Q&A with Ghia Nodia
Recent and multiple attacks by the opposition parties over various problems have turned into a headache for the Georgian authorities.
Head of the think-tank Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD) Ghia Nodia said in an interview with Civil Georgia on March 15 that Sandro Girgvliani’s high-profile murder case has triggered “the most serious crisis” for the authorities since the developments in South Ossetia in summer, 2004, when clashes erupted between the Georgian troops and S.Ossetian militias.
Q.: What kind of conclusions can be made about the government’s policies while analyzing the situation regarding Sandro Girgvliani murder case, cash register protests, as well as developments in Akhalkalaki?
A.: Essentially, those problems, which have triggered protest rallies, are radically different from each other.
It can be disputed whether rallies are necessary against the cash register requirements. On the one hand, the authorities are right to demand the use of cash registers everywhere in order to keep control over all types of economic activity. On the other hand, the interests of those people [outdoor market sellers] should also be taken into consideration. This is a specific economic issue, which is a matter of negotiations and will probably be solved. I do not think that this is a strategic problem for the present authorities.
As for Girgvliani’s murder case and the Akhalkalaki incident, here we deal with serious strategic problems the government is facing.
Q.: First, regarding the Girgvliani murder case - what kind of consequences might this have for the government?
A.: Perhaps Girgvliani’s murder case has turned into the most serious crisis for the authorities since the 2004 developments in South Ossetia, because it has demonstrated that a certain faction of the authorities, in particular the law-enforcement agencies, operate under the perception of impunity.
They [the law enforcement officials] think that they are doing a good job and those people who criticize them are bad people. At the same time, they believe that their opponents are weak enough for their opinion to be ignored.
All of this has created a syndrome of self-confidence, a syndrome of “I can do everything.” This trend has been particularly obvious in [the Gigvliani murder case].
Of course, the authorities’ reaction was inadequate. For a long time they resisted assuming responsibility for Girgvliani’s murder.
Frankly speaking, if such a scandal had happened in a country with a strong democracy, of course, it would have resulted in the resignation of the Interior Minister.
However, in Georgia I personally find it difficult to join the demands over the Minister’s resignation, because Vano Merabishvili [the Interior Minister] is one of the most effective and one of the strongest ministers.
This administration suffers from a lack of qualified cadre. Therefore, I think that Merabishvili’s resignation would be a loss not only for the government but also for reforms.
Implementation of reforms in the law enforcement system is of key importance for Georgia and Merabishvili has really achieved certain success in this regard. But, of course, someone else might succeed as well.
Of course Girgvliani’s murder case discredits the government, on the one hand, and damages the entire process [of reforms] on the other. I know that Data Akhalaia [the suspended chief of Interior Ministry’s Department for Constitutional Security] is among the favorites of the authorities. It is a positive and important step that even this employee was dismissed.
Q.: What is the solution to the current situation, when on the one hand the ruling party and authorities strongly back Merabishvili and on the other hand the opposition is increasing pressure for his dismissal?
A.: It seems that the authorities are examining the situation, to see whether the steps already taken by them are enough to defuse political tensions.
Of course, it was a mistake that the authorities dragged out the process and did not sack [Data] Akhalaia and [Vasil] Sanodze [suspended chief of the general inspection of the Interior Ministry, who are allegedly linked to the Girgvliani murder case] immeidately. It was a mistake.
I do not rule out that the authorities may even be forced to dismiss Merabishvili.
Q.: And what about the developments in Akhalkalaki?
A.: The local ethnic Armenian population of Akhalkalaki has expressed its discontent for a long time. Of course, there we have an external irritant in the form of the [Russian military] base. It seems that there are different opinions in Russia - some are for withdrawing this base and others want to suspend its pullout. Hence, inspiration of certain developments from Russia can be viewed as quite realistic.
On the other hand, the local Armenian population has great concerns. They fear that Tbilisi wants to drastically change the demographic situation there by settling ethnic Georgians in the region. They live with this fear and each step that weakens their domination triggers a painful reaction.
The authorities want to conduct the proceedings in courts in the official Georgian language and appointed a Georgian judge [in Akhalkalaki], as there is no local judge with a good command of the Georgian language. But this was a miscalculation.
While it is absolutely clear that the official language should perform its function on the entire territory of the country, obviously it is practically impossible to implement it in Akhalkalaki for at least the next 5 years. The authorities should develop a long-tem action plan so that the Georgian language will gradually be established in the state structures and, simultaneously, they should introduce a short-term decision which can be a temporary compromise.
Q.: Recently opponents have intensified their criticism of the authorities for refusing to hold a dialogue with the opposition. What is your opinion about this?
A.: This is one more strategic mistake being made by the authorities. In 2004 they tried several times to launch a dialogue with the civil society organizations, but when they saw that this dialogue was often unpleasant and even critical towards them, they decided to get in touch directly with "the people."
The only possible form of communication with "the people" is a monologue and our authorities are very talented in this regard. Mikheil Saakashvili is a very talented politician and works successfully with the population, while the work with the active part of our society - with separate target groups - is completely neglected.
The authorities fail to understand that in order to influence public opinion it is necessary to actively work with the civil society groups and that requires patience and listening to different opinions.
We have a rather pragmatic government. They compromise only with a credible force.
Q.: Do you think that the opposition is a force of this kind?
A.: The authorities do not perceive the political opposition as a serous force; however, when they [the authorities] see that over certain issues the opposition can mobilize a substantial part of the society, they do compromise.
For example, the resignation of Akhalaia and Sanodze shows that the government can compromise. In the case of a resolution on the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, the authorities retreated [from their initial hard-line stance] as a result of pressure from the United States and Europe. So it demonstrates that the authorities, when they deem it necessary, are flexible and can even compromise. But those decisions are not the result of long-term calculations.
Q.: Several opposition parties argue that the opposition is often forced to react to the authorities’ “cheap PR campaigns” with “cheap” and “populist” slogans that finally cause an extreme lowering of the level of political debate. What would be your comment?
A.: The quality of the political debate was always low in Georgia. In my opinion, this is caused by a lack of [political] experience. One more reason is lack of people who can speak of politics.
They [authorities] think that an exchange of insults during political debates is very profitable for raising their popular rating; they hope that such behavior will help them gain [an electoral] victory. A part of the politicians even misunderstand the Georgian society, thinking that people are in favor of these kinds of political debates.
Q.: Recently, the authorities started to indicate that external forces are trying to influence developments in Georgia by interfering in domestic politics. Do you think there are real grounds for these concerns?
A.: Recently Russia has made systematic attempts to stir up a deterioration of the situation in Georgia. This is also linked with Georgia’s real prospect for joining NATO.
Moreover, the present authorities of Georgia are emotionally unacceptable for Russia. Russia believes that the Georgian authorities are incompetent, while the President [Mikheil Saakashvili] is a volatile person who will sooner or later end in failure, which will trigger a serious crisis and a change of the government through a revolution.
Therefore, Russia tries to trigger these kinds of developments, on the one hand, and to ensure that more acceptable people come to power after the new revolution, on the other. This plan by Russia is quite obvious.
However, this does not mean, that all forces acting in Georgia are inspired by Russia.
I also do not rule out that Russia not only tries to, but can actually directly influence developments in Akhalkalaki..
But, on the other hand, Russia lacks leverage to directly influence developments in Georgia, except in Akhalkalaki and the breakaway regions.