Thomas Melia, Human Freedom Fellow at George W. Bush Institute. Photo: VOA
Voice of America’s Ia Meurmishvili spoke with Thomas Melia, Human Freedom Fellow at George W. Bush Institute and Former USAID’s Assistant Administrator for Europe and Eurasia. Mr. Melia spoke about the state of democracy in Georgia, the role of independent judiciary in attracting foreign investments and pending constitutional changes.
Ia Meurmishvili anchors VOA’s weekly show Washington Today and can be followed on Twitter @iameurmishvili or on Facebook.
Georgia was in your portfolio when you worked at the USAID. In your view, what is the contribution of the agency to Georgia’s democratic development?
The important decisions and nation-building that has gone on in Georgia over the last 25 years has been done by Georgians. It has been done through several administrations, several different presidencies and parliamentary majorities. I think Georgians sometimes lose track of the fact that progress has been a little bit up and down, but overall it has improved steadily, especially over the last 10 to 15 years.
All of that has been done by the Georgians. What the United States and other friends in the international community have done with their foreign assistance is provide information, advice, expertise, and sometimes a little bit of money. But, mostly it is the expertise that enables Georgians to make good decisions and certainly make well-informed decisions.
How much aid has the USAID provided to Georgia?
I believe, over the entire 25-year history – although most of it is in the last 10 years – U.S. government has provided 4.3 billion dollars in assistance to Georgia. About 1.5 billion of that has been through USAID in the form of various training and advising programs.
You mentioned that Georgia’s democracy has ups and down, but overall the country is developing in the right direction. How would you evaluate the overall state of Georgia’s democracy?
Putting aside the Baltic states, of all the former Soviet republics Georgia is ahead of the class right now. In terms of multiple dimensions of system-wide reforms, Georgia is doing pretty well. It is also important to know that this comes at a time when worldwide and in this region, more countries have seen decline in democratic performance than improvement. So, in the time when there has been a general backsliding or deconstruction of certain democratic habits, Georgia has - most of the time - moved forward.
There is also an opposite view that the Georgian democracy is in decline. There are concerns regarding the media freedom. Some experts believe that the case of Rustavi 2 is the government’s attempt to weaken the opposition. There are also allegations of human rights and investors’ rights violations.
There are many dimensions. Sometimes one aspect of a democratic society or system can move backwards while others move forward. The fact that the third wave of judicial reform was finally enacted last December is a good sign. Now the question is how that would be implemented. The fact that a series of reforms in land registration have moved forward is a good sign, yet it is only partly implemented. There needs to be a systemic nationwide reform of the land registration system.
The Rustavi 2 case is complex because it goes into the ownership laws. It is hard to go back and trace the ownership of Rustavi 2. Because there are questions, the European Court of Human Rights intervened with an injunction to postpone the implementation of the Georgian court’s decision. There are questions about the paper trail that leads to the discussion about the issue of ownership. There are questions about what is the broader implication for media freedom if one of the most prominent voices that gave an opportunity for the principal political opposition to be heard, has its ownership changed in the way that would close that off. There are many things tied up in Rustavi 2 that make it controversial and interesting.
Fundamentally though, what would help with that, as with other cases, is an independent judiciary, where decisions are made based on what is presented in court. In that regard, Georgia is a part way there, it needs more improvements in the judiciary to get it to rise above of a perception - that it certainly has now - that political influences are at play in certain key judicial decisions.
A few weeks before the 2012 parliamentary elections, you visited Georgia and met with political parties. You also met with Mr. Bidzina Ivanishvili. How do you remember that trip and your meetings? How far has the country come since those elections?
I was leading an interagency delegation from the United States. We met with Mr. Ivanishvili and his team as part of what we were doing with all the political contestant at that time to listen to them, hear what they thought was going on, what was working and not working in terms of the election campaign itself.
There was at that time a complaint from the Georgian Dream that television stations that were sympathetic to them were not getting a full ability to broadcast to the people of Georgia. I also remember that the agricultural reform was considered as one of the main promises of the Georgian Dream in 2012.
Looking back and thinking about where the country has come since then, I think it was a surprise for most people that the Georgian Dream won. Then there was a famous difficult period of cohabitation. Georgia kind of got through that.
Georgia often displays some of the same dysfunctions that we are seeing in our country today. Sometimes people seem to prefer no solution to a solution in which the other side participates. I think Georgia has improved its democracy overall since 2012, but there are some shortcomings. I think the judiciary needs to work, I think some of the economical fundamental things need to work and I think Georgia would be better off with a more pluralist media environment, in which more voices could be heard more often and in which people from the different political parties could work together more often.
I remember during that year of cohabitation there were two Davids, two parliamentary leaders, David Usupashvili from the Georgian Dream and David Bakradze from the UNM. They were able to collaborate and make things happen in the Parliament and find some reasonable compromises. I think that has been lost a little bit recently. I do not think you have a same kind of effort at the top in two major parties to look for a modus vivendi where they can work in the national interest.
