US-Georgia: two different perspectives on the same situation
    Foreign pundits talk to Caliber.Az

    INTERVIEWS  08 May 2023 - 17:30

    Samir Ibrahimov

    US political scientists Svante E. Cornell and Stephen Frederick Starr sent a letter to senior officials at the US Departments of State, Commerce, Justice, and the National Security Council, as well as the US Congress, in which they call on the US to develop "policy designed to stop Georgia’s turn away from the West" and propose steps to "address the deteriorating situation in Georgia." The political analysts' letter was published by Radio Liberty.

    Cornell and Starr say that "the US should now take determined action in Georgia" and identify "Georgia’s richest man," Bidzina Ivanishvili, as the problem underwriting the country’s democratic backsliding. According to them, Ivanishvili has captured the state and is now turning Georgia in an anti-Western direction, despite the demonstrated will of the Georgian people to the contrary, which, they warn, "could have irrevocable implications."

    According to them, "Ivanishvili obviously sees a Euro-American orientation as contrary to his interests because the standards that Euro-Atlantic integration would impose on Georgia would make his continued control over Georgia state untenable."

    Cornell and Starr stressed that gravitation towards Moscow, which has "penetrated deeply into Georgian politics and society", contradicts both the Georgian constitution and the will of its people. The authors recall the blatant attacks on the US ambassador, the rejection of the nomination of a previous ambassador in 2018, the hostile rhetoric of the ruling party accusing the West of trying to drag Georgia into war, and the recent attempt to adopt the "foreign agents" law.

    The authors note that "Georgia's current development trajectory is fragile" and jeopardises the progress that Georgia has made over the last two decades. They emphasize that Moscow still has room for political and military interference in Georgian affairs if only to "divert attention from all failures in Ukraine". Therefore, the authors offer a set of recommendations.

    The political analysts' recommendations address key issues, including fair elections in 2024; the fate of imprisoned former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili; the dominance of Bidzina Ivanishvili in Georgian politics and society; and Georgia's continued integration into Euro-Atlantic structures.

    On the 2024 parliamentary elections, “US must clearly indicate that its future relationships with Georgia will be contingent on the process by which they are held.” In a situation when both administrative and financial power is in Ivanishvili’s control, “the US should insist on a fair electoral process today as it did in the past.”

    The authors recommend the U.S. deepen the restrictive measures applied recently through travel restrictions on four. They also take the initiative to "focus attention on the authors of the foreign agents bill, initiated by the People's Power, formally separated from the ruling party". The letter also recommends targeting the anti-Western propaganda channel PosTV and its owner, Viktor Japaridze, both affiliated with People’s Power. As a subsequent step, should these measures fail, the two recommend targeting Ivanishvili’s immediate entourage and the man himself.

    Cornell and Starr state that there has been a distinct pattern of politically motivated justice in Georgia and call on the US "to actively work for the transfer Saakashvili to a medical facility in a European state as a necessary condition for normal relations between the US and Georgia."

    Among other measures, the authors call for better U.S. coordination with the EU on Georgia-related issues and recommend designating a "presidential envoy" who should be a senior American figure with a mission focused on preventing further anti-Western and undemocratic initiatives, securing the integrity of the 2024 elections and communicating directly to the Georgian people.

    So, how critical is the situation in Georgia in terms of turning away from the path of Euro-Atlantic integration? And how realistic is it at all, given that the majority of the population of Georgia still maintains a pro-Western orientation (if surveys are to be believed)?

    Prominent experts have answered these questions for Caliber.Az.

    "I can confidently say that questioning the legitimacy of Georgia's pro-Western orientation would be tantamount to political hara-kiri for any Georgian government or politician," said Amiran Khevtsuriani, Ph.D. in International Relations, Professor at Georgian Technical University. - I will not manipulate figures, as the issue concerns the country where I was born and still live, so for me, personal feeling and observation are more reliable than all figures".

    In his opinion, in reality, it is difficult to find a person in Georgia who would want to tie his fate to Russia rather than Europe. "Today Russia is a toxic black hole that absorbs and destroys everything around it, so it is understandable that Georgians do not want to become part of that space again. The fact that tens of thousands of Russians come to Georgia and feel comfortable in Georgia speaks of our tolerance and high culture in general, not that we are attracted to Russia and the Russian world. It is sad and alarming that in recent years and especially after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, pro-Russian forces in Georgia have noticeably intensified, which is not particularly good for the Georgian authorities. More and more pro-Russian groups and media outlets are appearing in the country, which is 24/7 engaged only in the denigration of the West and Western values," the expert lamented.

    The aforementioned parliamentary group, the so-called People's Power, which split from the ruling team last year, is also busy making anti-Western statements, he says.

    "However, they forget that Georgians are wise and not easily brainwashed. So all their efforts, as expected, have been doomed. I will tell you more, their efforts have had a backlash, and the pro-Western sentiment in the country has intensified, reaching an all-time high. The most important thing now is that the government implements the 12-point plan, which will enable us to regain our deserved place in the troika and become a candidate country for accession to the EU. If the country does not get the status again by the end of the year, it is likely to cause a stir in society and the processes could become unmanageable. That is why I would advise the government to be more constructive with our Western partners and clearly fulfil the undertaken obligations," said Khevsuriani.

