Speaking in a talk show with the pro-governmental Imedi TV on November 27, the leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party Bidzina Ivanishvili said “the reputation of the U.S. founded institutions such as NDI and IRI” is “being devalued” by the public opinion polls they publish. “How can it happen that U.S. funded institutions are [the ones] damaging U.S. interests in Georgia?” – Ivanishvili asked.
Voice of America (VOA) Georgian’s Ia Meurnishvili sat down with Daniel Twining, the President of IRI, to discuss recent wave of accusations from Georgian leadership against U.S. founded institutions.
Ia Meurmishvili: Mr. Twining, thank you very much for being here with us today. IRI has gotten some fairly negative publicity and a series of criticism in Georgia in the past week. In general, how do you respond to some of the accusations of a possible conflict of interest and biases at the organization?
Daniel Twining: Thank you. I’m delighted to be with you. IRI has been working in Georgia for 21 years. We have worked with all democratic political parties across the board including Georgian Dream. We worked with UNM (the United National Movement party of ex-President Saakashvili, Georgia’s ruling party in 2004-2012 -Civil.ge) when it was in power. We have worked with a range of parties and we are very proud of our work, which is funded by the US government. We have the strong support of the U.S. government, and the U.S. Congress, for this work, and we are very pleased to accompany Georgians in their democratic journey.
21 years is a long time, especially if you consider that Georgian regained its independence in 1991. What is your primary mission in the country?
We work to strengthen political party practices, make sure that all Georgians have a voice in their politics. In particular, we focus on underrepresented groups in Georgia. We do a lot of work around civic education to inform citizens of their political rights. And we take public opinion surveys to help politicians from all parties understand what Georgian voters care about.
To briefly talk about surveys — what is the goal they try to accomplish? Why do you conduct them?
The primary goal is to strengthen democracy. If politicians do not understand what their citizens really care about, you can end up with a situation like Hong Kong, with millions of unhappy people in the streets. You can also end up in a situation like we have seen in Iraq lately, where politicians are not responsive to citizens and citizens feel more and more alienated from the political system. Our survey research meets best practices internationally. It is methodologically really rigorous, and we work with world class partners to do these surveys. They are a very helpful source of information for politicians and political parties in terms of what citizens in that country care about.
That is probably in situations where governments pay attention to it. However, in some cases, as we saw in Georgia recently, the government is not very happy with the results of the survey. There is an opinion among opposition and some expert circles that the reason why IRI is under attack from the government at the moment, is because of the poll results, which were not favorable to them.
We have seen this in other countries, where a government that is perhaps losing popularity suddenly decides that it does not like the findings of our surveys. I’m afraid that is not on us. The surveys are quite objectively done and again, they are not useful to politicians unless they tell the truth, unless they honestly reflect what citizens care about and, how they see not just their government but political parties and the big issues before the country. We feel very good about our survey results. Other democracy organizations have also come under attack in Georgia for their survey results when politicians have not liked the findings of those surveys. It is what we encounter not just in Georgia, but also in other countries from time to time.
Do you recall if you had a similar wave of unhappy government reactions during the UNM period?
Yes, sure. Again, the surveys are not useful if they do not accurately reflect citizen concerns. So yes, at the end of the day, we stand by our survey results. They are not something that we are determining. They are something that we are as interested in seeing the findings of, as politicians are. And, we are often surprised too.
At the core of the latest criticism and attack was this controversy about Mr. Randy Scheunemann, Vice-Chairman of the IRI Board of Directors, who is registered under FARA as an official lobbyist for the UNM party. It is a fact and there is nothing illegal or wrong about it. Now, some people, in the government and in expert circles, claim that because Mr. Scheunemann represents UNM, that is why the survey results not very favorable to the government. As a consequence of this revelation, there were accusations of conflict of interest and biases towards IRI. How do you respond to this?
First, Mr. Scheunemann has recused himself from all IRI activity relating to Georgia under our code of ethics and conflict of interest policy. This is what board members do. They are not able to mix any personal business with the work of IRI. So that’s point one. Point two is IRI has been working in Georgia for several decades. The work there is not guided by any member of the board. It is nonpartisan. We work with all democratic parties and the activities of this or that board member frankly have no bearing on our work because our work is not steered by any individual board member. That is not just true in Georgia, but in every country in which we work. This issue, frankly, is a side issue that is not particularly germane to the broader attack on IRI and our sister institution NDI, and activities of the U.S. government, that are designed to support and strengthen Georgia’s democratic aspirations.
