With her tenure in Georgia ending in a matter of weeks, HM Ambassador Judith Gough sat down for a parting interview with Tabula. She talked about her experience in Georgia, UK-Georgia relations in recent years and the challenges that Georgia currently faces.
You have already served two years as the ambassador of the UK to Georgia. What has it been like to serve in this country?
More than two years. It has been an absolute wonder and a privilege. This is my first ambassadorship. I’ve enjoyed it very much. I have been very pleased to discover what a beautiful and a vibrant country it is and to make lots of Georgian friends, but also to witness a country in transition, at a crucial point in its history. So for me, both professionally and personally, it has been an absolute pleasure and a joy to serve here. I am only sorry that I am going so soon. I could have happily served here much longer. But as is the way with diplomats, we come to the end of our postings. And sadly this is the end of mine. But I will certainly be back.
Although I am leaving now and I am going to deliver a baby, my association with the region will not end. My role after this will be to be the director for the whole region. So I will therefore be responsible for the United Kingdom’s policy for Russia, Georgia, and also for the whole of the post-Soviet space. So, I will not be disappearing from Georgia.
The Washington Post described it as “The landmark victory of an opposition coalition in Georgia’s parliamentary elections and the quick concession by the ruling party…, a rare triumph for democracy in post-Soviet Eurasia”. How would you evaluate the October 1 elections and the results? Do you believe that Georgia is becoming a model for political pluralism in the region?
What we’ve congratulated was the holding of largely free and fair elections in this country. And we also praised the fact that this was the first peaceful, democratic transition occurring in the country. I think there is a crucial difference in how you have classed it in your question. I think it was a huge step forward for Georgia. It was not easy. I myself monitored the elections. In fact we covered 14 polling stations on the election day. So I have firsthand experience in seeing how well the process was conducted. I think that in the post-Soviet space Georgia has clearly set a very strong example and has certainly passed, to a great extent, the litmus test the international community set in terms of holding largely free, fair and democratic elections. Of course the challenge going forward is how you are going to live with political cohabitation afterwards. It is very early days. The new government has only been sitting for a month. But this is now what we have to focus our attention on.
Within weeks of taking office, the new government has brought criminal charges against more than 20 senior officials of the previous administration. In this context the EU, NATO and other foreign officials warned Georgia against seeking political revenge and selective justice, or giving the appearance thereof. How does the international community decide whether these criminal charges are politically motivated? What are some of the indicators?
Coming back to the issue of cohabitation, it is difficult. We know it’s difficult. It is unprecedented for Georgia to be in a situation where you have a political cohabitation. It’s not unique. Other countries have had such a situation and made it work. Poland and France come to mind as examples. What we want to focus on going forward is that both sides of the political divide are working together, delivering a consolidated democratic and prosperous future for Georgia. So, we’ve been encouraging both sides to work together.
Now, in terms of the arrests, I don’t think we’ve made pronouncements one way or another in terms of how we view those arrests. But what we’ve been very clear in saying is: yes, it’s right that wrongdoing in public office should be tackled. Of course that’s right. Officials should be accountable to the electorate and accountable for taxpayers’ money, that’s absolutely correct. If there ought to be criminal cases brought against those who have held public offices for wrongdoing, then they must be fully transparent, not selective, they should not be politically motivated and full legal process must be followed.
Now, what we have not done is made a judgment on those cases, because that is for Georgia’s legal system to do. And it’s important that people have faith in the institutions – I think that is quite clear in terms of what we are saying. Of course, nobody wants to see politically motivated prosecutions, but we’ve been quite clear in terms of what we’ve said in that it’s absolutely right that we don’t comment on legal processes, because that would be an interference in due legal process.
The level of democracy in Georgia has been a major issue addressed in the context of Georgia’s closer integration into Euro-Atlantic organizations, namely NATO and the EU. How can the October 1 parliamentary elections, which led to a peaceful transfer of power, help Georgia to speed up this process of closer integration with Western democracies?
You have certainly made significant progress. You passed the test that was set, that’s absolutely clear. In terms of the UK’s position, we continue to support Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions – that is something we have been repeatedly clear about. The difficulty is, of course, that both the EU and NATO require high standards in a number of areas; democracy is a part of that piece.
So on the one hand, yes, by conducting those elections in that manner was an excellent tick in the box. Cohabitation has to work. I think it’s incumbent on both parties to make it work, if both are clear on what they are saying in terms of wanting to continue Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic trajectory. I think there are still areas in democracy and related issues that Georgia needs to reform.
Judicial reform is one of those areas that we have talked about for a long time, both with the previous government and also the new government, as are penal and media reforms. I also think that what recent weeks have shown is that there is a need to improve the governance structure and framework in this country, so that it is very clear for public officials exactly what the rules are in terms of how people conduct themselves in public office. What I hope going forward is that both parties can work together on delivering those reforms.
