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Giga Bokeria: Should we apologize to Onishchenko but condemn the EPP?

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The Chairman of the National Security Council of Georgia Giga Bokeria talked with Tabula about the country’s foreign policy orientation, its court reform, the plans and problems of the United National Movement as well as other important developments in the country.

How much have the cuts in the budget of the National Security Council (NSC) affected the scope of its activity? The new government made allegations about the untargeted and non-transparent spending of the NSC budget.

The NSC budget was downsized in terms of expenditures made for NSC policy, foreign policy, and the consultants whose task was to support our national security interests. The government decided that these directions were not priorities or, as they said, the money was being spent incorrectly. Now, as they have declared, they themselves have signed contracts with international consulting groups.

There is nothing extraordinary in their decision to run the business themselves. But, I believe, the form in which this was done was incorrect. They did not show even the tiniest interest in what we dealt with or how it would be better to continue our activities. That was followed by allegations from the realm of the conspiracy theories which our government entertains today. I see nothing scandalous in the cuts to the budget itself and we have not kicked up any fuss about that. What is worth noting, however, is that all this happened without any inquiry – and by inquiry, I do not mean a criminal prosecution which is a declared goal [of the new government].

Those expenditures covered several directions which did not involve consulting companies, the so-called lobbyists. They concerned extremely apolitical topics, for example, establishing a structure for running the country in case of emergency, war or natural disaster. Such projects had been implemented for several years with the assistance of our international partners. However, [after the new government came to power] it became a matter of political jealousy. In order to avoid the suspension of that project because of political jealousy, we made the new government an offer that another entity would continue its implementation. Initial reactions seemed positive, but they failed to reach a decision and the project was suspended.

As regards current developments, recently the European People’s Party [EPP] adopted a declaration on Georgia in which it expresses regret that certain steps of the government have damaged the positive image of Georgia, thereby endangering the ratification of the Association Agreement between the European Union and Georgia.

At the same time, however, the EPP notes in that declaration that it remains committed to making the [Eastern Partnership] Summit in Vilnius [scheduled in November 2013] a success for Georgia. In my opinion this is the most important issue.

Government representatives declare that the EPP declaration will not jeopardize the achievement of the country’s objectives. What is your stance – is the danger of questioning Georgia’s European course or the Association Agreement, in particular, real?

I hope it is not. Our objective is to make the Vilnius Summit a success for Georgia by achieving its minimum objective – the signing of the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU whilst, in parallel, continuing successful implementation of the action plan for visa-free travel. The maximum objective is to have the European perspective explicitly outlined within the framework of the Association Agreement. This issue has not been decided yet. In other areas, the work was almost completely done before the change of power: there were virtually no barriers left in the technical part and a political decision was also taken at the summit in Warsaw. Now there is the need to complete this work and avoid spoiling it.

As regards a direct message about our EU prospects, this issue has required quite a lot of toil because there are some skeptics in Europe. I hope, at least, the minimum objective will be achieved.

Recent steps taken in Georgia and the sharp reactions to the [EPP’s] criticism are dangerous. First, because of what it may bring about in terms of achieving a practical objective. When you aggressively attack the largest political party of EU member states because you do not like its criticisms, it is political stupidity.

So it turns out that if the Georgian president criticizes [the Chief Sanitary Inspector of Russia Gennadiy] Onishchenko, we must apologize to him, but if the EPP criticizes us we must condemn it.

A second threat, which is even more dangerous in the long term perspective, is demonstrating total intolerance and unrestraint towards criticism. No government likes scathing criticism. One may not agree with the criticism, and may even become angry about it, but having this type of reaction is dangerous.

The aggressive letter of the Speaker of Parliament [Davit Usupashvili] to the EPP was scandalous. It came as a surprise to us. We do not agree with Mr. Usupashvili on many topics, but never before has he committed such an act of political craziness. The reasons of that, however, soon transpired – with his characteristic straightforwardness, the prime minister [Bidzina Ivanishvili] said that it was his idea.

A reaction of this type adds to the attitudes of European skeptics that this country [Georgia] behaves like some other countries of this region, especially our northern neighbor.

