Georgian politics

Vano Merabishvili: Our Country faces a threat

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Three months on from the October parliamentary elections, Tabula interviewed Vano Merabishvili, the former prime minister and the current Secretary General of the United National Movement (UNM). Merabishvili, who also served as the Interior Minister in the previous government, shared his thoughts about the situation that has emerged in the country after the parliamentary elections, the challenges the country faces and the future plans of the UNM political party.

Of the activities the new government has performed since winning the elections, what in particular do you like and welcome and what do you dislike?

Unfortunately, there is nothing which we welcome. We are unhappy that we cannot see a consistent plan from this government on how the country should develop. If you want me to cite a concrete example of what we dislike, one such example is the recent amnesty. The amnesty, which has released officers of the GRU [the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation] and those [Georgian military officers] who participated in the rebellion, will go down as one of most shameful events in the history of Georgia. Time will show that. One can hardly find any country where a democratically elected new government releases spies of foreign powers from prison, let alone one that portrays them as heroes and political prisoners.

The second worst development is the deterioration in the crime situation. There is a sense that the police feel abandoned and are passive. Mass personnel changes have taken place within the police force, with many “new” old cadres being reinstated. Police officers do not feel that they are protected and that, naturally, has translated into a worsening of the crime situation in the country. The population too has virtually lost the sense of security it had before.

You mentioned the amnesty and I was also going to ask you about that. What, in your view, was the motive behind such a large-scale amnesty?

It is difficult to see any rational or even pragmatic motives. This indicates that the new government does not have a vision and that the open-minded segment of this government, if such a segment exists, has failed to counteract the actions of those interest groups that have been actively lobbying for an amnesty, including in the current parliament. Very base and, to some extent, corrupt interests are behind the decision for the amnesty.

You have also mentioned the passivity of the patrol police. To what extent has this institution proved to be well functioning and solid?

Senior officers in the patrol police have been dismissed on a massive scale whilst new people have been recruited without following transparent vetting procedures, thereby violating those traditions which had been established in the patrol police – the former government applied special training and tests for the selection of officers for the patrol police. Former police officers have also been taken back into the force. Aleko Tabatadze [current deputy Interior Minister who worked for the law enforcement agencies from 1991-2008] is only the tip of the iceberg. Very many lesser Tabatadzes have also returned to the police.

Moreover, the government is not consolidated. Anything done [by the previous government] during the past nine years has been declared as a mistake, with even the arrest of criminals being considered a bad thing. People who have left prison [under the amnesty] have already contacted those police officers who arrested them, threatening retaliation. Against that backdrop, the decline in the motivation of the patrol police is no surprise at all.

I think that it is the obligation of the entire society to support the Georgian police. The patrol police are not an achievement of the UNM alone. They are the achievement of society. For at least nine years the police were the guarantor of security and peace in the country and we must not lose that by any means.

What are the impediments and challenges that the UNM now faces?

The main impediment is that the entirety of our energy is absorbed – and that is indeed the plan of the current government – towards [dealing with] daily interrogations, pressure, arrests and raids from the financial police.

Do you think that had you done more for the development of democracy, for example, ensuring greater independence for courts, you would have been better protected as the political opposition?

The main thing is not whether or not we would have been protected. Greater levels of democracy, a higher degree of development and stronger institutions would have been good, of course. I can hardly imagine anyone anywhere in the world saying that there is no need for greater democracy, freedom, et cetera.

We may argue now over priorities, but I believe we did everything possible for the country to develop, become richer and become a fully-fledged member of the developed Western world.

What are your current plans? You talked recently about rebranding the UNM party. What do you mean by rebranding and what resources are available to you?

We have already taken some steps. New people have joined the party as well as the [parliamentary] faction. Many of the new faces have already become a leading force in the faction. At the same time, we have freed ourselves from several people. [Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina] Ivanishvili’s actions exposed their weaknesses. Some left themselves, others became passive.

