Salome Zurabishvil

Salomé Zourabichvili: The role of president is directly tailored for me


"I obtained consent on appointing Salomé Zourabichvili as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia from them [the French authorities]." That is how President Mikheil Saakashvili announced the appointment of Salomé Zourabichvili, a French-born Georgian diplomat and the then Ambassador of France to Georgia, as the head of the foreign office in 2004.

However, it was not long before the former Ambassador of France had to leave that position. "Personal and unfounded criticisms directed towards a high-level public official is categorically unacceptable for the foreign office. Such a [critical] statement is unacceptable when it concerns the Foreign Affairs Minister [Salomé Zourabichvili] and comes at a time of her being on a visit to a foreign country." This was the response of Zourabichvili's ministry to the dissatisfaction parliament voiced about her activity.

In late 2005, Salomé Zourabichvili became a political opponent of Saakashvili's government.

"If the minister believes that the situation [in the country] is so catastrophic... she should have declared that either before she resigned or should have left this team earlier... However, I do not much trust those persons who engage in criticism only after they lose their positions," rejoined the then Chair of Parliament, Nino Burjanadze, who a couple of years later herself turned into an opponent of Saakashvili.

In 2010, Salomé Zourabichvili withdrew from Georgian politics. The reason she cited for doing so was the lack of democracy: "There is not even a minimal [degree of] democracy in this country enabling the opposition to exist... It has been totally quashed, leaving no trace of democracy... Being in opposition in such conditions means participating in the illusions and lies of the government." However, with a threat in her voice, she promised to return: "Those who have prematurely rejoiced at the news of my exit may not be happy when I return; the time for such a comeback will come."

The former foreign minister has now delivered on this promise and will stand in the upcoming presidential elections. However, she says that if she loses the election she will exit politics for good and continue with the activity she currently performs in the United Nations as the Coordinator of the Panel of Experts assisting the UN Security Council's Iran Sanctions Committee.

Why is she running in the elections? What does she plan to do? Salomé Zourabichvili answered these and some other questions of Tabula in writing.


What is the aim of your standing in the October presidential elections?

It comes from necessity... When I learned that the Georgian Dream coalition intended to nominate a candidate for the presidency from their party, my desire to stand in the elections as an independent candidate instantly arose. I then shared my thoughts with Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Some time later, when I arrived in Poti to attend the consecration of the cathedral founded by Niko Nikoladze [a notable public figure of the early 20th century], I decided to make my decision public. The idea to run for president came to my mind because, proceeding from the recent experience in the country, people have developed a desire to have a balance of powers, an independent person [as president], to avoid the threat of single-party rule as well as a repetition of the past. At the same time, I have thoroughly studied the [new] constitution [amended under the 2010 constitutional reform, changing the political system of the country from a presidential into a parliamentary model, which is to enter into force in December 2013] and have understood perfectly well that the constitution itself requires an independent candidate. Were this not the case, the president would not have been elected by the people but, as is practiced in many other countries, would have been elected by parliament, i.e. appointed by political parties. Under those systems, the president, who is nominated and elected by a political party, is appointed by the parliamentary majority, except in cases of coalition governments where the candidates to be elected are nominated by achieving concessions from among the separate parties in the coalition. But that is a different system. In our system, in which the majority always completely takes over the government, totally controls parliament by a constitutional majority, and, unfortunately, also controls the judiciary, I think it is necessary for the country to have a free, non-partisan voice and an authority that will protect the country from either the total dominance of a single party or from extreme polarization. It is this very type of president that our constitution offers. Clearly, the powers of the president [under the new constitution] are curtailed compared to the French-type of presidency, which was established and then further strengthened under Saakashvili, but still the presidency under the new constitution remains quite powerful as it has both popular trust and legitimacy!

Another reason why I took such a decision were the functions of the president as listed in the constitution. The main emphasis is placed on the significance of the role of the president in international relations, which, I think, is something directly tailored for me (:)))


Sergey Lavrov and Salomé Zourabichvili. Tbilisi. 2005. Photo: Reuters

The third reason influencing my decision was that time has come for the country to have someone acting in the role of a reconciliatory national unifier. This role cannot be performed by any political party; doing so would only further deepen polarization and increase the fatigue felt in the country towards aggression and provocation. And finally, I feel that it is my obligation not to give up the opportunity to fill the vacant place for a legitimate opposition force, even if I come second [in the presidential race]. I do not want to give the possibility to those forces that have already lost the moral right to run the country to reappear and reestablish themselves in the political arena of Georgia! Those are the currently defeated and yet not forgiven United National Movement as well as the forces of the Shevardnadze era (often one and the same people were active in both [the Saakashvili and Shevardnadze] periods).