It is all about perceptions… At the end of the day, the reason why there was such a big wave of negativity directed at IRI and NDI is to create a perception that American NGO’s are hindering the close strategic partnership between the United States and Georgia. How do you go about addressing those perceptions and how do you revert them?
I used to travel to Georgia quite often with Senator John McCain in the early 2000s during the Shevardnadze era, before the Rose Revolution. Senator McCain always said, the way to have a strong alliance between the U.S. and Georgia is to build a strong Georgian democracy that looks to the West. That is what generations of Georgian politicians have done since Georgia became independent. What we are seeing more recently, in the last few years, is a rise in Russian meddling in Georgia: Russian disinformation campaigns in Georgia; Russian-sponsored NGOs that are not trying to strengthen democratic best practice. They are not trying to create a level political playing field. In fact, the Kremlin’s interest is just the opposite. Now, our latest IRI polling shows that 80 percent of Georgians want to join the EU. Almost three in four want to join NATO. Georgia is a totally pro-Western country. American NGO’s like IRI, supported by the U.S. government, are there to help Georgia become a stronger and better partner for the United States by being an effective democracy. That’s the whole idea: to let Georgians make their own choices. There is a very different set of activities conducted by Kremlin-sponsored groups and influences that are not focused on helping Georgians make their own choices. They are designed to pull Georgia back. My sense from everything I know about Georgia is that Georgian citizens do not want to be part of a new Russian empire. In fact, they want to be free to make their own choices. Most Georgians want to be part of the West.
After conducting surveys, do you go to the government and consult with them about what they need to do – based on survey results – to strengthen democratic practices?
The audience for our surveys is Georgia’s elected leaders, politicians, members of parliament. The audience is not the IRI staff or the IRI president or the IRI board. It’s primarily for politicians and leaders in Georgia to help them understand their own citizens’ concerns. We have done a lot of this work in so many countries in the region, including Ukraine, where we do very effective and very large polling that Ukrainian leaders are very interested in, and it helps them. Public opinion helps democratic leaders make the right choices. We stand by the polls and the practice.
IRI needs host government consent to operate in the country. What kind of relations do you have with the Georgian government?
We work very closely with the Georgian Dream as a political party, and with elected leaders, including cabinet members in Georgia and parliamentary leaders. We’ve always done that. We have a very open role in Georgia as an honest broker, as a group that is there to help Georgians strengthen their democracy. We are very proud of that. In the same week last week, when IRI, NDI and other American groups were somehow attacked for helping strengthen Georgian democracy, we were doing a youth training for Georgian Dream young leaders. While the attacks were underway that’s what we were doing.
That’s one of the things I’m curious about – are you aware of any prominent alumni from the Georgian Dream or other political parties
Yes, but frankly there are too many to list. That is true for the Georgian Dream and that is true for other parties. We are very proud of that and pleased with that. We are a partner of Georgia.
Do you see a trend against American NGOs – U.S. government funded NGOs – globally?
Yes, we do. I am a little surprised to be talking about this in the context of Georgia, because such a campaign against American NGOs is being run out of the Kremlin, because Putin wants to divert attention from his failures of governance. So, we see a Russian disinformation assault on foreign NGOs. We also see it out of the Chinese Communist Party. China’s unelected leaders cannot come to grips with the fact that they had two million people in the streets of Hong Kong, and they just had local elections in Hong Kong … [in which]… democrats dominated against Communist Party leaders. When we hear foreign politicians, foreign governments, attacking American NGO’s it is usually in cases like Russia and China, where there is no political freedom, where there is no democratic practice. So, It is surprising to hear it in a democracy.
What is also surprising is that Mr. Ivanishvili, who was leading the charge and who publicly and harshly criticized American NGOs, including IRI, said that he is willing to send a letter of complaint to the administration and U.S. Congress about U.S. NGOs’ activities in Georgia, which he described as disruptive. What is your response to that? Do you take this as a threat, as a serious warning to your operations in Georgia, or something else?
