Georgian opposition

Tina Khidasheli: Georgia is a totalitarian state

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Several months ahead of the parliamentary elections, the political coalition Georgian Dream has stepped up its campaign activities. Tabula interviewed Republican Party member Tina Khidasheli, one of the leaders of the coalition, about Georgian Dream campaign plans and promises and how the coalition expects to deliver on those promises. Among other issues, Tina Khidasheli also spoke about Georgian Dream lobbying efforts, the previous experience of opposition political coalitions, and why she expects an opposition victory in this year’s election.

- You have entered an active phase of the election campaign. The coalition hopes that it will win the elections. What are your expectations based on recent NDI (National Democratic Institute) and IRI (International Republican Institute) surveys showing only ten-to-fifteen percent support for the Georgian Dream?

I have never treated NDI and IRI surveys seriously. We base our hopes on the fact that that ten percent which NDI counted across the country, we represented in one city alone [with a mass rally in Tbilisi] on 27 May and we will represent all those ten, fifteen, twenty percents that will take to the street in all big cities.

The expectation of victory comprises several factors. The first is that the government in Georgia must change. This is an election between two political forces challenging each other, one of which no longer has any resource. [The ruling party] has had eight years to show itself off. Consequently, [public] opinion about that force has been fully shaped and it is clear to everyone what type of force we are talking about.

At the same time, another political force is coming and lots of questions exist in relation to that force. When many questions exist, a segment of society has hopes accordingly because of that whereas another segment is skeptical. Our objective is to turn questions into hopes – into a substantiated, result-oriented perspective. The resource of the second force in working with voters is far greater than that of the government.

Our surveys prove that, but I will reiterate that I do not belong to those people who draw conclusions based on surveys conducted in countries like Georgia.

- If not a survey, then what would be a measure of public opinion?

Georgia is a totalitarian state. Surveys were not conducted in the Soviet Union. For me, Georgia is a modernized, English-language-speaking Soviet Union. And, therefore, I do not have a positive attitude toward surveys.

- Do you think that people are afraid of expressing their opinions?

I think Georgia is the Soviet Union where people know how to survive. I do not believe in myths that there is total fear in the country. Georgians are very rational people and know how to survive.

- Several mass protest rallies have been held in recent times, but they ultimately did not have any dramatic impact on elections. Why do you think this one [in Tbilisi on 27 May will] bring about a different result?

Just to put aside numbers and manipulation with them, I as a participant of every rally that has been held in this city since 1988 will tell you that such a massive rally has never been held in Tbilisi. Not even half of that amount participated in the Rose Revolution.

That always affects election results. Mikheil Saakashvili in reality actually lost the presidential elections in 2008.

- We have so far heard only a couple of promises from the Georgian Dream. One of them concerns state insurance for each and every person. That involves huge budget amounts. Approximately one million people are insured currently and, according to the Georgian Dream promise, that number would be increased by an additional three million people. The monthly cost of state insurance per person is GEL 15 today. I assume that you have calculated what the package proposed by Georgian Dream will cost and how much you will have to allocate additionally from the budget for that purpose. Where will that money come from? By very rough calculations, it will require an additional GEL 300 million even if state insurance only costs GEL 10 per person.

I am not a professional of that business. I do not have a response to that question. There are people in the coalition who can speak about those issues.

- That means that you do not know what you are offering to people?

You have asked concrete questions and I cannot go into details. I can speak about basic principles. I repeat over again, I can speak in detail about those issues which concern objectives of our political program and which fall within the scope of my professional.

A general answer to your question consists of two parts. The first part is the fundament: Here we deal with the simplest scheme. We do not talk about adding something; we talk about transferring seven percent of the twenty-percent income tax directly into a pension fund. The tax rate will not increase. That is a sign of solidarity as well. Those who are unemployed will receive insurance packages from taxes paid by us.

Another issue is where these amounts will come from. It is clear that that twenty-percent income tax is paid now as well and spent on something else. In other words, those amounts will be reallocated from some other areas.