Now we are moving towards a new type of activity. We are already a political party in opposition. We have held a party forum and

started admitting new members to the party on a mass scale. With their involvement we will build a new network.

Do you think you made mistakes in selecting single-seat candidates for the recent parliamentary elections? You also said that some of them have already defected the UNM faction.

The point here is not only our mistake. The point is how strong some single-seat members of parliament proved to be when standing up to the pressure. Physical, financial and even criminal methods were employed against many of them. This does not mean itself that mistakes were made. However, in hindsight and based on the experience, we could have done things differently and could have brought in more new people instead of several single-seat MPs. I would like to note, however, that the party was refreshed anyway. Almost half [of UNM candidates for the parliamentary elections] were new faces although, I think, some reserve [of other new candidates] existed to replace more people.

In general, we applied a democratic approach in selecting candidates. We conducted surveys and in naming our candidates we largely relied on their ratings and the degree of trust towards them [as shown by the survey results]. That was the fair approach but [those indicators] did not always reflect their prowess in defending a principled position. Some yielded to the pressure.

What sort of party will the UNM develop into? Will it again engage in a populist competition with the Georgian Dream?

I do not think that we were engaged in a populist rivalry with the Georgian Dream. When a social program is realistic and aimed at assisting socially vulnerable groups of the population, that is not populism. The word populism does not always have a negative connotation.

I still believe that the promise of distributing a 1000-lari voucher was more beneficial for society than Ivanishvili’s unrealized promises. Loans have not become cheaper or have been written off; nor has the price of gasoline dropped. The decrease in the electricity tariff, which was achieved by means of non-transparent procedures, will eventually damage the energy sector. Moreover, instead of halving the tariff, as was promised before the elections, it has only decreased by 3.5 tetri.

You often underscore fundamental differences with the Georgian Dream. What are these differences?

Ivanishvili is an old-fashioned man. They lack a modern vision of the world – both he and his government members. Their plans have been oriented towards a mass decrease in prices, which is absurd. Price depends on circumstances, the market and not on someone’s good will.

Our objective is to help socially vulnerable groups have access to those benefits not through an impossible decrease in prices, but through an increase in revenues.

We intended to assist those people, who for various reasons lack the possibilities of development, to become integrated into the new economic system. To that very end, we planned to build natural gas and water supply systems and roads to every village and to provide them with Internet access as well as to give them a 1000-lari voucher and health insurance cover to everyone. I find it difficult to evaluate the health care program of the current government because we have not seen anything in written form yet. We only hear oral statements about the dates for the enactment of that program.

We have fundamental differences in regard to our aspirations towards the West. Unfortunately, the new government does not have a clear-cut position in relation to its foreign policy yet. They have made some declarations, but they are not consistent. For example, no joint declaration of the new government and the President has been made regarding Georgia’s NATO integration; also, negative assessments about the new government have been made in the international media.

We also have differences with regard to good neighborly relations and integration with neighboring economies.

At the level of declarations, the Georgian Dream says the same as you …

But they also add that loans, the electricity tariff and gasoline must become cheaper, which are unrealizable promises. They also say that large hydro power plants must not be built in the country, they question the construction of railway lines and many other things.

What is the prospect of Georgia’s integration into the West today?

Our country faces a threat because the ideology being instilled today is not oriented on the future. There are no plans about our advancement towards the Western world. I do not mean here only, for instance, EU and NATO membership, but also the development of the state’s vision which will be oriented on the future and rest on modern values.

The reality is that the main priorities are wrong. Unrealizable social promises will give rise to nihilism in society and eventually bring Georgia’s economic development to a standstill. Economic development is, in my view, the foundation for the construction of a genuinely free society. It is difficult to build democracy in a poor society; democracy costs money.

How do you assess the current situation in terms of investment inflows and economic development in general?