    Archil Sikharulidze, political analyst and founder of the think tank SIKHA Foundation noted that there is no deviation of Georgia from the Western course. The problem is simple and former high-ranking official Shota Utiashvili has expressed it very well - Georgia used to be a favourite plaything of the US because it did what the US political elite wanted from it. And in return, it often deviated both from democracy and respect for human rights, but it was ignored.

    "Now the situation is reversed," says the expert. - In terms of human rights and democracy, Georgia has been and remains a leader and is not deviating anywhere. Whether we are moving forward in some aspects is the question. The problem of many American and European colleagues is that Georgia has started to demand more sovereignty. That is if before, for many years Georgia's political elite were peacefully and obediently following what their Western colleagues told them, hoping that by fulfilling all these points Georgia would blossom, now there is a realisation that Georgians have to be responsible for themselves. And the situation in Ukraine has also pushed us towards it when it became clear that all mistakes will be the responsibility of the Georgian or Ukrainian people, but not of America or the West. Therefore, the ruling party and many other political forces are demanding more sovereignty for the country. That is the possibility to solve internal problems without constantly looking back at the West. And the West did not like it. Imagine you were investing billions in the country and suddenly it says it is grateful for the help but it wants to solve its problems on its own. That is exactly the problem. Some Western politicians would like to return the persons to power in Georgia, who will, first of all, consider the interests of the US and EU, and then Georgia. I think this is naive, and that time has passed.

    And this has nothing to do with Bidzina Ivanishvili, believes Sikharulidze.

    "This is as much a label and self-delusion as Mikhail Saakashvili. Saying that Saakashvili is to blame for all Georgia's misfortunes, as the ruling party likes to repeat, is a mistake. He was simply turned into a scarecrow for Georgians. Like, there is a threat that Saakashvili might come to power and therefore, please, choose us, the Georgian Dream, because we are so good. Opposition and some NGOs, on the contrary, decided to appoint Bidzina Ivanishvili as a scarecrow. This is self-deception," he believes.

    But the views of the ruling forces on some issues are shared by a large part of society, says the head of the centre.

    "For example, the recent imposition of US sanctions against 4 Georgian judges is only liked by the opposition and local civil society which is 99% funded by the West, from the same America. If you ask people who are not connected to politics, their answer is simple - yes, these judges might be corrupt, but no state has the right to interfere so rudely and tell us what to do. So I think it is a mistake to think that the majority of the population supports the Americans telling us what to do and who to appoint.

    And about the deterioration of democracy in Georgia. When Western or our politicians talk about it, I always ask - when have you seen Western-style democracy in Georgia? There was not and will not be any democracy here in the near future. And it is not because of power, but because of the development of society. It should move in this direction, but we will not see it soon.

    As a scholar, I prefer comparative analysis and if we compare Georgia's current level of democracy, it is higher than what was under Saakashvili. There has been no high democracy under Saakashvili and the statistics, reports, and conclusions of the scholars point to that. They all agree that the power under Saakashvili was semi-authoritarian or authoritarian. To think that the government under the Dream is authoritarian is a big exaggeration. Georgia is the most democratic country not only in the post-Soviet space.

    Recently a certain group of local NGOs stated that Georgia is degrading in terms of media freedom. At the same time a neutral report by Reporters without Borders was released, which on the contrary says that Georgia has moved up 12 points in this index," the scholar noted.

    According to him, the anti-Western sentiments in Georgia are formed when a large part of the population sees that there are double standards in the country.

    "I will give you an example of the so-called 'Russian law', which was challenged on March 7-9. Everyone knows that similar laws are in force in America, Australia, and New Zealand, and similar laws are being considered for adoption in the EU and Canada. But for some reason, it cannot be considered in Georgia. This is the kind of thing that causes anti-western feelings. This bill is neither pro-Russian nor pro-American; its purpose is to identify those NGOs which are not engaged in civil society issues, but in promoting political interests from the outside. The aim is transparency. NGOs and their Western counterparts didn't like it.

    Roughly speaking, in the FRG, the civil sector is funded by the national government and the people of Germany. In Georgia, on the other hand, 99% of their funding comes from the US and Europe. In other words, our civil society does not belong to Georgians, but to Americans and Europeans.

    As for the political preferences of the population, the recent polls of the US NDI and IRA showed that the Georgian Dream is 3 times as popular as the biggest opposition party, the United National Movement. In other words, its power is legitimate, no matter how you look at it. All of the elections it wins are massively attended by Western observers, who then recognize them as valid and democratic.

    It is already clear to me that many in the current US ruling team would like to see a change of power in Georgia, hoping that by doing so they might appease some Georgians and return the situation when everyone in the country was for NATO and the EU, without a critical eye or an alternative. There must be an important percentage of people in any country who disagree with something - that's what democracy means," Sikharulidze summed up.


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