the media situation, particularly when it comes to televisions, remains very polarized often to detriment to journalistic editorial standards and that is something that we have to look further.
Q.: ENP progress report on Georgia notes about arrests of political opponents on alleged politically motivated charges during last year’s opposition demonstrations. According to the same report issue of detentions was raised during the EU-Georgia dialogue on human rights. Can you tell us more details of that dialogue in the view that some opposition parties time after time are pushing the issue of detainees, whom they consider to be political prisoners?
A.: We have regular human rights dialogue between EU and the Georgian government and this dialogue covers whole spectrum of issues from legal protection of human rights, how the Georgian legislation and legal practice and practice of government institutions take human rights commitments properly into account.
But we also discuss concrete cases, often disputed cases where there are allegations of different kinds; in such cases obviously we also ask for clarifications. I do not want to comment on individual cases.