It can be said that my decision primarily rests on my sense of obligation and my vision for the country's future. Were it not for these, I would have continued performing my job in that entity [the UN] that has recently extended my mandate and declared its trust in me anew. Today, I deem it more valuable, than occupying any high post, to appear where I am needed and where I can be of good service to my country!

After the October presidential elections, the constitutional model of the country will change. The presidential functions will also fundamentally change. How do you see the role of the president in political life under the new model? What key objectives will the president face? Why do you think that you are a suitable candidate for performing the presidential functions under that new model?

The key objective will be to restore the image of the country. It has been a long time since the campaign of discrediting the country first begun, which was something I often criticized and was opposed to. This campaign [of the former government] portrayed the image of a country that was looking backwards – if not quite in the dark ages, at least, barbarian in outlook – a place where, except for the United National Movement, no other pro-Western forces existed and in which everyone was oriented towards Russia to a greater or lesser extent, with some people directly branded as traitors. This campaign of discrimination reached new heights during the October [2012] parliamentary elections. I believe, however, that the real Georgia, corresponding to the image of the country that I was raised with – a tolerant nation, open to other cultures and religions – is prepared to have a democratic system inside the country, and aspires towards the developed European system. We must reintroduce this Georgia to the world. It is clear to me that the result of such discrimination can only be the isolation of Georgia and, consequently, its abandonment to face Russia alone – something which we know from experience will bring no good to our independence or sovereignty!

This cause – i.e. the restoration of the real face of Georgia, of the values of respect and dignity, the reinstatement of its place and function in the world and the region, and its right to speak up and be heard – all requires someone who has experience in both the East and the West, who has experience of conducting relations with our close and distant neighbors and, more importantly, one who has knowledge of the language and rules of diplomacy. In such matters, I believe no other presidential candidate can compete with me; I know those rules, not only as an outsider but as an insider too. This not only deals with the formal side of diplomacy, which can be easily learnt, but with something called diplomatic strategy, which implies not only practice but also an understanding of the country's interests and a vision for the future. One must have a sense of understanding when to defend one's own values and not just agree to everything, even to those requirements of your closest partners, and, at the same time, one must know how – in what form and style – to avoid making concessions. You must know when to concede and compromise on something, but not to the detriment of your principles... It is in this field that I have 40 years of experience (I started diplomatic activity in 1974). Not only is experience in bilateral relationships and in international organizations needed (I have worked in all these spheres), but also the trust that arises from personal contacts! In this extremely important moment for Georgia, it will be very regrettable if my potential is not used for the benefit of the country!

The new functions of the president include representing the country in foreign relations, in which you are quite experienced. However, another aspect is that the president will act as a sort of arbiter and, to some extent, a balancer in the new political system. In a situation whereby the formal prerogatives of the president will be significantly curtailed, how will an independent person, who does not have the backing of a strong political force, be able to balance the prime minister? Especially considering that the current prime minister is also the richest person in the country and has almost a constitutional majority in parliament?

Before talking about balancing, it first needs to be said that the president must be a unifier. This is an extremely important function, especially for a country which has unresolved territorial conflicts and has spent the past 20 years of its political history divided and polarized. In this case, as both a minister of the former government during the period when that government was still committed to the democratic promises of the Rose Revolution, and, subsequently, as one of the top leaders of the political opposition who switched sides to defend democratic principles and who fought for these for five years, including by standing in the street for 100 days [during a long-lasting opposition protest in spring 2009], I have the ability to be that unifier. Not of political forces (in a distorted understanding of cohabitation), but of all segments of the population who share these values. I, the offspring of an emigrant who returned to her native country, represent, in a natural manner, a bridge [connecting people] both inside and outside Georgia; in this sense too, I represent a unifier. With the contacts I have accumulated during my stay in France and the United States, I am also proud that I have free relations with the Abkhazian and the South Ossetian people. And finally, perhaps it is I who must bring the most painful period in the history of Georgia, i.e. the conflict between supporters of the first president of Georgia Zviad Gamsakhurdia and those who toppled him in a coup, to an end. I, as a person who lived outside the country during that period and did not participate in any of the conflicts [then taking place in Georgia], have always been against coups and the use of force (including during the time when I was in the opposition) and, at the same time, as a free person who has always criticized any attempt of political idolization, may be able to somewhat unify a divided Georgian society around one notion: around the idea of defending national values and building the state.