You have mentioned GEL 300 million. I cannot argue about that and reiterate that I do not know that issue. There are topics which I do not know and, therefore, will not engage in arguments with you. But I have the answer on where not only GEL 300 million but even GEL 900 million can come from. There are simple answers to such questions – from Georgia’s budget.

At the end of 2011, when the budget was published, I instantly named an amount that comprised one-and-a-half billion from the central budget of Georgia, which, in my belief, was thrown out into the air. That amount was spent on entertainment, stages, fireworks, fountains, constructions which no one needs in this country, on a new building of Justice Ministry when the Ministry already had one. That list is very long.

The Tbilisi city budget alone spends a huge amount – I do not remember the exact figure – in an indirect and non-transparent manner for the Interior Ministry. Unless you carry out deep inquiry, you will never learn about it. Does the Interior Ministry experience any lack of state-budgetary resource?!

- Let’s go back to the size of the amount again and the anatomy of that GEL 1.5 billion you have mentioned. It is a huge amount. Among the first budget item you have named – and many name – is for entertainment, concerts, etcetera. Those amounts are spent from presidential and prime-ministerial funds. These funds do not exceed GEL 100 million annually.

I listed many other things as well.

- Yes, about half a billion is spent on infrastructural projects. From where else does the remaining amount come when you mention GEL 1.5 billion?

From similar type of projects.

- What are those similar-type projects?

Unfortunately, absolute accuracy is impossible. I do not fully believe that you have accurate information about the president’s fund. It does not matter what is written in the budget. What matters is how much is spent. Let’s leave that alone; everything has its own scale. More than half of Tbilisi’s budget – fifty-one percent – represents “other expenditures,” of which I am not aware for what [that amount] is spent. The same holds true for the country’s budget where that amount is much higher. In 2011, such “other expenditures” were at thirty-six percent.

- So you would reallocate those “other expenditures” which you do not know on what they are spent?

That is a fundamentally wrong approach. We will draw up the budget not looking at what Saakashvili wasted. We will draw it up from zero.

- That’s what I am asking. How will you redistribute amounts? You cannot tell me concretely. You do not know how much will be spent on the insurance.

Have not I given you the answer to that? I do not talk about issues on which I am not well-versed. Is there any problem in that? Speak to Victor Dolidze, to Koba Davitashvili. They will talk to you about the health care program in detail.

- Let’s move on to the issue of pensions: Another concrete promise is that pensions will increase up to GEL 220.

That is yet another issue which I will not discuss. When you are coming for an interview, you must know who is a professional of a concrete field.

- You are one of the leaders of the coalition. Only a few concrete promises have been voiced so far. And if you do not know how those promises will be fulfilled then how can you say that they will be fulfilled at all?

I know, but I do not belong to the category of persons who talk about everything.

- If you know, that’s why I am asking. You say that pensions will each increase to GEL 220. To make a rough calculation, minimum GEL 100 pensions now cost GEL 65 million per month for aged pensioners alone, which is GEL 800 per year. Your promise implies doubling that amount. How have you come up with that GEL 220? From where will you take that money?

You are asking me the same question. The answer is simple – from the state budget.

- Which you will draw up after coming to power?

No. Our budget will be released before the elections.

- At this stage, do you not have an answer to that question?

We have, and it will be published before the elections.

- OK. Let’s not elaborate on that topic because you do not have concrete data at this moment.

Of course I have. I have it on the table and can show it to you right away.

- I want you to show it to me. Voters are interested.

Voters will receive that information at their homes.

- That means that you have calculated amounts but do not want to disclose them to me now?

It is a thirteen-hundred-page document. It contains every concrete aspect and substantiation.

- And you cannot tell us what is the funding envisaged for two main promises?

I do not think that the mathematics are interesting for anyone. That is my position.

- The Republican Party was in the National Council coalition and supported presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze in 2008. You were also in the Alliance for Georgia, the leader of which was Irakli Alasania. Today you are in the Georgian Dream coalition. What makes these coalitions different from one another – but for their leaders?

None of the coalitions is one and the same. First, the situation and factual circumstances differ although the composition does not differ radically.

