“Any shvilli is fine as long as he is the true choice of the Georgian people.” EPC hosts roundtable discussion about Georgia in Brussels.

Speakers at an event on the Georgian elections held at the E{PC in Brussels on 19 September 2012.

The leading Brussels think tank, The European Policy Centre (EPC), on 19 September hosted a round table discussion on the Georgian elections with the participation of Georgian politicians, and representatives from European institutions and civil society. The well attended event was chaired by Amanda Paul, Senior Analyst at the EPC.

The different views of the Georgian political spectrum were presented by Giorgi Kandelaki, Deputy Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Georgian Parliament and an activist of the United National Movement who gave a spirited, somewhat aggressive presentation, whilst the opposition view was presented by a more statesmanlike presentation by Tedo Japaridze, Georgia former Foreign Minister and currently International Secretary of the Georgian Dream coalition.

The European perspective was given by the Estonian Ambassador to the EU Matti Maasikas, Polish MEP Krzysztof Lisek, Jacqueline Hale, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Institute in Brussels and Dennis Sammut, Executive Director of LINKS, the London based think tank.

“After these elections, parliament will become the only source of power in Georgia. The process is irreversible and will bring Georgia closer to NAT O, which is a deeply-rooted social contract in our country,” said Giorgi Kandelaki, in his opening remarks. Kandelaki cited a number of concerns with Georgian democracy, accusing the opposition ‘Georgian Dream’ coalition’s of an “ongoing and persistent campaign to discredit the elections before they’ve even been held”. He accused opponents of flooding Georgia with polls funded from “dubious” undisclosed sources and introducing “fake election monitoring”. Moreover, Georgian Dream is “attacking the legitimacy of voters’ lists,” he claimed. He accused Georgian Dream of attempting to erode the consensus in Georgian society regarding the need to integrate ethnic and religious minorities, and claimed that the coalition was seeking to erode the consensus over Georgia’s EU/NAT O outlook.

Kandelaki concluded by declaring that “despite shortcomings, we have a pluralistic society in which ideas are debated freely”.

“I could also deliver a long list of accusations, but I’m not here in Brussels to do that. The government [of which Kandelaki is a member] has made major achievements since the Rose Revolution, and you can feel them on the ground. But state-building isn’t the same as democracy-building,” said Tedo Japaridze, Secretary for International Affairs in the ‘Georgian Dream’ political coalition. “We need to make Georgia a democratic state. At the moment, we have one strongman at the centre of everything. We want to make Georgia a country of the rule of law,” said Japaridze, accusing the government of “wanting to erase the opposition as a class from the Georgian political landscape”.

He argued that Georgia needed “to go back to where we belong – in the region. Don’t play stupid geopolitical games for which we don’t have the capacity”. He said his assessment was based on “realism, pragmatism and realpolitik”.

“We should become a bridge, a facilitator or a hub in the region,” Japaridze said.

The four EU speakers took as expected a somewhat more detached approach. The Eastern Partnership “is for countries that dream of aligning themselves with the EU and perhaps one day becoming members,” said Estonian Ambassador to the EU Matti Maasikas.

“The Eastern Partnership is bilateral, between the EU and the partner country, whereas the ‘more for more’ principle of the European Neighbourhood Policy is a tool for developing relations,” Maasikas explained. “Georgia doesn’t just have a responsibility to its people to hold free and fair elections, but also to the other Eastern Partnership countries. The EU hopes to complete negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement next year, including a freetrade agreement and a visa agreement,” he said. “I’m sure all Georgian politicians understand what’s at stake,” the ambassador said.

“There’s a good chance that the 1 October parliamentary elections will be broadly held according to international standards. There’s certainly no reason to pre-judge them,” Maasikas said.

“Georgia has shown huge success in fighting corruption – more so than some EU countries. Its economy is also very open,” said Polish MEP Krzysztof Lisek, a member of the Group of the European People’s Party and vice-chair of the European Parliament’s sub-committee on security and defence. “I’m glad that all the main players in Georgia support its pro-Western direction and European perspective, which in my opinion means future membership,” Lisek said. “For the first time, Georgia has a strong opposition. For a long time, the parliamentary opposition was tiny. This is a good sign. Hopefully it shows that Georgian democracy is alive and well,” he said.

“All parties in Georgia seem to understand that the international community’s message is that we appreciate the Rose Revolution and recent progress, but now we want to see the development of a normal democracy,” Lisek said. “Democracy needs to work in the parliament too, not just in the street,” the MEP concluded. “

We want to create a non-partisan civic space in which all actors can call political parties to account,” said Jacqueline Hale, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Institute. “Georgia is a very partisan environment. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain an independent space. We need to be vigilant and ensure that the elections are held honourably and freely,” Hale said. “We’ve seen some good steps forward, for example the law obliging all cable companies to carry TV channels from across the political spectrum. But we still see obstacles to a truly level playing field,” she said. “There are concerns over polarisation. How will political actors handle this in a manner that allows a free, fair, healthy and competitive contest? So far, the signs aren’t good,” Hale warned.

”We must take care to remain balanced in Europe and not take sides. Europe is a friend of Georgia and vice-versa. We owe it to Georgia to show it tough love, to maintain high expectations of democracy, and to hold whoever wins to their promises,” Hale said.

“I hope the electoral process will be a step towards the eventual target of EU membership. The campaign so far has been very competitive, and largely without violence. That’s positive, and we hope it’ll continue until Election Day,” said Dennis Sammut, executive director of the London based think tank LINKS. “It is for the Georgian people to choose their future government. Europe should be ready to work with whoever wins, be it Saakashvili, Merabishvili, Ivanishvili, or even Natelashvili… or indeed any other shvili as long as he is the true choice of the Georgian people,” said Dennis Sammut “There’s a need for consensus politics in the country, and more checks and balances.

The ‘winner takes all’ idea under Saakashvili doesn’t really work in Georgian society. It’s good to talk about the achievements of the last 8-9 years, but let’s be honest: there are still major problems and a seriously divided political class,” Sammut said, adding that however this election still has the potential to change for the better the Georgian political scene.

source: report prepared by CEW with www.epc.eu.