Even if one does not agree with the reasons that the action plan was draw up for, one must agree with the points that were made in the recent EPP declaration [on Georgia]: that there must be political competition; that the opposition must not be persecuted; that self-government bodies must not be forced to switch sides; that certain issues in the media, for example, those concerning the independence of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, must not be revised; that the recommendations of the Venice Commission on the issue of court reformation must be taken into account; that no selective justice must be applied, et cetera. In such cases, a responsible authority, even though it may not agree, would say that it would listen to them and work with them.

The attitude that Europeans must not interfere into our affairs, should not teach us, and so on and so forth, is a dangerous sentiment. The situation appears confused – they first say ‘visit us, criticize us, inspect us’, but then, when they do not agree with the clear criticism voiced, they get angry and their reaction is hysterical. As a result of such attitudes, Georgia’s European path may get entirely derailed, regrettable signs of which have already been seen. This derailment is not irreversible and has not yet been completed and I hope that this will not happen.

The demands the West placed on our team [the United National Movement, UNM] were way higher than they were towards [former President Eduard] Shevadnadze. Now, for the first time ever, a new government has come to power through elections and this government may be required to meet yet a higher standard still. That must not come as a surprise to them. No matter how irritating the criticism, it must be perceived as a healthy phenomenon. The denial of such criticisms may, at a minimum, impede the fulfillment of our objectives – the signing of the Association Agreement and other issues.

Along with the criticism towards Europeans, new details have emerged in Georgia’s relations with Russia, including the establishment of a format of bilateral meetings in parallel with the Geneva talks. The government contends that this will not interfere with the Geneva talks which will carry on as normal. Do you deem the establishment of another channel with Russia justifiable? What possible risks or benefits may it contain?

When the new government said that it wanted to talk to Russia on all issues, our reaction was supportive and we wished them success. Unfortunately, we have strategic differences with the political class of the Russian Federation, but it is logical and there is no problem when a democratically elected new authority offers dialogue on the fundamental issues we face. Dialogue itself is good.

The problem lies in the following: the vision that “sorting out” relations with the Russian Federation is a prerequisite for Georgia’s advancement toward the West is a grave mistake. The normalization of relations with Russia, as our government itself admitted, will take a long time and if the pace of our advancement slows down, we will find ourselves in a stalemate. The only chance of more or less settling relations with the Russian Federation is a rapid integration of Georgia into the Euro-Atlantic space, just as Poland and Baltic States managed to do.

We [the UMN] also used to say that we were ready for dialogue with the Russian Federation at any level. But if this dialogue means setting aside a problematic issue for a long time, refraining from reminding Russia that whilst it occupies our territories it will have a problem, how then will this issue [de-occupation] be solved at all?

The government, however, stresses that its priorities and rhetoric in the international arena have not changed.

They have not changed, but if we do not make efforts to have our international partners exert pressure on Russia, then everyone will forget that.

The prime minister often repeats a romantic phrase that, ‘it is not in the hands of Russia itself [that Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region remain occupied], and we will explain this to Russia.’ This is the height of infantilism. You cannot explain anything to an adversary who, at a given point of time, pursues the objectives which strategically oppose your own. The illusion that President Putin, at his current age, will change his vision is beyond the scope of unseriousness.

We supported the establishment of dialogue but the format must always be multilateral, like it is in Geneva today. There can be meetings held in parallel, but in discussions of strategic issues we must never be alone with the Russian Federation. That brings about dire consequences that we have already witnessed more than once before. During such dialogue, Russia must be made to face political problems in its own international relations until its attitude towards Georgia changes.

There are certain concrete issues which Russia banned on political grounds, for example, the return of Georgian products to the Russian market. Georgia supported Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The use of such a lever [as it was Georgia’s support to Russia’s WTO accession] through dialogue is good – Russia must know that we have this lever and that it may pose problems for it.

No one will be against opening the Russian market to Georgian products. The problem is the excessive expectations towards that. We must exercise caution in order to avoid dependence on exports to Russia in any sphere – regardless of international levers, we do not have any guarantees that Russia will not decide to use its grip on us as it does with Moldova.

