Davit Bakradze

Davit Bakradze: We must make this election a turning point

Salome Ugulava
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Following the conduct of its primaries, the United National Movement (UNM) has revealed its candidate for the presidency. As was expected, the former speaker of parliament and the current leader of the parliamentary minority, Davit Bakradze, emerged as the winner and will stand in the presidential elections slated for 27 October. Tabula interviewed Davit Bakradze to learn about his views on the current situation in Georgia, the challenges the country is facing, his election priorities, the mistakes and achievements of the former government, and the prospects for the UNM.

Let me first ask what, in your opinion, are the main challenges that Georgia is facing? If you win the presidential elections, how do you see your role in tackling these challenges?

I think we now face one key problem that produces a myriad of other problems. This is political instability and a very high degree of antagonism. This is where the economic problems and the lack of foreign investments stem from. This is what prompts our foreign partners to question the extent to which Georgia is continuing along its path of European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

Therefore, during both the pre-election period and thereafter, my objective is to lead society towards unification. Unification and peacefulness will create the preconditions to help tackle economic problems, create jobs, see the arrival of investors once again and allow us continue on our path towards Europe.

I have put forward an initiative on adopting an act of national conciliation that will put an end to many uncertainties and help achieve such a situation in future in which a host of issues will be resolved so that when the government changes hands people will no longer be afraid of political persecution and retaliation.

Guarantees are necessary for people employed in the public sector, for businesses, that they will not be persecuted and oppressed because of having cooperated with a former government. I am talking about what we should do in future, taking into account the experience that we have had since the change of power [in October 2012]. These 10 months have revealed lots of difficulties and bad things.

My offer to the authorities, to the government and other presidential candidates, is to jointly think about some mechanisms for avoiding all that; to jointly implement an act of national conciliation in order to ensure that power changes in Georgia are carried out as painlessly as they are in Europe.

You mentioned antagonism. Looking at the past few months, the government has toned down its rhetoric. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili declared that until the election has been held, the government should refrain from making arrests. In your opinion, what has caused these changes? Does that mean that there is a readiness for a more peaceful coexistence?

I welcome this tone, of course, but the key in this case is to look at what happens in real life. This tone translated into reality would result in a situation where political persecution stops.

That the investigations initiated against representatives of our [former UNM] government are politically motivated have been proved by many things, including by the fact that criminal cases were instituted against many people who remained UNM members. As soon as any of those people left the UNM, the investigations against them instantly stopped.

Who are you talking about in particular?

We are the political force under whose nine-year-rule the state budget increased 10 times, the economy grew by seven to eight percent, and taxes decreased. We can bring that back to this country.

I am referring, inter alia, to members of the [Tbilisi] city council as well as parliament. The most resounding case is that of the current chairman of the Tbilisi city council [Irakli Shikhiashvili, elected as the new chairman on 26 July after the UNM had lost its majority in the council]. According to an interrogation [conducted several months ago], he admitted to committing a crime in the case of [allegedly attempting to bankrupt] Cartu Bank; but after he switched to another party [the Georgian Dream], he was no longer summoned for interrogation, whereas the investigations of others have continued. Such instances, naturally, generate very reasonable doubt that what is happening is just the use of justice as a political tool.

Going back to the question about rhetoric, I hope that this correct statement will be followed by correct actions. For example, the statements of the Prime Minister [Bidzina Ivanishvili] and the Interior Minister [Irakli Garibashvili] condemning the assault of UNM members in Zugdidi [on 20 July, when the UNM arrived there to conduct a round of primaries], were correct and good indeed. However, those people [the offenders] were unfortunately released [by a court] with merely a fine of 100 GEL each.

You made allegations back then that the government was behind the Zugdidi events. What made you say that?

Facts, video footage, people who recounted how they were taken to a local office of the Georgian Dream and then carried from that office to the theatre [in which the UNM primaries were being held]. All this was organized by the local self government.

A fine of 100 GEL is not an adequate punishment for hurling stones at and physically assaulting people. If we move one step further in the direction of stone-hurling, society will be thrown back to the 1990s. Neither the government nor the opposition should allow a repetition of the disaster of those times.

