Kramer: Georgia cannot afford to screw up

Voice of America’s Ia Meurmishvili spoke about the upcoming runoff presidential elections with David Kramer, Senior Fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

Thank you for the interview, David. Before the votes were counted on the election day in Georgia, the government publicly announced that Salome Zurabishvili would get 54 percent of the votes. Their prediction was inaccurate as none of the candidates collected more than 50 percent of the votes. Do you think there was a message in this setback for the Georgian Dream government?

I think it reflects that there is some unhappiness with the party in power and there also may not be a lot of enthusiasm for the candidate. She is not officially the Georgian Dream candidate, but she has been backed by the GD and obviously Mr. Ivanishvili’s comments indicated support for her. She is someone who was not born in Georgia. I cannot judge this but I was told that her Georgian is not flawless. My Georgian is nonexistent so I probably should not be criticizing, but she – I think – for many Georgians is viewed as kind of an outsider having lived in France for many years. There is also some unhappiness with various parts of the opposition. I think we are seeing a rather polarized political environment in Georgia, which I regret to see develop because I really hope the country despite political differences can stay fully united on the path toward Euro-Atlantic integration.

I do worry that with some of her comments during the campaign about blaming the Saakashvili government for the war in 2008 it reflects some concern about where Georgia may go in the future. The presidency does have some authority over foreign policy appointment of various positions. This position is important for the image of the country, this election is important and I hope that the second round will be conducted without any problems.

What do you think of the social impact this election has had thus far?

This is the last election when the president will be elected by direct vote. Georgians take elections very seriously. Turnout was a little under 50 percent – about 46.7 if I remember right. Georgians do very much value their ability to choose their leaders and to exercise their right to vote. Certainly, I think it was an effort by the GD to turn out as much of the vote as possible. The opposition has an interest in showing up as well. So elections continue to be important in Georgia. I think they demonstrate that they conduct them mostly according to international standards.

There were some concerns about whether the election was conducted on a level playing field, some misuse of administrative resources took place. But on balance, I think the first round was conducted in a decent fashion.

Some analysts say that there is a possibility of even a deeper polarization and possibly some sort of social unrest if the election goes one way or another because the candidates are so close and popular support is split pretty much evenly between them. You travel to Georgia often and know Georgian politics fairly well. Based on what you have seen in Georgia, do you think there is a danger of any sort of unrest or possibly violence?

I was alarmed when a few weeks before the election, a senior figure of one of the opposition parties told me that they would go out in the streets if Salome Zurabishvili won in the first round. That obviously did not happen, but I think it does underscore that this is a tense and very polarized environment where the opposition felt that she could not win in the first round. Then the next day Ivanishvili announced that she had 53 percent support. I left Georgia that week more worried than I have been in the past, that the election could have produced some sort of problems. I even spoke to some former colleagues at the State Department when I returned to the U.S. to convey those concerns. I think, the U.S. embassy is doing a very good job of monitoring the situation, but I wanted to offer my firsthand impression having traveled there many times over the past few years.

I hope with the second round that whoever wins all sides will accept the results, and if there is a need for a recount of some sort I hope that is all done in a proper and peaceful manner.

There is a claim that unless a country changes its government through at least two consecutive terms with peaceful means, it is not yet a democracy. Do you think Georgia is on the path of becoming a mature democracy or are there still too much emotions in politics?

There are emotions in U.S. politics and we have been democracy for a lot longer. There are no linear parts to a democracy. Countries can take detours and we are seeing that elsewhere. I do think Georgia is still a democracy. There have been some concerns in certain areas, there were concerns under the previous Government to be clear. What happened in November of 2007 happened under the previous government for example, not under the current government. The recent Freedom House survey is expressing some concern over social media, Internet and the press.

What worried me more than anything in the recent visit is the attack on civil society. Civil society has been central to Georgia’s success as a democracy. We saw some really ugly, nasty attacks on the Transparency International and other groups. Use of the term “fascism” by the speaker of parliament is something that should never happen in my view.

Civil society plays an incredibly important role in the United States and in Georgia. While government officials may not like things that civil society organizations and activists say. They should take them seriously. Given that the Transparency International has a terrific reputation, they should deal with them properly. If there are allegations of corruption both the accuser and the accused have an interest in seeing full, thorough, and transparent investigations so we get to the truth. I hope there could be a little more civilized dialogue between the government and the civil society and that phrases like “fascism” are not thrown around loosely in a region that has suffered through it all too severely.

Do you think former president Saakashvili is a factor in this pre-runoff period?

Yes, Vashadze is a part of his party, basically his faction. I think he still lingers. I would not say he is a dominant factor. Perhaps not as strong a factor as he himself would like to be. There still are some lingering feelings about him. He is no longer in Georgia, he is no longer in Ukraine. It is time for Georgians to move forward, not look to the past and vote based on who they think the best candidate would be, and not on people who are behind the scenes one way or the other.

Is he in any way a concern to you? Saakashvili seems to be motivated to get back into politics and Georgia perhaps is the only place where he can do that.

Returning to Georgia right now would be problematic. So he may be eager to return, but going back to Georgia is not without its challenges and threats hanging over him. He served his country, served it well for the most part. He certainly was not a perfect leader – I do not know many leaders who are – but I think Georgia now needs to move forward and not look to the past.

What message would you have for Georgia before the runoff elections?

Georgia cannot afford to screw up. Every country makes mistakes. Mistakes are a normal part of democracy, but by screwing up I mean having a huge problem. Georgia is a small country that has gotten a lot of attention from its successes over the years. By being a successful model in a region where democracy is not exactly thriving, Georgia has stood out and has gotten a lot of support from previous American presidents and from the Congress.

But the point is that there are governments in Europe that would be happy to ignore Georgia if it goes down the wrong path. There might even be a loss of focus and attention in the United States if Georgia does not stay on a democratic path looking to integrate more closely with the European community. So, Georgia needs to continue to succeed: it means good elections, staying on the Euro-Atlantic path, remaining a strong vibrant democracy, market reforms dealing with corruption, and also, protecting its country.

Georgia is a country 20 percent of which is occupied. It has a lot of challenges, but it needs to stay on the right path. Georgia cannot afford to have a major screw up, which I am confident it can avoid. I have enormous faith and respect and admiration for the people of Georgia and I am confident that they will do the right thing.

What is the screw up you are talking about?

Violence. A rigged election. Something that would be such a major detour from the path that Georgia has been on, or if Georgia descends into the kind of problematic issues that we see elsewhere in the region. Armenia has shown some real positive signs over the past few months and hopefully, they will stay on that path as they have upcoming elections too. Azerbaijan is an authoritarian, thuggish, corrupt regime and Georgia stands out from that rather significantly. Georgia is in a tough neighborhood; with Russia and Turkey as its neighbors, it is not exactly surrounded by democracies, but what makes Georgia so appealing is that it is almost an island of democracy and an island of hope and success, and it needs to stay that way and not get sucked under like other countries have.

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This material was prepared for by the Voice of America. In order to license this and other content free of charge, please contact Adam Gartner.
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