We were stumbling with this problem here in United States as well. I think both of our countries need to do better and find ways to have the political rivals think of themselves as rivals and not enemies, as political alternatives and not to portray the election contest or governing as life and death. There is more continuity in Georgia and in United States than there is difference when the person at the top changes. I think we lose track of that sometimes in our political debates.
Georgia as you know is working on the Constitutional amendments. As you may know, it is a polarizing issue. What do you think about the proposed changes in two areas – the election law and the post of the President?
The most important thing is that this is for Georgians to decide. We have to remember that it comes in a context of major constitutional changes made under the previous president and the parliamentary majority. This is an effort to wind back some of those changes - for instance about the role of the presidency. It seems like every second election there is a new election framework in Georgia. It is not surprising that there is yet another effort to redo the engineering of election system.
It is important for the Georgians to think about two things. One is that they have to try to visualize these institutions without thinking about the personalities who are going to occupy specific seats. They have to think about what the role of these offices has to be in 10, 20 or 30 years, when all the present people may not be in politics anymore. Then they can make better decisions about what the proper balance of power should be. They are not quite there yet. I think there is a lot of personalization of some of these proposals in decision-making.
The second thing to keep in mind is that there is a lot of experience in international community about the constitutional changes. To the credit of the leaders in the Georgian Parliament, they have sought and received input from the Venice Commission and a lot of that has been incorporated into the drafts going forward. I think the Deputy Speaker in particular, Tamar Chugoshvili has done a good job of reaching out to the international experts, bringing it into the discussions in the Parliament and incorporating many of these suggestions. I think it is an ongoing process. There has been a reasonably public and deliberative process and some changes have been made to the original draft. That speaks well to the process and it means that Georgia may end up at the end of this constitutional process with something closer to a consensus agreement on what the rules of the game should be going forward.
One of the criticisms is that the process is not politically inclusive.
This is the polarization we were talking about. The current parliamentary opposition boycotted the inauguration of President Margvelashvili when he came into office in 2013. That was a bad sign for bipartisan, multi-partisan collaboration and cooperation.
Staying out of a major process like this is also troubling. I understand to some extent why they did that. But we have an expression used in sports and in politics which is that you have to play to win. If you want to influence the outcome you have to get involved in the process. Even when the odds are against you, if you have the relationships and the good ideas, you can sometimes influence the outcome.
Recently you stated that the legal case of the Georgian Manganese might not be as open and transparent as it can be. Some other investors in Georgia also feel that they are under pressure. What is your view of the investment climate in in the country?
This is the key to Georgia’s future - how to attract foreign direct investment from other countries, not only the U.S. but elsewhere.
One of the biggest obstacles to that continues to be a perception in the international business community that investments and property rights in Georgia are not as secure as they ought to be. It is a work in process. There is a lot that needs to be done in order for Georgia to get where it wants to be - an attractive destination for foreign investment.
One of the major business associations in Georgia put on this statement last month saying that there is a perception that judiciary in Georgia is still vulnerable to political influence in favor of certain outcomes. As long as perception is there, regardless of how true it is, that is going to keep international businesses away.
That has to be one of the top priorities going forward - to continue and improve the integrity of the judicial system as it relates to property disputes, so that not only Georgians but also potential investors from outside will have confidence.
As for the Georgian Manganese, it is a major employer and exporter in Georgia. A fairly abrupt intervention from a Tbilisi Court to change the ownership structure of the governing apparatus of the company in a very short order is a kind of thing that makes businesses to stay away.
There is a concern that the government or people associated with the government are trying to take over some of the large companies or at least try to increase pressure on them. Since you speak with people in the West, monitor processes in Georgia, what is your impression of these controversial cases? Do you think the government in trying to get too much into the business?
I think you framed the issue correctly - how much the government or the particular people in the Government want to effect particular commercial outcomes. In any legal proceeding, a deliberate process is important where the facts can be considered and the judge can think through the implications carefully. There is usually no need to rush these kinds of things. The fact that the appeals process led to a change on the Philip Morris case and the fact that there was a speedy agreement on some environmental issues in the case of the Georgia Manganese after some international attention to these matters, I am not sure it proves the case that it is an independent judiciary. It raises a question about whether there was a change of heart, rather than there was a strengthening of the process. I think anything that happens very quickly in a judicial proceeding like that, raises more question and not the answers.
What should Georgia do to improve the investment climate and change the negative perception you talked about earlier?
I think doing everything practical and possible to strengthen the integrity of the judiciary and its reputation is a job number one. Secondly, the land registration has to be done on a national systemic basis in order of create a foundation for who owns which piece of land and who can borrow money against it. Another step would be to come up with arbitration or dispute resolution mechanisms to resolve disputes that always arise.
I know Prime Minister Kvirikashvili, in his four-pillar strategy for improving Georgia, has a tax reform. This will also make Georgia more attractive for investors. I think the government, to its credit, has taken some important steps in the right direction but there needs to be an awareness of the dangers of allowing particular political or economic interest to try to game the system and take advantage of the weaknesses that still remain.
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