Your phrase that "dialogue is the language of the devil" has entered Georgian political folklore. With such a philosophy, how will you be able to perform the role of arbiter?

სალომე ზურაბიშვილი Photo: Reuters

No one can charge an experienced diplomat with being unable to conduct a dialogue or to appreciate the importance and the necessity of dialogue. After all, the only successful example of the dialogue with Russia [the withdrawal of Russian military bases in Georgia] is associated with me! Therefore, that phrase I used [during the opposition protests in spring 2009] in my "parody address" to people was deliberate. The offer we received from the Saakashvili government back then was not an offer for real dialogue, but was of a propagandist nature and I wanted to expose that to the people. So, I did just that. That's why this phrase caused such irritation among government circles and their supporters! That offer [from the government] was an offer for pseudo-dialogue which would not bring about any result because the government was not ready to admit that its [political] opponents and half the country's population [supporting the opposition] were dignified partners and to cede something to them... The "devilishness" of that pseudo-dialogue was, by the way, made clear to everyone from that famous footage in which [during a meeting between the president and leaders of the opposition in spring 2009] Saakashvili, instead of shaking hands with me, just passed me by, much to my amazement! The offer made at that time for me to take up the position of deputy interior minister was also a false offer of dialogue and "cohabitation." I exposed that too and showed the population and the international community that the government was not ready for anything beyond mere words. The single party government of the United National Movement of that time did not in any sense meet [the essence of] "cohabitation," which now has become something very desirable for it! This should also be remembered!

During your time as the foreign affairs minister, an agreement was signed on the pullout of Russian military bases in Georgia. Therefore, please evaluate the current Georgian reset policy with Russia. Against the backdrop of the installation of barbed wire fences along the occupation line with the Tskhinvali region and the constant accusations from the Chief Sanitary Inspector of Russia, Gennadiy Onishchenko, the Russian market has not actually opened up for Georgia. How have we benefited from the new reset policy? What should be done in terms of sorting out relations with Russia? Does the policy of making concessions encourage Russian aggression?

I have repeatedly said, and continue to stick to this opinion, that our policy with Russia (and I would say, with any other country) must be neither conceding nor constantly confrontational, let alone constantly causing offence. As our centuries-old history has proved, our small country cannot get along by adopting either of these two approaches. Quite the contrary, our experience has always shown that Georgia has managed to defend its main interests (i.e. managed not to concede its principles) through diplomacy and balancing. Georgia was never afraid of war, but always spared no effort in attempting to avoid being left alone facing the enemy; it always sought partners and masterly used this triangle [of Georgia, partner, enemy] in its relations with the empires approaching it. No other option exists for Georgian politics. I always recall with pride, and I also mention this in my book, that in May 2005, Georgia witnessed a fine example of the achievement of such a policy, when the US President, a representative of Russia and the President of Iran arrived in Tbilisi, one after another, and none of them voiced any complaint towards us. Unfortunately, soon thereafter, we ourselves damaged that extraordinary achievement and our unique positive position in international relations. Instead, we opted for, what in my opinion was, unfruitful and senseless confrontation. We have witnessed what such confrontation brought about. Today, however, I do not see a reset policy (by the way, this term is usually used not towards Georgia, but to denote the policy of President Obama towards Russia, which he announced at the start of his first term). What I have observed so far is that there is no new policy towards Russia, but rather separate new approaches towards issues such as visas and trade relations... The resumption of a new policy with Russia must be comprehensive, involving all issues that are the cause of confrontation – we will always emerge as losers from negotiations oriented on separate issues. Yet another condition is the necessity for the restoration of our dialogue with Russia to be backed by our Western partners. Unfortunately, their current relations with Russia are not very conducive to that. And finally, regarding the conflict regions, we must draw a very clear line between what we must settle, what Russia must settle, and what must be discussed only between us and our Abkhazian and South Ossetian brethren.

