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Gigi Ugulava: Being in opposition has its charm

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Tabula interviewed Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava about the political situation that has emerged since the 1 October parliamentary elections, ongoing and anticipated processes in the country, the politics and approaches of the new government, the importance of a strong opposition and future prospects for the United National Movement (UNM). The interview was recorded in mid November.

In recent times, strikes have become commonplace in the country. The bus drivers’ strike in the capital has adversely affected Tbilisi citizens. What is the cause of that form of protest and on such a mass scale?

I would not discuss any strike separately even though each of them has its own genesis. Such events, even looking at the recent history of Georgia, all accompany changes, some type of major transformation or even weakness shown on the part of the state.

These processes are not surprising today because a significant transformation has happened in the country. How the government should deal with that is a separate question. The problem is that, whether consciously or unconsciously, members of the new government condone [mass protests]. I say “unconsciously” because that may simply be a sort of prolongation of pre-election activity. However, it should be in the interests of – if anyone – the new government to settle those problems. Examples of inciting those processes have been many, starting back with calls of [now Prime Minister Bidzina] Ivanishvili himself to [Georgian Dream member] Tina Khidasheli, who directly called on people [to participate in mass protests].

I think that, in two to three months, the situation will stabilize. All that, at the end of the day, harms the country’s population and economy. No matter how different our political platforms, I am sure neither the new government nor [the UNM] political force wants any regression in the country’s economy. I do not think that there is any disagreement on that between the political actors.

Two years ago, the UNM and you won the local and mayoral elections. This year, in the parliamentary elections, the UNM had glaringly bad results in Tbilisi. Why was that?

Tbilisi is, in general, an electoral space utterly different from the rest of Georgia. It has different views on many issues, is more sensitive and is more demanding in having freedom. Tbilisi is a sort of megapolis and it has demands characteristic of any big city in the world.

A heartbeat shows the state of human life. We see that on a cardiogram and that cardiogram bumps up and down all the time. If we look at the results of public opinion polls in Tbilisi, say, for the past ten years, we will see that the opinion there has constantly changed – like a cardiogram.

One general trend has been maintained – Tbilisi has always had an oppositional attitude toward the central government. In fact, [first Georgian President Zviad] Gamsakhurdia’s defeat, to say nothing of the form in which it happened, was caused and brought about by Tbilisi. [Former President Eduard] Shevardnadze did not actually win any election in Tbilisi; even mass vote riggings were of no help.

Let me remind you that, in the 1998 local election, the then-ruling party, Citizens Union, lost seats in the Tbilisi City Council. The Labor Party won them then. In the 1999 parliamentary election, even though the standard was much lower then, [Citizens Union] lost in Tbilisi as well. However, [the 1999 elections] were national elections and Tbilisi was not counted separately. The same happened in the 2000 presidential elections. In the 2002 [Tbilisi city council] elections, the then-ruling party found it very difficult to overcome the election hurdle and, in reality, oppositional parties took first, second and third places.

A classic example of that was the 2003 parliamentary election. Back then too, Tbilisi was oppositional. Thereafter, when the UNM came

to power, Tbilisi also experienced constant changes. We won the first local elections [when the UNM came to power in Tbilisi on 5 October 2006]. That was the result of those apparent changes which had taken place during the preceding two years. I mean, first of all, settling basic problems, like a scheduled power supply and many others which I will not start listing now.

Moreover, powerful political changes took place as well. The country had the sense that the state was being built, which was manifested in bringing Adjara back into the legal space and ousting [then Adjarian Autonomous Republic leader] Aslan Abashidze. Considering all those preconditions, we mustered some sixty-to-sixty-five percent of the votes. But, in a year’s time after that, that rating was almost halved. After more than a year, in the [January 2008] presidential elections, we received fewer votes than [in the October 2012 parliamentary elections] – in terms of absolute figures, not percentage. In about a year and a half, a huge drop had occurred.

Months later, the situation improved and then we received forty-three percent [in the 2008 parliamentary elections], which in terms of absolute figures was not a big increase. The opposition electorate was then very frustrated, became passive. Though that electorate still existed, it merely had no motivation to come to ballot boxes to vote for anyone.