Speaking about these incidents, your opponents would remind you of those that occurred, for example, in the villages of Karaleti and Mereti before the parliamentary elections of October 2012. The offenders were not punished adequately back then either.

Those incidents were very bad, deserving of condemnation, but afterwards the state drew some conclusions. The first conclusion was that those people who hurled stones [in Karaleti and Mereti] were detained under an administrative rule, thus signaling that the violence was unacceptable.

Another conclusion that the government drew back then was that we agreed on a whole set of mechanisms with the opposition of that time [the Georgian Dream] on how to avoid similar incidents in the future. Those mechanisms proved effective and, after those incidents, the Georgian Dream conducted many public meetings [in the run up to the October 2012 parliamentary elections].

Those mechanisms can be put in operation today too. Therefore, if the current government agrees, we can easily avoid interference in one another's actions and physical conflict. Yes, I agree that the Karaleti incident was very bad, the Mereti incident was bad too, but the culprits were punished.

But the UNM was criticized for applying lenient punishment ...

At least they got a way tougher punishment than a fine of 100 GEL, because back then those people found themselves in prison under an administrative rule.

Let's go back to the upcoming presidential election. What is your chance of winning it? The most recent public opinion poll, released by the NDI in mid July, shows 10 percent support for a UNM candidate. In your view, what can change in the remaining period?

Attitudes in Georgia change very rapidly. If you compare that to the results of a poll of August 2012, the indicators of support to the government and the opposition of that time were similar [to the mid July 2013 indicators].

A large segment of voters was undecided back then and the same is true now ...

In the reality of Georgia, a large segment of the undecided voters are, in general, supporters of the opposition. That was the case last year and perhaps, will be the case this year too.

DAVIT BAKRADZE Photo: ხათუნა ხუციშვილი

My key objective is not to be focused on percentage indicators, though they are important; it is winning that is very important. We must make this election a turning point, with the antagonism, altercations and hatred abating, we must move into normal politics.

In the longer term perspective, the process of this election may bring about one of two results. The first: we continue verbally abusing and hurling stones at each other and thus incite more antagonism among society; or the second: we use this election campaign for conducting truly normal, civilized debates with one another and show society that different views can be expressed and explained in a civilized and democratic way. If we lead this process towards the latter direction, this election will benefit everyone.

The burden of responsibility for this lies with each presidential candidate. Anyone who exploits antagonism and hatred today must realize the role they are performing in the long-term development of Georgia. From this standpoint, the upcoming election is therefore far more important than even the election of a specific individual as president.

You are talking about the antagonism. Can you say why voters should support you for any other reason save that they do not like the presidential candidate of the Georgian Dream Giorgi Margvelashvili?

Frankly, I will say that I do not really want anyone to support me just because they do not like Giorgi Margvelashvili. Of course, negative attitudes can unite people, but such unity is temporary. No matter how many votes I get, I want them because those voters trust me, trust the UNM, and trust our election manifesto; not just because they dislike my competitors.

As regards why people should vote for me, I think that we have had a very valuable and positive experience and, moreover, have a very healthy attitude towards our past. On the one hand, we are the political force under whose nine-year-rule the state budget increased 10 times, the economy grew by seven to eight percent, and taxes decreased. We can bring that back to this country.

On the other hand, I am not ashamed of admitting that during the rule of our government, law enforcement bodies excessively interfered in the business sector, and economic development did not reach a segment of society. That was a problem.

We are ready to take what was valuable from the past and, at the same time, rectify all those mistakes that were made.

Why should voters trust you again?

Trust must be a constant process; a person cannot just trust me once and forever. A politician must meet the trust shown towards him/her with words and deeds.

But when we talk about mistakes, how can voters be guaranteed that the same things will not happen again?

I will tell you exactly how I am moving towards that. That's why I do not like the talk about re-branding the UNM. Re-branding can only be undertaken by a commercial firm. In the case of a political party and a political leader, re-branding does not happen like that. It is a constant process in which it has to prove, with its actions, words, and tangible steps, that it really stands on a position, that it has learned lessons and will behave differently. Throughout these past few months we have tried to show that we are a new party based on a healthy foundation, one that sincerely rectifies its own mistakes. If people see that, I hope that we will regain their trust.