An open market, diversified exports and a possible enhancement of business is all good, but they cannot lead to a breakthrough in Georgian economic development. The Soviet period, when the Georgian economy was small and 90 percent of exports went to Russia, was bad for Georgia and it cost us dearly back then. Georgia has since developed and those volumes will no longer bring any result. The wine industry, which suffered most severely from the Russian embargo, has diversified – and this has translated into better quality – and, at the same time, we are better protected politically, we no longer depend on anyone telling us that if we do not act accordingly it will close down its market without any legitimate reason.

Can the reopening of the Russian market to Georgian products be considered a positive result of the new government and its new policy?

They will portray that as such, but I think that this will be a result of the fact that the Georgian economy has withstood the embargo whilst the embargo gave nothing to Russia.

If this is considered one of top priorities in the negotiations then that is no problem, let them [the new government] be credited for that. But pinning great hopes for the Georgian economy on that is incorrect. The opening of the Russian market cannot be, and has never been, a panacea for settling any problem.

Attempts to achieve the reopening of the market are absolutely normal. What is abnormal is that we cannot see a proactive foreign policy, for example, in terms of NATO. Attitudes towards us vary in Europe: there are skeptics as well as supporters. It is necessary to actively work with everyone on a daily basis, to use lobbying and all available instruments, including consultants, in order to mobilize opinions among the political class about the further steps needed for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

By the way, we missed a very good chance of dissuading skeptics after the October parliamentary election. That election was seen as a test for us in the West. A new political team, working jointly with us, could have capitalized on that. I am not saying that it would necessarily have brought a direct result, for example, the award of a Membership Action Plan, but a focused campaign indicating that Georgia deserved the next step should have been conducted. I did not see that. There was a concrete idea – a joint visit [to Brussels] would have been a strong signal for the European audience. That would, inter alia, have put European skeptics in a position where they would have had to acknowledge that Georgia had already become a different country. But our government, and the prime minister personally, has chosen a different path, which is part of a big problem – instead of portraying his personal success in the elections as a step forward on Georgia’s path towards democratization, he decided to “open the world’s eyes” to how terrible we were and what terrible things had been happening here at a time when they thought Georgia was a successful country. This, at best, is political stupidity.

It is shocking for anyone in international relations when the government spends most of its foreign communications asserting how bad its opposition is and how big the lies are that they have heard about Georgia.

It creates catastrophic impressions and causes catastrophic results when the foreign minister’s key message when visiting the United States is that everyone from the former government are criminals, even more so when this is publically declared prior to the completion of any legal investigation. It is equally grave when, during a meeting with investors, the prime minister says that things are very bad in Georgia in reality and whatever they have heard to the contrary is all a lie. This is an inadequate and anti-statehood expression of political rancor.

For its part, the political opposition, which only criticizes the government, speaks about the shortcomings of democracy and does not place emphasis on the strategic objectives of the country, also looks bad. As the opposition, our message must also be that Georgia deserves advancement in Euro-Atlantic integration, but the idea that opponents must not take bad news “outside” is the approach practiced in the Russian Federation.

One more issue is the de-criminalization of the crossing of Georgia’s borders running along the occupied territories. The government asserts that this de-criminalization is merely pragmatic in nature. Does such an amendment to the Law on Occupied Territores weaken Georgia’s positions in terms of its non-recognition policy? Can we consider this as a toning down of rhetoric or a prerequisite of future concessions?

This causes concern in a general context. The decision for the achievement of a practical objective may not be alarming itself. Even under the existing legislation, the government has the right to allow people to enter the occupied territories from other countries; this discretion is in the hands of the government. I have not yet heard from the government how we will benefit from ceding this discretion. If anyone explains, we will listen to and discuss that explanation.

The fact that trespassing the borders of unoccupied territory is punishable, whilst along the occupied territories is not punishable, is abnormal. Understandably, there may be circumstances when we will not need to prosecute those people who have illegitimately entered Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, however, the effective law currently allows that without the need for amendments.

Talks about making a pragmatic concession, like talks on other issues, should not automatically cause hysteria; nonetheless, explanations about why this is being done are necessary.

As regards the restoration of rail traffic via Abkhazia. How timely is it to raise this topic now and can this initiative be beneficial for Georgia?

It is incomprehensible why open statements were made on this issue without first having considered in what context this can be beneficial for Georgia and how it can be implemented.