Thereafter, there was the largest decrease ever [in ratings]. I mean the year 2009, after the war [with Russia in August 2008]. That spring was when Tbilisi was actually paralyzed for three months. At that time, the ruling party’s ranking was lower than it is now. After that, the trend reversed.

Translating what I have said into figures will show the cardiogram jumping and bumping. Then there came the first direct elections of Mayor and we reached fifty-five percent. In the most recent parliamentary elections, we lost, in absolute terms, approximately seventy-thousand votes compared to what we had in the previous local election. Looking at that dynamic, that is a very natural process. It shows that Tbilisi has always been oppositional toward the central government and that trend will probably be maintained. That is the sign of Tbilisi’s life.

Because the UNM experienced such a defeat and lost every single-seat mandate in Tbilisi, revanchist attitudes have emerged among the society that Tbilisi must also be run by the Georgian Dream. Political demands were voiced during the strike of bus drivers. Soso Jachvliani, MP from the Georgian Dream coalition, threatened the Mayor’s Office with financial inspection. In your view, how much pressure on the Mayor’s office can be expected?

All that has already started. For example, a couple of days ago, financial inspectors entered some of the Tbilisi Mayor’s contracting companies. I thought they had abolished the KUD [Constitutional Security Department of Ministry of Internal Affairs], but it turned out that it is in action.

I will not go into details. I can view the problems which we may face in a broader context. In my opinion, Ivanishvili had two choices: one of retaliation and another of democracy. He could have chosen the path of democratic development and, in that sense, he would have become (and he still has that chance to become) a founding father of this country, in the American understanding of that term – together with [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili, of course, who started that process.

Transfer and replacement of power through elections is that precedent which Georgia has not had since its independence. Saakashvili took that step. Ivanishvili still has a chance to accept the rules of the democratic game. The other path is more tempting and, it seems, this person has chosen that path – retaliation. That is a spiral that may never even end and, if it does, it would end in fiasco for him – who cares about him, except for that what that means for the future of the country. Our country stands at that crossroad today. I would view that strong criticism which we recently heard from NATO Secretary General, from the [NATO] Parliamentary Assembly, from [European Commission President Jose Manuel] Barroso, [European Council President Herman van] Rompuy, etcetera, in that very context

Ivanishvili took over the democracy of a certain standard. The recent parliamentary election put a stop to any talks about tyranny, dictatorship, authoritarianism because tyranny never transfers power via elections.

Ivanishvili was surprised about his victory in those first days following the elections, then was full of revenge. He thinks it unimaginable that different opinions can exist, that the United National Movement can operate as a party. It is unimaginable for him to have something in the city which he does not like – be it a bridge or a theatre. He cannot imagine being the Prime Minister and having a President who is his rival. He deems it unimaginable for the Mayor of Tbilisi to arrive at a government meeting and ask him something; deems it unimaginable for the opposition, having different opinions, to speak up in the Parliament. He deems it unimaginable that everyone does not look up to him as if to the sun and, consequently, deems it unacceptable that self-governance is not subordinate to him.

I was going to ask precisely about that attitude to self-government. What does it show when the Prime Minister points to the Tbilisi Mayor for subordination and how do you imagine cooperation?

I do not have, indeed, a destructive attitude even toward a person fundamentally unacceptable for me in terms of values. I respect the choice of the Georgian people. There are many converging issues which must be settled in concert by the Mayor’s Office and the central government. I was, am and will be ready, when it comes to the interests of Tbilisi residents, to set aside any political differences. There is a host of economic issues that must not fall victim to political quibbling. A good example of that was the topic of buses.

I am prepared to consider any issue in a format which will be acceptable for the government. There are, however, several preconditions that we must get used to – rules, laws that establish that there is a difference between self-government and central government. The latter has its competencies; we have our competencies. Within the competencies granted under the law, I am naturally ready to cooperate. When, in response to an offer of cooperation, you receive lecturing, then fine, let him lecture us. I have no problem with that. But the issue which is urgent must be settled. We can listen to lecturing, but repugnance and humiliation is not the method which the society as a whole or any individual will tolerate.