In order to stay in politics as a serious force, in order to be acceptable for society, in order to use the experience we have for the benefit of the country once again, we must speak absolutely sincerely with people – about everything, both good and bad.

In other words, are you ready to speak about mistakes during the election campaign too?

Whenever needed I am ready to talk to people with maximum sincerity, about both good and bad. After all, the best form of politics is sincere politics. No matter how much you try to conceal the bad things, they will never be concealed. It is better to speak sincerely. I think a candid discussion or an apology for a mistake or a crime is not a sign of weakness.

What was the main reason for the defeat of the UNM in the parliamentary elections?

There were several simultaneous reasons. When you are in government for nine years, people get tired of you and seek novelty. This is not just true for Georgia. Everyone in the world has their own limit, after which no matter how well a political force performs, people want change. This was one reason.

The objective of this presidential election is not the change of government, but whether or not all senior positions in the country will be concentrated in the hands of one political team. The objective of this election is to have such a president who will keep tabs on the government and, at the same time, manage to work with it in a constructive manner.

The second reason is that society saw a real alternative in the face of Bidzina Ivanishvili. The dissatisfaction which was scattered around society, all accumulated under Bidzina Ivanishvili.

The third reason were the very high expectations about Bidzina Ivanishvili. They expected that after he came to power everything would be free or become very cheap. I remember that people stopped paying fares for public transport; they also stopped paying natural gas bills. They expected that by voting for him, life would sharply improve.

And, of course, one more reason were the negative factors and mistakes which accumulated over those nine years. One cannot ignore that.

Can you talk about the problems of your government in more detail?

We failed to resolve the main social problems, for example, unemployment. We managed to treble the Gross National Product; to raise pensions and increase the budget by as much as 10 times. We still needed at minimum several years of economic growth to have people feel that. A segment of economically disadvantaged people developed a feeling that life had halted for them. Against this backdrop, it seems paradoxical that, as we have been repeatedly told, the election was lost most severely in places where we did the most, for example, in Batumi.

I think that is logical. A person who experiences economic hardship and sees something beautiful being built in his city may get irritated about that instead of liking it. Such people may think why on earth such a beautiful building is needed when they hardly earn a living; they may think that they would have been better off had the money spent on the building instead have been distributed among them. This, naturally, has a reverse side – if you distribute money like that then the country will not be able to develop. It was the infrastructure projects that developed the economy.

That was not a mistake, but was an economic regularity. However, it was one of the reasons that gave rise to the expectation that, upon coming to power, Ivanishvili would instantly tackle problems.

Was it not also because of a problem of communicating with society?

Of course, we should have had much closer communication with society. One of minuses of being in power over nine years is that you lose touch with society to a certain degree. When you are newly elected you have much better communication and then, as the years pass by, a sort of isolation occurs. This problem certainly existed too.

How significant was the effect of the prison videos that were released just two weeks before the parliamentary elections?

Emotionally, I think that that was the decisive moment in the elections. Even though the underlying reasons for the defeat in the elections were, perhaps, still social and economic factors and the desire for novelty prevailed, those videos played a decisive role emotionally. People discovered that such appalling things happened in a country in which were boasting about the totally reformed police and talked about human rights.

The most depressing thing for our supporters was that video footage. The attitude of a large segment of the Georgian Dream's supporters towards the UNM was anyway already negative. But, those videos demoralized the UNM's supporters, including its political leaders. I was shocked when I watched them. I was unable to go out into the street for several days; I suspended the election campaign and could not meet with people.

You say that the leaders were shocked too. Why, then, did the government allow such a thing? What was the reason? For many years we had heard information from the Public Defender about the situation in prisons.

This problem had never been raised with such acuteness. When seeing such a thing for yourself, you perceive it more vividly. The reports of the Public Defender never contained facts of that kind.

As regards why that happened, that was one of our largest problems revealed when we were in power. You must remember what law enforcement bodies were like 10 years ago. That required the implementation of huge reforms. Those reforms could not have been conducted by people who were not strong political leaders. Eventually, that attitude developed a negative side – the system gradually became closed to external controls, including from parliament.