So there is a still lot of work to do. But you could argue that about any country. There is no such thing as a perfect democracy. The UK is not a perfect democracy, it’s something we have perfected – and we had the luxury of centuries to perfect what we have achieved. But it’s always a work in progress. I think Georgia has moved further forward, but there are still lots to do. Not just in that area but in other areas too.
How can the UK government and the international community at large assist the new Georgian government and the previous one to coexist and to use this momentum in order not to scare away investors or potential allies such as NATO and the EU?
The first thing to say is that Georgia is a sovereign country, so these have to be Georgian choices in terms of where Georgians would like their future to be. One good thing is that both sides have quite clearly said that they believe Georgia’s future is more closely integrated with the EU, more closely integrated with NATO. In terms of a number of things, whether it means democratic improvement, reforms, or human rights, this brings a certain set of values. So it’s good that both sides agree on something and that is something we can build on.
In terms of our role, I think a lot of it is about providing encouragement and assistance, where useful and wanted. I also think, for example, that if we look at parliament, one of the biggest differences now is that we have a sizable opposition, which did not exist in the previous government. Having a strong opposition is no bad thing for democracy, because it keeps governments in check. I think that there are lessons that can be learned from other parliamentary democracies, such as the UK, where we have very vibrant and, at times, entertaining parliamentary debates. And other countries learn from each other, we learn from the European Union; it’s part of what we do.
2012 has been a remarkable year for the United Kingdom – with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. How would you evaluate UK’s overall performance in 2012?
Brilliantly. Globally the context is difficult at the moment. Economically most countries have been through a most difficult time. That makes it harder. But I think we have shown that, despite wider difficulties, the UK is still a country of relevance and a country that can exert “soft power”. I think it has been a very good year for us. The Jubilee was fantastic and it’s a remarkable feat for somebody to be the head of state for 60 years.
The Olympics – and I would also emphasize the Paralympics – was the third largest global sports event ever in terms of viewership figures around the world. They were good for sports, but also helped raise the profile of disabled people and athletes. I think it’s hugely important in terms of the message it sends out about how we deal with difference and diversity.
I think one of the biggest successes is what these events and our cultural influence have delivered in terms of our influence. We’ve just had the report come out in Monocle magazine that rates the UK the top “soft power” in the world. By soft power we mean persuading people to change their opinions or behavior by means of attraction and persuasion, not coercion and money. I think that is a very powerful statement. It demonstrated how good 2012 has been and how influential the UK has been this year in terms of promoting our values, our culture, our trade and our investments.
One of the very positive things that I’ve been pleased to see in Georgia is that our trade and investments have started to pick up here. Over the past couple of months British Airways is flying directly and Marks & Spencer’s and Top Shop have both opened stores here. What we have seen is the real growth of the vines of the UK in perhaps non-traditional areas for us.
What would you wish to your successor? What should he or she do to continue this soft power influence in our country?Ambassadors change in and out and inevitably there are differences in personality. This is not about change, this is about continuity. Our foreign policy is long term, it’s not short term. So I think it’s about the continuity of assisting Georgia and supporting Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration, democratic development and economic growth. I mean if you look at the challenges going forward for Georgia, developing the economy and developing prosperity and stability is important. We have not mentioned the conflict, but also how one makes progress concerning the conflict is important for Georgia. So I see it as a continuation of the work that I have been doing.
Do you think that the new government has a foreseeable plan of resolving the situation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
If it was easy, it would have been done by now. The difficulty of solving the conflict is that it takes time, it takes political investment, political will, and it takes risk. If you look at how long it took the UK to solve its own issues with Northern Ireland, it took all of those things. So I think it’s very early to tell whether anybody has got a plan that will solve all the issues. These are not easy, and what makes it even harder is that these are what we call frozen conflicts. They are not new and they are deeply felt and affect peoples’ lives.
From the UK’s perspective, I think that the willingness to talk to Russia and engage with Russia is a positive thing. But all diplomats would say that. Having engagement is important in terms of building confidence and understanding. I think that the willingness to engage with people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is also important. So from our perspective, those are positive signs. But again it’s very early. My hope is that progress can be made in these conflicts, because I think there are still too many people in the region, on all sides of conflict, who suffer as a result of what happened in the past.
Do you believe engagement with Russia is possible for Georgia?
Everything is possible. A British diplomat is always going to be for engagement. Diplomats talk. That’s what we do. If you stop talking then you run the risk of something else. It’s not easy. It comes back to the previous point. You need political will and you need some degree of preparedness to take the political risk. But the alternative of just shutting the door and not engaging in talking does not seem to be a way that is going to deliver any progress at all.
That’s not to say that it is easy, it’s not. It will take time and a lot of confidence building. But in terms of is this new, no. There is still trade between Georgia and Russia even now. There has been trade for however many years between Georgia and Russia. Russian investments in this country have been quietly coming for quite a while. The previous government had been engaging with Russia on delivering the problem with the WTO. In some ways the engagement is not new. And I think it is important in terms of delivering better understanding in a region that requires stability. Stability is in Georgia’s interest. Stability is in Russia’s interest too.