I do not want to speak extensively about this issue because my discussion may also have an impact; the decrease in investments to Georgia is not my aim. But those inconsistent statements the government has been making, for example, on the refusal to construct large hydro power plants or the policy oriented towards a decrease in tariffs at the expense of companies, will not have a positive effect and may lead to investors reassessing any large investments. I think the path the new government has chosen does not contribute to the creation of a favorable investment environment in Georgia.

What was the cause of the significant drop in the ranking of the UNM after the elections?

This always happens automatically. The rating of a party which has been defeated in an election always declines, whereas that of the winning party soars. The ratings may thereafter recover or vice versa. I think we have great prospects.

You said earlier that it would take time to analyze the past mistakes of the UNM. What conclusions have you arrived at?

People have already largely realized that the pre-election promises given by Ivanishvili cannot come true. The government has no idea how to fulfill these obligations. During the past three months we have arrived at the conclusion that the government is confused and has no real plans.

In a climate where the government has halted almost everything that was under way in the country, speaking about the mistakes of the previous government is, I think, irrelevant. I have talked about this many times before in a number of other interviews. This topic has already become obsolete.

The previous government had a problem in communicating with the public. Decisions were often taken and executed without much explanation given, thereby providing fertile ground for various myths to be created. Why did this happen? Do you think that that was a serious mistake?

I would say a different thing. The point here is not that decisions were taken in a non-transparent way. Decisions were taken transparently and in accordance with procedures. The point is that, as it turned out, we should have provided more explanations to society. I, personally, and we often thought that some decisions were so clear and simple to understand, that some projects were so advantageous for a city, a region or the entire country, that they did not require much explanation. That led us to a situation where not everything was clear for society.

The new government accuses state institutions of acting in concert with the former government when the latter committed illegal acts or when it tried to conceal its lawlessness. As an illustration, they quote the example of Cartu Bank, alleging that the former government tried to bankrupt the bank belonging to Ivanishvili. They also recall the European Court for Human Rights made the same assessment on the case of the murder of Sandro Girgvliani. What do you have to say on that?

Regarding the Cartu Bank allegation, I will say that this is a personal retaliation by Bidzina Ivanishvili. Such a thing – a democratically elected person coming to power and using 80 percent of his energy and the state administration for his personal interests – has never before happened in the world.

From the parliament to the financial police and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all are focused on the Cartu Bank case and the protection of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s business interests. On the very first day of coming to power, the first thing he did was to take back the 80 million GEL that had been imposed on him as a fine. Thereafter, during these last three months, he has been busy consolidating state resources to strengthen his [Cartu] bank. What I see is that Bidzina Ivanishvili acts only in accordance with his personal interests.

As regards the other issues, they are in power now and let them conduct an investigation. They have been in power for three months. Fine, let’s give them as much time as they want. No one is impeding them now, are they? It would be good if they provide society with any additional information they have.

Chief Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili said earlier that were it not for the killings of Sandro Girgvliani, Buta Robakidze and some other cases, they would not hold the positions they hold now. What role did these cases play in the defeat of UNM? How important are these cases for society and what do they mean personally for you?

I was responsible for everything and I personally think that we have not concealed anything from society concerning any of these cases or any other case for that matter. We conducted investigations into these cases and provided society with all the information established by these investigations.

I reiterate: if the government so wants, and if these cases contributed to making Kbilashvili the Chief Prosecutor, let them spend less time on the Cartu Bank case and assign more resources – investigators and officers – to investigate those cases. I will only wish them luck in that. However, I think that this will not help ensure them staying in power for a long term because Georgian society has, aside from this, many other interests connected with their wellbeing and the development of Georgia.

The prison scandal is also a significant topic. How come such a significant problem, which we have all seen existed in the prison, was ignored?

Once we saw it, it was no longer ignored. We reacted adequately.

That problem was discussed over several years, including in Public Defender’s reports. Why was proper attention not paid to it?

the lack of an adequate reaction was our mistake. 


 

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