We must understand that the new government was given all the powers falling within the scope of its competence by the former government because the President remains the President and we are in the same constitutional norm which we were before. There were talks about a coalition government. It was said then, and I had the same opinion, that there must not be a coalition. However, we will not tolerate trampling upon that which has been elected by the people.

Self-government has problems in the regions as well. The most recent instance of pressure was in Tsalka. Are these processes encouraged?

Unfortunately, [anti-UNM protests] there are openly encouraged. I cannot allege that Ivanishvili personally told them to go to Tsalka and block UNM members of the local council from entering the local administration. However, in the case of Tbilisi, we are dealing with his personal vendetta.

If we look at that issue in a more general context, Ivanishvili’s key problem is one thing: He could have achieved success had he put young people, or even employees of his Cartu Bank, on the party list. He would have brought in non-mercantile people with higher moral principles, healthy political values. What have we got today? Save for very rare exceptions, he brought in people with revanchist, regressive attitudes. And he says that he will leave politics in a year and a half!

If he really goes, with whom will he leave these people? Who the hell needs these people whom he has reanimated? I will not go down the list, but one’s heart breaks looking at the Parliament. Ivanishvili will leave these people as his legacy. He had human, as well as political and financial resources, to gather way more interesting people. He could have raised the standard, showed that he could bring in much better people compared to the UNM. Today, we are on the path of regressing and not progressing. The political spectrum has become way heavier. That ties Ivanishvili’s hands today. All in all, no matter that he deems himself to be the sun, he is a hostage of the revanchist group emitting only darkness.

Let’s touch on the topic of social allowances: Various types of social assistance are suspended today for some six-hundred-thousand people. The government blames the UNM for all that, saying that imposing the responsibility for those costs on the central budget was illegal. Why was that done and what will be the fate of those allowances?

That was the very issue that I asked this government to consider, but they unfortunately could not find time for that. I hope that we will be able to find a common language. I hear their arguments, though they know perfectly well that they are legally wrong.

That decision was based on the logic under which [UNM] has been working for two years now. We wanted to put social assistance packages under a unified system. That decision was made even before the elections; it is just that it was formalized after that.

This government will also arrive at that decision, eventually. When we talk about universal health insurance, which is a declared desire of the Georgian Dream, you and I cannot have various packages from the state. They must be synchronized, etcetera. There are many topics that are based on that logic.

I still think that, when emotions subside, we will be able to find some reasonable solution. Now is the time for a sort of political “muscle-flexing” – clear proof of which was the government meeting [with Ivanishvili]. I hope the situation will calm down. They will realize that self-government is self-government and it must not be fought.

Just recently, I listened to an interview with a Georgian Dream representative, who said that [the Georgian Dream] wants to strengthen self-governance. I hope they want to do that now and not abstractly. That would require several things, not only direct election. However, we have already started that process. Another thing is budget independence.

There are a number of other issues as well. In my opinion, the proposal on electing governors is an important one. However, it is not necessary to hold elections for all those positions at the same time. That would be logistically more difficult and costly. Staggering elections is how it happens in the United States. Elections must be a constant process [for continuity in elected bodies]. One year, the election for Tbilisi Mayor can be held; next year, for the governor of Kakheti – and so on and so forth. Parties will consequently have to be in good shape. That is needed to exclude what is happening now – where the winning party wants to take control of everything. You win the parliamentary election, but the governor of Kakheti is from another party and someone else in Imereti is from yet another party. That is how it must be in order to exclude the “winner takes all” principle. It is incorrect to take control of everything. That is something to which the people have said “no” and something that must not be repeated.

- One recent high-profile incident was [the confrontation between Christians and Muslims] that unfolded in the village of Nigvziani. How adequate was the government’s action?

We can judge how things may develop there by those persons who took the lead over that situation – [Vice Speaker of Parliament] Murman Dumbadze and [Human Rights Parliamentary Committee Chair] Eka Beselia, who by their reasoning are very close to fascism. For them, freedom of religion is not a value. They act according to a political conjuncture. The only thing they understand is that that situation must be diffused.