Those statements aroused questions in our strategic partner Azerbaijan. Starting relationships with question marks is not good for the new government. I hope this will not create a fundamental threat to our relationship with Azerbaijan, but all this indicates immaturity, to say the least.

As the new government itself later admitted, the Abkhazia railway involves many complex issues to which there are no answers yet and therefore it is too premature to talk about that.

Our position was clear-cut: this issue can be discussed only in the context of de-occupation or a fundamental settlement of the situation of the occupied territories.

What we’ve got is a situation where a statement was made about something which is unfeasible, whilst the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Baku railway project, which is being implemented and clearly serves our national security interests, was questioned. Everything is happening in reverse.

That gives rise to problems with our friend Armenia because an illusion is created which cannot be materialized. This is not normal. It must be clear-cut and transparent for our partners what our stance is on this issue, what the barriers are, and what is and is not realistic.

Let me ask you about a statement made by President Mikheil Saakashvili after his official visit to Baku in early March. He said that Russia is preparing the same scenario for Azerbaijan as it used against Georgia during the October parliamentary elections. The statement caused a rather sharp reaction from Baku. President Ilham Aliyev’s administration expressed its surprise about that statement, denying that this issue was discussed during any meeting there. On what basis did Saakashvili make this statement and how correct was making such a political statement about problems between Azerbaijan and Russia right after his visit?

A statement of a representative of the Azerbaijani President’s administration said that there could be some similarities [between the situations of the two countries], but each country has its own path and foreign policy. This statement underlined that those issues were not discussed during the meetings in Baku.

We also confirm that this was not a topic of discussion in the meeting between President Saakashvili and President Aliyev. This is the vision of President Saakashvili and I can assure you that, in general, President Saakashvili openly speaking about the plans of the Russian Federation towards its neighbors creates no problems for the Georgian-Azerbaijani relationship.

Every country has its own tactics regarding what and what not to articulate. The President of Georgia deemed it necessary to articulate that. The Azerbaijani side deemed it necessary to specify that that was President Saakashvili’s position and not Azerbaijan’s, so they did.

I completely share President Saakashvili’s vision in regards that the Russian Federation has such plans towards its neighbors. This is not a problem in Georgia-Azerbaijan relations.

Society is interested in issues related to your team – after the defeat in the parliamentary elections, the UNM admitted that it had made some mistakes and also declared that the party needs transformation and renewal. Six months have passed since then, but the results of this transformation and renewal have not been seen yet except for several new faces in the party. What is the reason of that and what can be expected in terms of “transformation”?

I do not want to talk much about this topic. I was, am, and will be a member of this political team, but I am the Chairman of the Security Council and do not want to speak about political party issues in detail. However, I am ready to briefly outline my opinion.

The mere fact of being in power for nine years itself always makes voters in any country tired of one and the same team. Nine years will blemish any political team. An integral part of such blemishes are the inevitable mistakes which were made during those years – some grave, some of medium severity. Added to this fact was that unemployment was still high, regardless of the obviously strong economic growth that occurred in spite of both the [August 2008 Georgia-Russia] war and the global economic crisis. Such a high unemployment rate – in which even a segment of self-employed sector considered themselves unemployed – was a serious political problem and a very grave starting position for any political team. This was further compounded by the inertness of a segment of our society who still think that a government may come to power that will tell them: “I will take care of you and pay for everything instead of you in order to ensure your wellbeing without you needing to make any effort.”

However, the UNM did not shun social programs either, including during the election period.

I am talking about conceptual messages. Our key rival was a person whose wealth was a message itself. That was compounded by a clear message given during the election campaign that Georgia will become similar to Ivanishvili’s native village – since this man is personally rich, he will be able to ensure our wellbeing and give us money.

The extreme weakness of political opposition over the period of those nine years, and especially in the past few years, made us relax, and led first to a decrease and then to the disappearance of discussion both inside and outside the country. This would weaken any political team, and proved true in our case too. All this then resulted in further relaxation and a distortion of checks and balances inside the system.