You know that Georgia is not rich with natural resources. The economic vision of the past 20 years was based on this very fact. The country was creating a maximally tolerant environment for the inflow of people, cargo and capital. All that is now being questioned – the visa regime with a whole number of countries has been toughened and a moratorium was declared on the sale of agricultural land to foreign farmers. How will the country develop if it says no to all that or continues this strategy? How can this problem be tackled?

This is an issue that must not be decided in a rush; this requires people to calm down, consider our interests and then present them...

Given that you were a member of the team of negotiators with Iran, how would you assess the initiative of the government to scrap the visa-free regime with Iran? What will the result of this change be in terms of the non-recognition policy, alternative sources of energy, Iranian investments and tourism?

For the sake of precision, let me say that I was not a member of the team of negotiators with Iran, but the Coordinator of the Panel of Experts assisting the UN Security Council's Iran Sanctions Committee. Bearing professional rules in mind, this is the issue which I will have to refrain from commenting on at the moment. I will say only one thing: Georgia, on the one hand, as a member of the international community, and, on the other, as a neighbor to Iran – a country belonging in this region, which we have always been able to negotiate with, even in times of war – is still obliged, just like any other UN member state, to fulfill UN resolutions. Georgia has the means, which are as yet unused, to play an interesting and valuable role when international negotiations with Iran move into a different stage. In general, I would say that Georgia has an extraordinary ability and capacity to play a more active role in this extremely tense region.

Let us talk about the threat of international isolation – parallels between Yulia Tymoshenko and Vano Merabishvili have increasingly been drawn. A segment of foreign politicians see political motives behind the pretrial detention of Merabishvili. How real is the threat of isolation?

Nino Burjanadze and Salomé Zourabichvili at a protest rally. Tbilisi. 2009. Photo: Reuters

The threat of isolation is not linked to Merabishvili's case, or any other case, and I do not see any parallel between Tymoshenko and Merabishvili. Tymoshenko, whom I know personally, is not accused of human rights violations and she did not turn into an odious figure for her population. Her punishment looks like a clearly political measure, supported by financial motives. As regards Merabishvili, in order to avoid that unjustified parallel, I would have preferred to first see a court trial and, only after that, an arrest. I believe that Georgia necessarily needs exemplary courts which, as in Western countries, regularly operate in front of the people and the media and which would expose those methods that were applied during the rule of the previous government. Until such courts have been established, we will remain a country of rumor and speculation. Democracy starts where the presumption of innocence is protected, but ends where a syndrome of impunity emerges. A balance between these two principles must be found. Isolation has nothing to do with the reality that a huge feeling of injustice has arisen over those nine years [of former government's rule] and if people do not see that the rule of law has returned and been established, we will fail to deal with those arbitrary reactions the likes of which we have just seen in the Samegrelo region [when on 20 July, aggressive protesters physically and verbally assaulted members of the United National Movement].
Stability in the country can only be established on the basis of justice and the rule of law. By the way, it is the new president who must be the guarantor of such stability.

What can you say about the rise in crime? The impression one may get is that we have moved from one extreme to another. What should be done in this respect?

What rise in crime are you talking about? One is the natural rise you see when moving from a police state to a democratic one, in which the factor of fear naturally decreases and the actions of criminals become bolder. Unfortunately, this is a usual dilemma between democracy and autocracy; totalitarian countries do not know what a criminal is because everyone is punished and "order" is installed. I doubt that either you or I desire, or feel nostalgic about, such artificial order. Instead, I personally worry very much about the increased indicators of drug abuse associated with new substances flowing into the country. This definitely requires a strict response from the government and a higher degree of attention and awareness from society. I am surprised that Georgian TV channels, first and foremost the Georgian Public Broadcasters, do not produce such educational programs in order to provide detailed information to the youth about the potential dangers they face. This too, I think, falls within those competencies which the future president, as the guarantor of human rights and the development of the country, may be called upon to undertake. I really view this issue as one of the top priorities and will spare no effort to overcome what is the largest, latent enemy of Georgia!


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