Gachechiladze became a leader in a very concrete circumstance – when the government declared “war” on us. After Saakashvili resigned [in order to secure a vote of confidence in snap presidential elections he scheduled following a police crackdown on opposition street protesters on 7 November 2007], that fight needed the leadership of a Levan Gachechiladze-type – a “Misha-I’m-coming”-type of leader and not an emotionally more measured and more thoughtful leader…

As regards the Alliance for Georgia, the context was different. We are talking about another election. That was not a change-of-power election. That alliance was the carrier of a very local function, in terms of both election and politics.

Why is the current [Georgian Dream] coalition different from, say, the 7 November [2007 National Council] coalition? It has happened for the first time ever in Georgia’s political environment when a leader has set up a coalition and not the other way around. That is what distinguishes this unity from previous ones.

A person [Georgian Dream coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili] came who said that the government left him with two choices: “I must leave the country and say that I am not Georgian any longer or I must fight for my country and I cannot do that alone.” The composition of the team in that fight was identified. Initially, this composition was comprised of the Republican Party and the Free Democrats party and, by doing so, [Ivanishvili] showed clearly his personal political position to everyone. Only after that was the coalition broadened to strengthen the fight.

- What is the novelty that this coalition offers to the public?

It offers a completely different campaign that has never been conducted in Georgia. That is a campaign free from emotions, populism, yelling “Hurrahs.”

On the one hand, during seven months we have watched an insane person [President Saakashvili] who hunts after [political] mummies and vampires throughout Georgia and shouts angrily in his every speech. On the other side, there is a man [Ivanishvili] who has not raised his voice yet and has conducted the campaign calmly, resolutely. The contrast is so huge that it creates a totally different discourse.

- To continue our talk about the Georgian Dream coalition, some of its members make xenophobic and homophobic statements…

For instance?

- Chair of the Georgian Dream–Democratic Party Manana Kobakhidze said in an interview to Sakinformi news agency in 2011 that, by protecting minorities, Georgia tries to prove to Western partners how democratic it is. In that interview, she also said: “In European countries everyone is treated as an ordinary, equal member of society. For us, it is difficult to accept that because it conflicts with the Orthodox Christian morality.” Anti-Armenian sentiments were displayed by Gubaz Sanikidze in stating: “The Armenian Church is stronger outside Georgia than the Georgian Church and if it has the same status inside the country [similar to that of Georgian Church], we will be trampled on by Armenians.”

I am not aware of the statement of Manana you have quoted and, therefore, will not comment on it. I can say the same about other quotes. I have not heard them.

I have known Manana for quite a long time now. She is a human rights’ defender. I know her as such, and I met her in that capacity and I deem it absolutely unimaginable that she could say what you have just quoted.

- Let’s recall the issue of the Aziziye mosque. A member of your party – Murman Dumbadze – was involved in that issue and you expelled him from the party for that.

We did not expel Dumbadze from our party for either xenophobic statements or anything like that because while he was a member of the party such things did not happen. He was expelled from the party because of the concrete incident when he called the chairman of the Batumi organization of the Republican Party – while the latter was on air on TV company 25th Channel – an agent of Turkish special forces. That act was inconsistent with the charter of the party.

I do not see a problem in the fact that Dumbadze is a member of the [Georgian Dream] coalition. The Republican Party said that on the very first day that we joined the coalition because the salvation of the country is there. Who Ivanishvili admits to his party is not our business.

If people in this coalition have such positions which are unacceptable in principle [to Republican Party] positions, we have never hidden that and are not going to hide that today as well. However, someone having said something in [for example] 1905 is no longer relevant today. People take different decisions, make different statements, but that is their personal problem. Today, this is not a political problem for the country.

- Do you not consider it a problem that Murman Dumbadze is your fellow fighter?

I know Murman, even more so perfectly well for quite a long time now. I know one hundred percent that he is neither a xenophobe nor something like that. That a person has stated something somewhere because of some conjuncture, because of some situation, is not relevant for me.