One expression of that – and the most ruinous and terrible – was the prison scandal [the release of video footage featuring the torture of inmates just two weeks before the October election]. The key problem was not that groups of individual sadists committed such an appalling crime, but that the system made such a crime possible and that an early reaction mechanism to such crimes proved to be absent in the system. That was a result of a lack of discussion and heated debate. That is a fundamental mistake which the UNM made.

Recently, President Saakashvili said that the policy of zero tolerance to crime had to be completed several years ago. Do you consider that a mistake too?

I partially disagree with him on that. I believe that the conceptual approach of zero tolerance is correct in a country which inherited a grave situation in terms of organized crime, crime in general and estrangement towards the state. However, it is a problem if the court reforms and other processes fail to keep pace with that.

Just as the correct objective of fighting organized crime and crime in general cannot justify the atrocities and crimes which were revealed in the prison scandal, neither can the exposure of the latter justify the revisions which we are seeing today. I mean the amnesty which was carried out without any analysis, and resulted in the release of Russian spies without any scrutiny of their cases. The new government itself declared that they had not even declassified their cases.

Likewise, the investigation against [the former head of the penitentiary department] Bacho Akhalaia because of a prison riot [in 2006] and openly declaring him a culprit is unfair and the gravest mistake. That riot was staged by organized crime, and incontestable evidence of this fact was presented. This is a very dangerous signal for the future if organized crime attempts to regain its influence, the first signs of which can already be discerned. If a similar situation [a prison riot] occurs in future, any future head [of penitentiaries] will find it very difficult to apply legitimate force, and that is very dangerous.

Let’s go back to the political team. A recent public opinion poll conducted by the US National-Democratic Institute has shown that the UNM and its leaders enjoy some 10 percent support – almost the rating that the political opposition had in previous years. How realistically does the UNM evaluate its possibilities? Do you think the UNM, in the current form, will be able to become a competitive political force? Is that possible before, for example, the presidential elections scheduled for October 2013?

You want me to make a political prognosis, which I will not do. I think, however, that the UNM today is a key political force and will remain as such tomorrow.

The new political team is now having a honeymoon with voters. The mandate given to them for making good on their promises is still fresh. The results of that poll reflect this and nothing more. At the same time, they show that regardless of a very aggressive campaign against the UNM, the tiredness of voters and the prison events, the UNM is the only solid alternative. It is not essential whether the rating is 15 percent today or 20 or 25 percent tomorrow. What is essential is that the UNM is a political alternative to the political force now in power.

- As regards a rally the UNM plans to stage on 19 April in support of Georgia’s European path, according to the prime minister, there is no point in holding that rally as the government supports that course. Why is that rally needed? Just recently, parliament adopted a resolution on the foreign course of Georgia, which accommodates proposals from the political opposition as well.

The resolution is a good document, the result of a good process. It is incomparably better than the draft resolution submitted by the ruling party. But were the issues of the country’s development decided by resolutions alone, we would not worry at all – all sorts of declarations have been adopted and a plebiscite [on accession to NATO] was also held.

That concerns not only foreign policy orientation but also domestic issues as to what path the political class has embarked on and where it wants to lead society. On these issues, fundamental differences exist between the UNM and the current government. These topics have proved sufficient for the UNM political leadership to seek the expression of its opinion through a public demonstration.

Therefore, the aggressive reaction of the prime minister is inappropriate. It is clear that he does not agree with the assessments of the opposition, but if he thinks there is no point of holding the rally, then let him not worry about that at all.

Can you be more specific about those fundamental differences?

The message of a critical segment of the political force that won the elections is that Georgia’s becoming part of the developed world endangers genuine Georgian identity. That is a huge difference.

Our attitude was always clear-cut: Georgian citizens are patriots of this country, but are citizens of the free world. Everyone living here is a Georgian citizen irrespective of their religion, ethnic origin, or their belonging to a sexual or any other minority, and everyone who tries to create speculation on this matter and incite hatred is an enemy of freedom and Georgia’s interests.

There were people, and such people are in abundance in the new political team, who for years have believed that such an approach was an erosion of “Georgian identity,” that Georgia has its own path, that there is Russia with a common religion, et cetera. On top of all that, there is a fundamental difference in economic policy, where the message of the new team is that, with the help of a wealthy man, they will tackle problems for people instead of people tackling these themselves.

