Mikheil Machavariani: “The UNM builds its election platform upon the past achievements in modernisation of the country, namely, on the success in fighting organised crime and rampant corruption.”

Ahead of the 1 October Parliamentary elections in Georgia, Caucasus Elections Watch interviewed Mikheil Machavariani, Secretary General of the United National Movement, the party of government in Georgia. In this exclusive interview with Marion Kipiani, Machavariani speaks at length on the challenges and achievements of the UNM in government and of its programme for the future. This interview is part of a series with Georgian politicians.

What is the most important issue for the United National Movement in these elections and how does the party plan to make a difference on this topic in Georgia if elected?

The UNM builds its election platform upon the past achievements in modernisation of the country, namely, on the success in fighting organised crime and rampant corruption, characteristic for late Shevardnadze’s regime. If not the breakthrough in making public institutions workable, neither the GDP of Georgia would have tripled since 2003 and nor the state budget would increase several times, while democratic check and balances, outlined in the constitution of 1995 would have remained as a pure window dressing.

So far, increased state revenues have been used to rebuild the infrastructure, to pay salaries and pensions, develop state security institutions, as well as fund the education, healthcare, social benefits for families in special need. First time in Georgian history state owned TV channel was converted into public broadcasting funded through strictly defined GDP share. First time in Post-Soviet Georgia, entering universities did not require nepotistic connections.

In a couple with the intensive foreign relations, these and many other reformist steps made Georgia to survive as a state after Russian large scale military aggression in August 2008. Despite the fact of the occupation of about 20% of Georgian territory, international surveys show that average Georgian feels now safer than the citizens in some of more affluent countries with longer experience of democratic existence.

However, we understand that the benefits such development brings are not equally felt by each and every family. We were able to build the foundations for fighting poverty, but poverty, and its main cause, unemployment, is still large. We were able to build or renovate about 150 hospitals, but not every citizen can afford expensive medical care. Georgia has a capacity of relative self sustainability in food production but this capacity is not utilised yet. Hence, together with continued efforts for de-occupation and European and, as well as Euro-Atlantic integration, the UNM defines its policy priorities being 1. Job creation; 2. Affordable healthcare; 3. Agricultural development.

According to the National Democratic Institute survey conducted this past June, jobs and unemployment are the most important national issue for the Georgian electorate. What is your party proposing to do to address the issue of unemployment and to create jobs in Georgia?

In the forthcoming 4 years cycle after elections, the government will be able to create approximately 250 000 jobs through its infrastructural programs, development of tourism industry and agriculture. Building of roads and several new of hydro-power plants will provide approximately 50-60 000 permanent jobs. Reaching the target of 7 mln visitors per year is realistic and it relates to the creation of additional 140 000 jobs. By the end of the above-mentioned cycle, agricultural production can be doubled through extensive irrigation projects, development of food processing industry and state sponsored support of agricultural export. It all relates to the thousands of new workplaces.

With regards to territorial integrity and relations with Russia, almost half of all Georgians feel the situation has deteriorated since January 2008, according to the survey mentioned above. Furthermore, about the same number of respondents felt that Georgia’s prospects for EU and NATO membership remained about the same as in 2008. Could you please briefly outline your party’s position on foreign affairs and which issue it will focus most on in this area?

De-occupation and state re-integration remain the main objectives of national security strategy. These objectives are directly related to Georgia’s pro Euro-Atlantic foreign policy, developed and constantly supported by the UNM. This policy, which remains without alternative, if one wants to make Georgian independence and democratic development irreversible, meets a fierce resistance from current Russian leadership which still looks for some sort of restoration of former sizes of Pax Rossica. Georgia cannot allow that, if we seriously treasure our independence and democratic choise. That was the main reason, why Russia constantly manipulated with our conflict zones in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions, abused its status of broker and peace-keeper and eventually, after Georgia made clear indications it wanted to internationalise conflict management and showed signs of success in its Euro-Atlantic integration, Russia opted for military aggression. Luckily, Russian desire to achieve a regime change in Georgia failed due to public support of the government, efficiency of its institutions and international support.

Now it is high time to address the results of this aggression through intensification of diplomatic efforts internationally, as well as vis-a-vis Russia. In parallel, Georgia will continue to implement its strategy of reintegration of the occupied territories, through various state funded or international programs, which address the basic needs of internally displaced persons and those who live behind occupation lines. It will be accompanied with Georgia’s further steps towards integration in Euro-Atlantic institutions, which are the main preconditions for making Georgia continuously attractive for Abkhazian and Ossetian compatriots.