My understanding is that Mr. Ivanishvili has never been to Washington. He is welcome to come. I think American politicians would love to meet him and learn a lot more about what is going on in Georgia. Our work is part of the U.S. foreign assistance package — which is very generous — provided to Georgia by the U.S. Congress and the U.S. executive branch. I think the leaders, the officials, the Members of Congress, who are supporting that would welcome a conversation about the state of Georgian democracy and about the work that groups like IRI, NDI and others do.
We have had such strong support from the U.S. mission in Tbilisi. I think a lot of Americans, to the extent they are paying attention in Washington, frankly would be little surprised to be having this conversation after all the support America has provided for Georgia as a strategic partner and ally over the years. We would love to tell the story of the work we have been doing in Georgia for the past two decades to help Georgians be a strong and competitive democratic ally.
We talked about what your mission is — to strengthen democratic institutions and processes. In this process, when you plan your activities, do you tell the government how to change their actions or what to do in order to push them to do what the U.S. government wants?
No. We work in a number of countries around the world. Georgia is our democratic ally. Most of the countries we work in, frankly, are not democratic partners and allies. The work we do in these countries is about helping them make their own decisions. It is about helping them strengthen democratic institutions, have more effective political parties, include more voices in politics by including underrepresented groups, provide opinion polling that informs leaders of what citizens want. That’s what we do. We are not actors in Georgia or elsewhere. We do not come in with our own political agenda. We would not be able to work in any country if we had our own political agenda. Our agenda is a strong and healthy democracy in Georgia that is responsive to its citizens.
Tell us about your plans for the future.
We have a program in Georgia that is generously funded by the U.S. Congress through USAID and that program is set to run for three to four more years under the current grant. So those are the activities that we are going to continue to conduct under our current arrangement with the U.S. government and our partners in Georgia.
Do you anticipate any sort of stronger pushback from the Georgian government? Could they maybe say that IRI and NDI could not operate in Georgia, similar to what we have seen in some other countries where the governments were unhappy with your surveys?
I do not. Georgia is a democracy. Georgians overwhelmingly want to be part of the West and have close ties to the United States and other Western democracies. I have trouble imagining that. When groups like IRI and NDI have gotten into hot water in other countries, it is normally because they are being scapegoated by an authoritarian government. The Chinese government in Beijing just this week has attacked IRI, NED (National Endowment for Democracy), NDI, and other groups for somehow producing the kind of unrest that we see in Hong Kong. We do not even have an office in Hong Kong! These are acts of authoritarian misinformation, and disinformation. This is what authoritarians do — they blame a foreign hand for their own problems of governance. We just cannot imagine that happening in Georgia.
I have no indication to say that it may be happening – you stopping operations in Georgia. I’m just curious, what would happen in the administration and Congress? I would suppose people would be unhappy. If anyone in the government thinks that IRI, NDI, NED or other American NGOs interfere and hinder U.S.- Georgia relations, if these organizations are forced to stop their operations in Georgia or they are sanctioned in any way, that’s exactly the result we are going to get – damaged U.S.-Georgia relations. What are your thoughts on this?
I suspect people would take a hard look and say what is happening in this country; that we thought it was a democracy that America has invested in so much and built such a strong relationship with; what is going on, why is this happening? It would draw a lot of attention on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch to what is happening in Georgia.
To summarize our conversation, we started with accusations of perceived conflict of interests of one of the board members. However, you said that that is not the story. That the story is something else. What is that big story? What do you think about the fact that this controversy is happening in Georgia, in a country which has hosted and embraced American organizations for decades?
I think it’s a good question to ask Georgians. Our narrative of Georgia in America is that this was one of the great democratic success stories in the former Soviet space. Georgians first stood up and helped peacefully collapse the Soviet empire, constituted a new country out of very difficult circumstances in the 1990s, had a peaceful democratic revolution in 2003, became a very close partner and ally of the United States and many European countries such as Germany, France, Britain et cetera. Americans still believe that this is the trajectory Georgia is on. I do think it would be very worrisome if we saw the kind of attacks [coming from Georgia that] we have seen coming from the Kremlin with misinformation, disinformation, and assaults on foreign NGOs. It would be really unfortunate if people started to see those kinds of arguments coming from a country that we thought was a healthy democracy. That would suggest that maybe Americans were wrong about this country. I don’t think we were wrong. We still have great faith and hope for Georgia’s future. And, IRI is pleased to walk with Georgians in that journey.
This material was prepared for Civil.ge by the Voice of America. In order to license this and other content free of charge, please contact Adam Gartner.