Yet another important issue is the draft amendment to the Law on Common Courts. The conclusion of the Venice Commission has already been published positively assessing part of the draft law, whilst recommending against the termination of the power of members of the Supreme Council of Justice, as envisaged by this draft law. What is your take on that?

This is linked to the focal point that the early termination of membership on the Council of Justice is unacceptable. This recommendation concerns the course of the new team which, though having come to power through elections and not through revolution, does not want to wait until the completion of legitimate processes in any of those institutions which it regards as politically problematic. Not only does it seek to change the rules of game, but it also wants to either gain control outright or attempt to dismantle, according to its understanding, the existing system controlling such institutions. That concerns the Georgian Public Broadcaster, the Supreme Council of Justice and also, for example, the intelligence or special state protection services.

The heaviest attack was made on self-government. The main idea of independence of self-government is that it is not tied to central government. However, the violent efforts undertaken by the new team demonstrated that the change of central government also means the change of self-government. It is a catastrophic message for the tradition of self-government and decentralization.

When we were in power, we were criticized for local government being under the political control of the central government. This criticism may partially be fair, but that was the result of elections – the same political team won both the parliamentary and local elections. After the October parliamentary elections we had the situation where we were to demonstrate that central and local governments are two different things. However, that was forcibly quashed.

Regarding the judiciary, that will be a demonstration of imposing political control. I think that has been precisely the key objective of this reform. The rest is camouflage which does not arouse much political discussion. The instant dismantling of a structure which, in the government’s understanding, poses problems for them is the declared goal. This is what the justice minister openly speaks about.

The same holds true for other issues. The real objectives can be seen in prime minister’s statements. He sent a message to us that if we bother him politically he will arrest us. The rhetoric of the justice minister is similar – "these people create problems to us and therefore, this problem must be solved."

This holds true for the crisis related to the Agrarian University as well – a scandalous step by the education ministry and the education minister personally. This was an open political retaliation carried out by applying shameful bureaucratic methods. This is not my interpretation alone, they said that themselves – statements openly expressing political hatred towards [the chairman of the supervisory board of the Agrarian University] Kakha Bendukidze were made, first by the education minister and then by the prime minister. It was said publicly that Bendukidze is an enemy of society, is a “bad man” and that’s the reason everything has been done.

You’ve mentioned the issue of the Agrarian University. The National Center for Education Quality Enhancement which rescinded the authorization of the University was created by the previous government as part of a reversal from liberalization to bureaucratization of the education system. Do you not think that the former government also shares responsibility for what is happening now?

As regards the responsibility, the former government may partially share it. The education system should have been deregulated to a larger extent in order to limit the number of levers in the hands of any political team. Under the circumstances of the political team which I represent, a situation when a bureaucratic body would close down a university for some ridiculous or semi-ridiculous shortcomings was absolutely ruled out, especially for the reason that a head of a university entertained politically opposing views.

Regarding the process of political cohabitation inside the country, attempts to achieve agreement on constitutional changes were undertaken. During those meetings a number of issues were outlined on which consensus seemed possible, although ultimately agreement was not achieved. Can it be said that today the attempt of cohabitation has entered deadlock?

I think, the issue of constitutional changes will soon be resolved. The different positions of various political forces regarding the constitution is not itself a problem of cohabitation. The problem stems not from difference of opinions concerning the constitution, but from attitudes shown in everything. It became a problem for cohabitation when the new political team put it this way – if you do not do what we think necessary in regards to the constitution, we will deprive you of security guards, will not allow you to deliver a speech, will use aggressive people who will beat you up whilst the police will not defend you, and so on and so forth. This is the problem for cohabitation and, even more so, of democracy.

I was against the constitutional model adopted in 2004 and publicly expressed my attitude back then. I supported either a clearly presidential or a clearly parliamentary republic. I have never liked hybrid models. However, the assessments we hear now that that was a dictatorship and a tyranny are comical.

Dismissal of the government by the president is politically absolutely ruled out. Everyone understands that. What would that bring to anyone, including the UNM or the president? The president said that explicitly.

It seems that the attitude of the prime minister has not only a pragmatic side but an emotional facet too – creating the impression that we have no moral right to criticize him so bitterly. This is a very dangerous symptom.

 

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