- Let’s continue talking about the Georgian Dream. Representatives of the coalition – National Forum leaders Kakha Shartava and Guvaz Sanikidze – back in 2007 openly declared that Georgia’s aspiration toward NATO was treason. Industry Will Save Georgia party leader Gogi Topadze is also against integration with NATO. You are all in one coalition and intend to form a government. What does the disagreement over such crucial issue as the country’s foreign policy indicate?

In 2007, an important document was drafted in Georgia – the Saguramo Manifesto. That was the key action plan of the opposition back then. The National Forum also signed that document. When the Parliament adopted the first declaration supporting the NATO integration, Gogi Topadze signed that document as well. These are the facts for me. I am less interested in who says what on which TV program.

- Those statements on TV programs are facts too…

Facts are the documents that exist. When official statements were made, both political forces signed them. Who thinks what deep in their hearts…

- Not in their hearts, but openly…

Yes, sometimes openly, but that is not the key thing. The key is what official statements they have made. I do not want to speak about the government, but I can recall lots of statements made by its representatives which differ in principle from declared positions – on European integration, religion, minorities.

It is an ordinary thing when political forces have people, including leaders, who may have different opinions personally.

- Regarding foreign policy as well?

You think that foreign policy is the most important thing in the life of Georgian people?

- One of the most important.

One of the most important is for the state and the development of statehood and not for an ordinary citizen to have to fight for survival.

- Is not foreign policy connected with the fight for survival? To say that in relation to Georgia is, I think, ridiculous.

“Ridiculous” is when a person loses his/her child because of hunger or pneumonia. Which one is more important for a person who has no money for medication – NATO integration or how to buy medicine?!

- The coalition deems the issue of so-called “sorting out” of relations with Russia no less important than the Euro-Atlantic integration. How do you view doing that without Georgia abandoning its Euro-Atlantic aspirations? Both [former Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze and Saakashvili started their presidencies with attempts to improve those relations, but we have all seen the result.

That is a very difficult process. There is no clear-cut “yes” or “no” answer. We cannot indicate a concrete timeframe either like all three governments [of Saakashvili, Shevardnadze and first President Zviad Gamsakhurdia] did to various degrees.

We must make it clear to everyone that there is no quick settlement here and must not create false expectations that someone will wave a wand and the problem will be solved.

World War Two happened in Europe and we had nothing of a more terrible scale in Georgian-Russian relations. However, states emerge from critical situations without making concessions.

- We do not imply equal states as it was during the Second World War.

That does not matter – sizes, statistics, number of populations. What matters are principled attitudes, the role and functions of state. Georgia had and, after it gets rid of this government, will have a chance to become a unique case. There are much smaller countries in Europe, including the Baltic States, which no one dares to bully.

- They are NATO member states….

Yes, they became such. But there was the time when they were not, but Russia did not take its troops there.

None of our governments showed patience and strategic vision of how to turn Georgia into a state which no longer could be smacked in the face.

The current government went way beyond all the other [previous governments]. The day when Saakashvili said – and has repeated since then – that Georgia was salvaged because his government was not displaced illustrated the entire tragedy of the situation perfectly.

It demonstrated perfectly well that the objective of the government was how many years would Misha Saakashvili be the leader of the government. I am not saying that he had to step down the very next day. He just should not have started saying that the main achievement was retaining his presidency when the country faces so many problems.

- I guess we have deviated from the topic. Let’s talk how you will “sort out” the relations.

That is the answer: How the state should not act and how we have come to this point; why we have a principled difference when we had exactly the same start-up situation as the Baltic States. We must have a principled, correct position…

- Do you think that we and the Baltic States had similar start-up conditions?

Photo: ირაკლი ბლუიშვილი
In the 1990s, of course, we had identical conditions. And it is even arguable who had better conditions. I am talking about the starting point.

- Can you tell us about your steps? What will you do? You have a strategy, haven’t you?

Of course we have. And that strategy is written down. That is exactly the sort of strategy which is not discussed on TV. That is that very part of state activity that must be closed as much as possible.