There were signs of, at least, criminal offence in the Nigvziani incident. It is a fact that the rights of those people were infringed, but the state stepped aside…

Not only in Nigvziani – the state and the police stepped aside in Tsalka and in Tetritskaro as well, and here [at the Tbilisi Mayor’s office] when protesters stormed into the building, etcetera. Many recent examples can be cited. One thing that can be said is that the state administration is now weak and cannot react operatively.

On the other hand, we see that, in those issues in which they are interested and which coincide with their revanchist sentiments, they are active and can administer. On the part of state functioning – take the Nigvziani incident, the incidents in Tsalka, in Tetritskaro – their behavior was shameful. That trend is evident. Let’s even take the appointments of deputy interior ministers. That is déjà vu – these are the same people who used to run the police and never protected human rights.

Quite a large-scale amnesty is planned. At the same time, there is disorder in the penitentiary system; inmates are declaring disobedience. In your opinion, how much will all that affect the crime situation in the country?

It was appalling what we saw in the prison . I will say frankly that the society punished the UNM in the recent elections and that was correct. That will be a lesson for any political party, that no political party should run closed systems. I could hardly imagine that the problem was on such a scale. And that despite the fact that some scenes [in the prison video footage] were staged. But that does not matter. The society believed that, including the staged scenes, because it had ground for that.

Amnesty is a delicate topic. The society is interested in having a clean, crime-free environment – which we have today. I do not think a blanket amnesty is the right thing to do, but that is a political decision. According to those clauses [in the draft amnesty law] which I have seen, it would extend to an estimated five-to-eight-thousand people. That is quite a high number, almost one-third [of the total number of convicts].

I will quote some statistics and, if we manage to maintain those statistics, then amnesty will not be a problem. If we compare the rate of recidivism in 2004-2006 with that among those granted amnesty or paroled in 2010-2011, the ratio was fifty-percent to ten-twenty-percent, respectively. If we fail to maintain that ratio, that dynamic, and do not obtain the result that we had before – which seems very likely – then that will become a problem.

If the society has grown in that regard, then the situation will not be aggravated. But, if that ratio was the result of actively fighting against crime and that fight weakens, we may face serious problems in terms of an increase in crime. I sincerely want the rate of recidivism to be low. Otherwise, that will entail other problems too.

- In those processes, the existence of strong opposition is very important. Georgia does not have a strong party system and never has had strong opposition either. How much will UNM succeed in that?

The UNM proved to be a leader in that regard as well. The “Round Table” disappeared, together with Zviad Gamsakhurdia; with the end of Shevardnadze rule, so did his political party end. The UNM is already a party in the Western sense of that word; it continues its political life in opposition as well. In the following years, it will become a sort of monopolist on the opposition flank. Naturally, it has counted many turncoats. When you are in the government for nine years, some are with you just because you are in the government. It must dump that ballast.

A political party must walk the road of opposition. Just like a country can only be called a democracy after at least two peaceful changes in power, the strength of a political party cannot be judged only by its years in power, but by whether or not it manages to survive, fight and return to power after being in the opposition.

We established a standard of being in power, with its pluses and minuses. Today we are establishing a new standard and a history of oppositional activity in Georgia. That is why there is such a fierce fight. That is no easier a test, no less difficult than being in power and running the country. Until now, the opposition has acted as an irresponsible subject. It did not matter that it did not hold any public position. Whether we hold any public position or not, we must be a responsible force.

What has failure shown to the UNM party? How much has it analyzed its own mistakes and does the UNM have resource to restore ties with some people and groups?

The party has that resource. Only two months have passed [since the parliamentary elections] and it still needs time to analyze everything. Being in opposition has its charm as well. For me, it was a heavy burden as the elected Mayor of Tbilisi to be oppositional to the central government. In that sense, today I am in a much more comfortable state. I will return to the attitudes of Tbilisi residents. Back then too, I had the function of internal opposition, always quarrelling about something – let’s do that this way, this that way. Today, I have the possibility to do that openly. What can be better than that?

 

 

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