There are successes in these respects: Chicago Summit of NATO addressed Georgian security concerns extensively and NATO-Georgian commission reports on progress made by the country in its approximation towards NATO standards; th European Union launched negotiations on Association agreement including free trade provisions and as it was recently stated, expects to finalize the this process by the end of the next year. The US congress, as well as the European parliament defined Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region as zones, occupied by Russia. It means setting up a clear international diagnosis of the situation which is nothing but a solid precondition for “curing” the decease. The US, as well as some European countries agreed to accept Status Neutral Documents, issued by Georgia for those Abkhazs and Ossetians who nedd to travel abroad but are not in a position to take Georgian passport. Through that we achieve two objectives: a) make our strategy for reintegration internationally accepted; b) check forceful Russification undertaken by Russian officials in occupied zones through mass distribution of Russian citizenship and passports.

Georgia unilaterally declared its intention to straggle for re-unification through only peaceful means. We expect Russia also declares unilaterally that it will not use force against Georgia. Until its done, Russia remains in a awkward situation internationally which cannot continue indefinitely if Russia wants to address its long term developmental needs.

And last but not the least: Georgia fights for hearts and minds of the citizens of Russian Federation. Strategy on engagement with North Caucasians, as well as lift of visa requirements for any Russian who respects Georgian laws is one but not the only tools for that. We are sure Russian society once reconsiders its morally, politically and financially costly policies towards Georgia and by then, we will have a strategic patience, continuing our struggle along the same lines. Job approval rate of the current leadership of the country, as well as overwhelming support of its Euro-Atlantic policy shows that despite difficult situation, our strategy and tactics has understanding within Georgian society.

Media freedom and diversity has been a controversial issue in the lead up to the elections and has received considerable attention from the international community. What does your party intend to do to ensure and protect both the safety of journalists and freedom of expression?

We think that accusations about intimidation of journalists is grossly exaggerated. The Law provides their total safety and mechanisms like interagency task force, chaired by the secretary of NSC provide a rapid reaction opportunity if pre-election emotions somehow, somewhere created problems for media representatives. On the other hand, media owners and journalists must also develop better sense of professional ethics and understanding that journalism does not mean interference into the public activity of the officials or representatives of any political party. BY and large, to provide informed choice opportunity to all citizens, Georgian parliament recently passed legislative provisions, obliging any cable network to accept media production of every TV company. Thus that TV chanels with clearly opposition profile have an opportunity to cover the whole country.

Universal health care is a central item on the campaign agenda. Could you please elaborate on your party’s position on healthcare and what policies the United National Movement is proposing in this area?

Health care policy of the UNM is based on the principles of market economy, state subsidies for those in financial need, and support of the development of medical facilities. As mentioned, about 150 hospitals have been recently built or renovated. They are well equipped. State does its best to support life-long learning for doctors. These are preconditions for professional medical care of patients. At the same time, the state centrally funds medical insurance of pensioners, children up to 6 years, those in the register of social protection. Since September every second citizen is covered by various insurance agencies, by 2013 their number will reach 3mln. Through the implementation of the election program, we intend to have all Georgian citizens covered by insurance privately or through state help.

Given the significant role agriculture plays in the Georgian economy, what policies does your party intend to develop to stimulate and support rural economies?

As mentioned above, thousands of additional hectares of agricultural land will be covered by irrigation systems. We intend to provide the agriculture with about 2000 new machines. Depots for storage of harvest are being built by the state and special centres are being built throughout the country to provide peasants and farmers with agricultural knowledge and fertilisers. In addition, the state will address the poverty through ad hoc measure of providing each family with vouchers of 1000 GEL worth. Individuals can use it during four years for covering communal taxes as well as for buying fuel or fertilisers for farming.

Considering there are only nine current female members of parliament, does your party have an action plan to encourage more participation of women in politics?

Georgian legislation provides financial incentives for parties with will have at least 2 representatives of opposite sex through every 10 names of the party lists. We hope to have an increase of women members of the parliament through this or awareness rising measures. However, we cannot fully balance gender in the parliament overnight. One has to mention that in the executive branch as well as in parliamentary staff the situation is better in this respect.

Is there any other point, related to your campaign platform, that we have not discussed that you would like to mention?

The efforts will continue to consolidate the results of previous reforms. We will focus on strengthening of rights and capacities of local government, as well on farther professionalization of public service.

 Marion Kipiani conducted this interview for Caucasus Elections Watch.