|TV grab taken from PIK channel during Saakashvili's Q&A session with the public, when responding questions asked by workers of a factory in Marneuli.|
President Saakashvili was taking questions in a second live TV phone-in with Georgians nationwide, broadcast on three TV stations on January 25.
The event, known as The President Answers People’s Questions, was broadcast from a TV studio in Tbilisi in front of two TV anchors and an audience. A group of journalists were also invited in a separate TV studio. The session also involved questions posed by phone, e-mail and some through live satellite link-up.
The session, which lasted two hours and 40 minutes, was organized by rebranded Russian-language channel of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, Perviy Informatsionniy Kavkazsky (PIK - First Caucasus News), formerly known as the First Caucasian Channel.
Below are key points of the Q&A session:
- Saakashvili in his opening remarks congratulated PIK channel with the relaunch of broadcast and said: “This is a very important initiative… Very experienced journalists are involved... These people received a guarantee from us of freedom of editorial policy… This is important for Georgia, because when such high-class journalists are arriving in Georgia, it contributes to improve standards of journalism in Georgia.”
Social Problems, Unemployment
- First series of questions were about increasing consumer prices. Saakashvili said “inflation is the main economic challenge… It hits hard to a country like Georgia… The Georgian government does not possess levers to stop this kind of inflation… We will not allow hyper-inflation to happen… We should understand why the inflation is happening… Prices are going up throughout the world... The only way out of this situation for Georgia is to develop fast.”
- A woman from the village Misaktsieli requested the President to reopen a closed kindergarten in the village and to help with potable water supply. A man from the same village requested for supply of agriculture equipment. Saakashvili responded that “water, tractors, medical centers to each and every village was our pre-election campaign promise… I can list you by heart problems of the villages… There are some villages where the programs are fully implemented.” He said some villages had already been provided with tractors, but 2,000 were needed to fully cover the demand of all the villages. He said that tractors would not be available free of charge, but it would be affordable for every village. He also said that in maximum two years agriculture equipment would be available for every village.
- A man from Adjara Autonomous Republic asked about the potential of development of resorts in mountainous part of Adjara. Saakashvili said that mountainous part of Adjara remains in “hardship” and although poverty had declined, it still remains a problem. He said that part of population from that region is finding jobs at construction sites in Batumi… He said that the assistance that Georgia would receive from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation would also be used on infrastructure development in Adjara… He said that development of tourism infrastructure throughout Georgia, including in Adjara would contribute to employment.
- Several questions asked from studio concerned unemployment problem, as well as problem of low salaries of public school teachers and one English-language teacher asked whether Teach and Learn with Georgia (TLG) program would continue.
- Responding on unemployment Saakashvili said, that 2010 “was the first year when unemployment, although slightly, but anyway was reduced.” Agriculture, infrastructure development and tourism are the major sources of tackling unemployment, he said. Saakashvili said that Georgia had a potential to at least double agriculture production in next few years. On tourism he said in 2010 Georgia had 2 million foreign “visitors” and expected 3 million in 2011. On infrastructure he said that focus was made on construction of new hydro power plants, also on road construction and added that for the first time a factory will be build in Georgia producing computers.
- “We will have a serious breakthrough in respect of [tackling] unemployment in 2012,” Saakashvili said. He also said that there was a problem of lack of qualified working force in Georgia.
- He said that learning English was part of the goal to increase qualification of human resources and said that TLG program would continue and total of 10,000 English-speaking teachers would be invited for that purpose in next four or five years.
- On teacher’s salaries, Saakashvili said it was “unacceptably low.” He, however, also added that on the other hand qualification of teachers should also increase. He said that those teachers who would undergo exams successfully would receive higher salaries. He then criticized some of the reforms in the education system carried out in recent years and said the time of those shortcomings “is now over.” “Teacher is in the center” of the education system, he said.
- One student asked the President how the government could help students with implementation of “innovative ideas”; another asked about the planned Institute of Technology in Batumi and the third complained that it was hard to get job if one had not graduated a university abroad. Responding on the latter question, Saakashvili, himself U.S.-educated, said that there were many ministers in the government who had not graduated abroad and brought an example of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili and some others. He also said that it was no longer relevant to differentiate based on education received abroad and locally in Georgia. He said that Georgia was on the path of meritocracy and that was the most important.
- Saakashvili said Institute of Technology in Batumi was his “dream.” He said that one of the priorities of new U.S. aid program under the Millennium Challenge Corporation would be education system. He said it would require two-three years to establish Institute of Technology. He said that innovations should be a driving force for Georgia’s economy. He then mentioned Singapore and said that it developed because of hard work and technological development – “that’s the example, whicih should be followed.”
'We will Deliver with USD 100 Pension Pledge'
- Questions were asked about social and healthcare problems, including one about when the government would deliver with its election campaign promise to increase monthly pension to USD 100.
- Saakashvili said: “We have not forgotten any of our election campaign promise… We will keep that promise.”