- Can you not disclose that to us even on the level of principles?

Principled approach and diplomacy at the expense of nothing – that is the state policy. Calling [Russian President Vladimir Putin] “Lilliputin” at a rally in the street is the choice of certain politicians.

- Do you think that the problem in Russia-Georgia relations is name-calling like “Lilliputin”?

No, Lilliputin is not the problem. That is an illustration of all that has happened between Georgia and Russia during Saakashvili’s rule.

- And why would Russia want to change relations with Georgia when it does not change its orientation?

Because Russia does not live in a closed space, in limbo. Because Russia needs the West pretty much the same as the West needs it. Because Georgia will become a country for which they will fight [to support] – a different country, resembling them, a member of their club, not formally through NATO membership but by its essence, mode of life, degree of democracy and statehood.

I often use a very simple example to illustrate that and not only when it concerns Russia. I have two children. Thank God, they are yet too young. After ten years, I will face a serious question: “Now, what to do if the life in this country continues in this way?” Such mothers are in abundance in Sukhumi, Gudauta, Tskhinvali and Java, facing the same question. The only answer to that question for them must be “Tbilisi.” That is the only chance of settling problems. As long as “Tbilisi” is an absolutely and extremely negative answer to that question and those mothers start looking somewhere else, we do not have a chance of survival. In this part, I mean the problem of territorial integrity.

- Bidzina Ivanishvili has said he is not going to call daily on the USA and European Union to immediately force out Russian troops from occupied territories. What is your strategy or what do you mean by “calling on”?

We mean “calling on” when saying calling on – without any explanations.

- Do you not intend to raise the issue of occupation actively?

I have already told you, we intend to do that in a diplomatic way and behind closed door and not by “calling on.” Bidzina Ivanishvili used the exact word. That issue has been raised openly and there is no need to talk about it day and night.

- The USA and European Union talk themselves about [the occupied territories] in a document, openly.

Yes, they talk, have been talking already. And what happens after talking?

- What happens is one thing, but do you intend to actively continue that policy?

“Call on” when we wake up in the morning; “call on” once more in the evening before going to sleep, and “call on” when we wake up again? No.

- What will you do in the direction of de-occupation?

We want to turn de-occupation into a real outcome and not only a talking point.

- How?

I have already answered you. The Second World War took place in Europe and today those states are the largest partners. That is possible, but not by giving watches to internally displaced peasants and giving them promises that, by the time the batteries of these watches go low, they will be at home. These false expectations, belligerent rhetoric, non-stop agitation create problems for problem-solving.

- The Washington edition POLITICO listed lobbying companies which work for you. What is the aim of that lobbying activity? We have also seen your statement that the “myth” about the democracy of Georgia has been destroyed in the U.S. Congress. What does that give to Georgia?

I am not happy about that. Quite the contrary, I would be happy if there were democracy in Georgia. Those lobbying efforts have a concrete reason – to save the image of the country and to build up a progress-oriented and democratic state in Georgia.

We will assist the country only in case there is adequate information on where it needs assistance. The fuss about Bidzina Ivanishvili hiring lobbying companies is a bit ridiculous because what a person pays for out of his pocket is less interesting. More interesting is where the Georgian budget spends those millions which could be spent on some other things and not on lobbying efforts. Millions of U.S. dollars are spent from the state budget to print huge photos of Misha Saakashvili and Nika Gilauri in the Financial Times time and again.

- Do you work in the directions of NATO integration, de-occupation, free trade with the EU, visa-free travel?

We worked a lot before the Chicago Summit. The main objective which we set for our friends during the month and a half [before the Chicago Summit] was to provide as much information as possible to all interested parties that, regardless of which political force is in power, NATO is a common choice. There are topics where differences in opinions do not exist. It was very difficult to lobby the advancement of Georgia because it was known from the very start that no significant result would be achieved there.

As regards the European Union, the situation is absolutely identical there. To say that we work specifically in relation to that agreement would be a lie. But if we talk about integration in a more general context, of course, that is one of our main directions.

 

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 104, published 11 June 2012.

 

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