Had we not appointed heavyweight political leaders there we would have been unable to implement the reforms and yet, on the other hand, because of those leaders being there, external controls weakened. As soon as the system became closed, crime emerged.

That is exactly what I wanted to ask – about parliament as a controlling body...

I do think a lot about this topic – what happened and why that happened. The experience we have is that it is unacceptable to have closed systems in a country. It is unacceptable to weaken controls over any sphere. It is unacceptable to turn a blind eye to anything, no matter how good the aim is.

Everything starts with good aims, but if you slacken controls, someone will always emerge, including in the leadership, who will abuse that good. Initially, the aim in the prisons was good – to free the penitentiary system from the control of mob bosses.

That was good experience and if I see anything positive since the October 2012 parliamentary elections, it is the higher activity of society [concerning this issue] now. If we maintain the activity of society this will be a guarantee that such things will never be repeated in future.

The objective of this presidential election is not the change of government, but whether or not all senior positions in the country will be concentrated in the hands of one political team. The objective of this election is to have such a president who will keep tabs on the government and, at the same time, manage to work with it in a constructive manner.

What are the main problems or achievements of the Georgian Dream since it came to power?

The government is excessively concentrated on a fight with the past. Any government in any country has the temptation to blame the previous government for everything. If this government does not switch to managing the present and building the future, it will face serious problems. An example of this is the country's economy.

The Georgian economy today is in a much worse state than it was, for example, last August. This is caused by one reason – a sense of political instability that has been created by the government. My advice to the government would be to spend less time fighting about, for example, what color the dome of the mosque in Rabati castle should be and to spend more resources on building the future.

Let us also talk about the process of re-erecting monuments to Stalin. In several villages that has already been done. Now there is talk about re-erecting the one in Gori in the territory of the Stalin museum. How would you evaluate these processes? What has caused them?

If we look at the topic of monuments, we will understand what inadequate importance disputes over the past can acquire. Today, instead of talking about what steps are we taking to come closer to Europe and what we are doing for integration into NATO, we are talking about the re-erection of Stalin monuments. My personal attitude towards Stalin is clear-cut. I think that no Stalin monument should be left standing in Georgia. However, I would prefer to argue about the creation of jobs rather than constantly disputing a monument to Stalin.

During the rule of your government these monuments were outlawed. Your government also adopted the Liberty Charter...

This is a common practice; in many countries symbols of former totalitarian regimes are banned. Evaluation and re-evaluation of the past happens neither by dismantling nor by erecting monuments. This requires some other focus – how we view our past and the state.

The statue of Stalin is a physical expression of that. The statue shows the mentality and attitude of society. Therefore, we should speak about the attitudes of society rather than the monuments themselves.

In this context I would like to ask you one more thing. In an interview given to a Russian edition, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II said that Stalin was a distinguished person, that such persons are rarely born, that Stalin understood the global importance of Russia, and that when he died even students at the theological seminary wept. What kind of influence, in your view, do such statements have on society?

When the Patriarch makes such a declaration, he looks at it from his own standpoint. His standpoint, in this case, starkly differs from that of my own. I do not think that the assessments he makes should be just like my assessments or the assessments of any politician. We also have different standpoints, revere different people, and have different opinions and, consequently, processes, personalities and also history may be evaluated differently.

Finally, let me recall – and you are often reminded of this in a half-joking way – that during the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008, you called on society to defend themselves with kitchen utensils. Perhaps, you have heard criticism for that for many years now.

I have heard lots of rumors about myself. I have always believed that I should not respond to them and I was correct in that. The only thing I regret not responding to in due time was this one. It is very easy to double check that statement. The video footage is in the public domain, kept in the archive, and the text is available too.

My statement came at a time when we had received information about the Russian army geared up to enter Zugdidi in three hours. The occupation of the city would cause casualties and destruction. The essence of my statement was to warn the Russian army that if their entry into cities was followed by mass ransacking then the population would take up arms and start a large-scale underground resistance. That had nothing to do with kitchen utensils.

That was a signal sent to the Russians not to start repressions against the population or else they would be in a fight of a different scale and facing a common popular resistance. In contrast to those politicians who thereafter started talking about forks, the Russians got that signal then.

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