- He also said that social allowances for people living below poverty level would increase. He said that poverty in Georgia “declined from 50% to 20%” in recent years. He also said that one million people had state-funded health insurance. It would require two-three years to improve these insurance packages, he said. Saakashvili said prices on medicines were “unacceptably high” in Georgia and “we are constantly working” to make these prices lower.
'Will You Become PM?'
- An anchor from the TV studio raised the issue of constitutional amendments passed last year and asked: “Are you going to become the Prime Minister?”.
- Saakashvili responded that the process of constitutional amendment was carried out transparently through broad discussions and the new constitution was not modeled on individuals.
- “There will be no unilateral and centralized governance in Georgia any more from 2013; it will be collective governance… We have gone through economic embargo, years of provocations, we gone through attempts to internal turmoil and military coup and we have went through large scale intervention… so let me know to concentrate during remaining almost three years of my presidency on overcoming consequences of [those problems]. My goal is to concentrate on that. Some, mainly politicians, want to know who will be where in 2013. My major interest is not where I will be, but where my country will be” in 2013."
- Asked about the opposition, he said that the most important was to have such an opposition, which would not derail the country in case of coming into power. He said such opposition was in the process of establishment in Georgia.
- Saakashvili was asked by a journalist about eviction of IDPs and whether he acknowledged that it was “reckless” to evict IDPs and if he thought that officials behind this process should be punished; another journalists asked why he was not meeting with IDPs, who were evicted; other questions from the journalists were about transparency of broadcast media ownership, as well as on rationality of spending public funds on organizing expensive shows and concerts and about the problem related with access to public information;
- “The major thing that we all should understand is that as long as there is a single displaced person Georgia won’t be regarded successful and I will feel angry… and I will feel myself displaced, because Abkhazia is my home… I have even cried and spent sleepless nights because of that,” Saakashvili said.
- He also said that the government promptly reacted and built houses for people displaced as a result of the August war. New houses are now built at the various locations, where job opportunities are being created, he said.
- Saakashvili said that spending on concerts, including in Batumi, was helping tourism and attracting visitors to Adjara. “Those concerts were aired live in some foreign countries… and it is our message to the world… showing that we are alive,” he said.
- On media ownership transparency he said that it was not part of democracy when a businessman, owning a television station, was trying to blackmail the government by disseminating false news. He said he faced such problem and added that one businessman was demanding whole set of businesses in exchange of stopping spreading lies.
- He acknowledged that access to public information needed to be approved.
Break Up of Hunger Striker Veterans
- Saakashvili himself raised the issue of breaking up a hunger strike of a group of veterans of Georgia’s armed conflicts and said “everyone has the right to express protest”, but added that the protest venue – monument of Georgian fallen soldiers – was “a hallowed ground” and it was “humiliated” by the protester veterans, including by “urinating” at the site.
- “If you call a genuine democracy urinating on main national symbol, then there won’t be such democracy as long as I am the President,” he said.
Russia and North Caucasus
- Asked on relations with Russia, Saakashvili said he would use a term “enemy” while referring to Russia and added that he was looking forward to the time when he would no longer use this term in reference to Russia.
- “You know there is a principle of boomerang and you know a great tragedy happened yesterday in Moscow [terrorist act in Domodedovo airport]; there is no justification for terrorism,” Saakashvili said.
- He said that it was one of the major achievements that the term “occupation” in reference of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was establishing on the international arena.
- “They [the Russian leadership] say they want good relations with Georgia. But what is Georgia for them?” he said and added that for Russia Georgia was without Abkhazia and Tskhivnali region.
- He said that Russia was “declining empire”. He said that Russia had “a political mentality, which is on the level of reptile, like a crocodile ready to swallow you.” “It’s better to avoid such [force],” Saakashvili said.
- “War is not yet over… If we are consolidated and… if we continue development we will definitely win this war,” Saakashvili said.
- He described Russia’s North Caucasus as “ghetto”, where, he said, local population was repressed.
- He said that Georgia’s policy of developing closer ties with the peoples of the North Caucasus, including through visa-free travel for them in Georgia, was part of the policy to win their hearts and minds.
“My western friends are often asking me – ‘why do you need that North Caucasian? Maybe it will be a headache?’ And I ask them: ‘my dear, if next time our friend Vladimir [Putin] sends 50,000 armed Chechens, will your soldiers arrive here to protect us from them?’ We should work now in order to avoid that,” Saakashvili said.
Georgian-Turkish Talks on Historic Monuments
- Saakashvili was asked about ongoing talks with Turkey on rehabilitation of Georgian historic monuments now located on the Turkish territory in exchange for reconstruction and restoration of several mosques in Georgia. Saakashvili said that there were opposing opinions about this issue; he said that there were more than two hundred thousand Muslims living in Georgia and saying that “building of a mosque is anti-Georgia it amounts to saying that those thousands of Muslims should not be living in Georgia… I can not allow that.” “If we want to have a state, we should grow up, instead of playing on cheap demagogy,” he said.