PM-designate Bidzina Ivanishvili (right); defense ministerial candidate Irakli Alasania (center) and Kakha Kaladze, candidate for energy minister, listen to an MP from UNM party during a hearing in the Parliament on October 24. Photo: Ivanishvili’s press office.
PM-designate Bidzina Ivanishvili faced criticisms over having “unrealistic” plans when he met with parliamentary minority group of President Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party on October 24 as part of hearings in the legislative body a day before expected confirmation of the new cabinet.
During a hearing, which lasted for two and a half hours and was incoming PM’s first such meeting with formerly ruling and now opposition party, Ivanishvili accused some of the UNM lawmakers of a failure to realize “new political reality” that emerged after the parliamentary elections and of continuing “demagogic” rhetoric.
The hearing started with series of very specific questions asked by UNM lawmakers about details of his incoming cabinet's program, as well as how and when Ivanishvili was going to start implementing some of his pre-election promises, involving social protection, healthcare, agriculture, lowering of utility tariffs, as well as sources of funding of all his pledges. In most of the cases Ivanishvili was answering in general terms, without specifying details.
At times the hearing was turning into debate and exchange between the incoming PM and some of the UNM lawmakers.
Ivanishvili said that although the outgoing government had two successful reforms, at least at their initial stage – police and university entry exams, many of other reforms “are anecdotal.” He also said that various ratings, claiming that Georgia was “the safest country” or such as World Bank's ease of doing business index, which measures business regulations and in which Georgia is ranked on the ninth place, were compiled through “deceiving” various international institutions. He said it was all part of President Saakashvili’s “machinery of lies.” He said that building of Public Service Halls, one-stop shops where citizen can get multiple services from various state agencies under the single roof, were good, but it should not have been a priority as there were many other problems, which required more immediate tackling. He said that the Public Service Halls were built, just because “one man was fixated on them”, referring to President Saakashvili.
UNM’s lawmaker Gogi Ochiauri, who is the oldest MP in his mid 80s, told Ivanishvili in response that he was “keeping his pre-election [rhetoric], trying to discredit outgoing government.” “Georgia’s progress has been recognized by the civilized world. Are you going to keep on discrediting Georgia’s achievements?.. Are you going to continue this way?” he asked Ivanishvili.
“Yes, of course,” Ivanishvili responded. “I will always be a realist and I will not repeat those superficial promises and superficial reforms this [outgoing] government is proud of. How can one speak of [protection of] human rights in Georgia after all the violence that was taking place in recent years? We will say no to this machinery of lies… You call it ‘discrediting achievements’ and for me it’s calling each thing by its right name.”
UNM MP Nugzar Tsiklauri told Ivanishvili that Georgia was not his “playground” and that “patriotic elite” of Georgia would not let him lead the country towards Russia.
“Your speech here confirmed that you don’t respect not only the reforms, which have been ongoing in this country in recent years, but your own words and promises either… You change position for multiple times a day,” said MP Tsiklauri, who was interrupted by Ivanishvili at that point by asking him to specify. UNM MP responded that initially he was planning to make his first foreign trip to the U.S., but then changed his mind and decided to travel to Europe; MP Tsiklauri also claimed that Ivanishvili backtracked from his pre-election pledge to immediately lower various tariffs.
“How can one trust you? How can one believe a person with such changeable psyche?.. It is not your playground; this is our homeland and be sure that we will not let you seize this country by leading reforms and modernization in the direction from where you returned back to Georgia nine years ago. Georgia will not become Russia,” MP Tsiklauri told Ivanishvili.
“Be sure that Georgian patriotic elite will unite like never before in order not to let you materialize this kind of plans,” MP Tsiklauri added, getting applause from his UNM colleagues in the chamber.
Ivanishvili responded: “I promise that your demagogy will not be sold any more. You will lose market for your demagogy if you don’t change the position and your platform.”
He said describing Georgia as “the safest country” was “funny” against the background of “arbitrary arrests and seizure of businesses”.
“How can one call such a country safe and how can such country be on top of various ratings?”, he said. “Your false ratings have not worked; they had no result; investments were not flowing into the country.”
“Its catastrophe what was happening in respect of human rights,” he said and added that he was expecting that more grave cases of human rights violations committed in recent years by the outgoing government would be revealed.
In stark contrast to the tone of MP Tsiklauri, another UNM lawmaker, Giorgi Baramidze, who is a vice speaker of the Parliament, sounded somewhat conciliatory and despite criticism over some issues, he at times also spoke in positive terms about Ivanishvili.
Baramidze said that Ivanishvili was usually speaking “sincerely” and sometimes acting not like a typical politician, like publicly giving slight rebukes to own team members which politicians usually prefer to do beyond the closed doors.
“It really disposes a person with sympathy towards you,” MP Baramidze told Ivanishvili. “You are also capable to acknowledge if something is not right and to change position.”
“I am sure that after looking into the details, you will find much better Georgia and you will find that many good deeds have been done [by the outgoing government]. But at the same time you will find many problems, which you were not aware of before… Some things might be in shadow that we failed to do and which might even be a crime and it is very good when you say that everything will be investigated through judiciary proceedings and in line with the law.”
“We want that too. Because we have no illusion that there is any government on the earth that has not made any mistake and where no crime was committed. If there was any criminal within our government that was first and foremost – to say it informally – our enemy, because such person was discrediting our government,” Baramidze added. “So it is in our interest to hold those, who could have been committing crimes, responsible; we will definitely cooperate here… We are not the people who think that it is possible to achieve something by being with criminals. Not a single normal party needs criminals among its own ranks; we have not been covering them up and we will not do that now.”
Baramidze was the longest serving cabinet member in Saakashvili's administration, first holding interior minister's post after the 2003 Rose Revolution and then defense minister's post in June-December, 2004. He served as the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration issues from December, 2004 till August, 2012 when he was named as UNM’s MP candidate.
He also told Ivanishvili that there were “legitimate questions” and “doubts” about how he managed to amass his billions in “Russia, which was wilder than Wild West” and also about how he managed to sell so easily his assets in Russia after deciding to enter into the Georgian politics.
“So a legitimate question emerged: is Putin helping this man? We are opponents and that’s why I am focusing right now on this. I hope that your future steps will answer this question, but I am now explaining reasons behind our doubts towards you,” Baramidze said.
He also criticized Ivanishvili for not mentioning in his incoming government’s program “a single word that Georgia’s territories are occupied”.
“Of course we will not vote for your government… but we sincerely wish you success, because we are patriots and we know how important it is to keep unity in our struggle for freedom and for peaceful unification of the country,” Baramidze said.
Questioning Ivanishvili over His Program
Many of the questions asked during the hearing were specific, related to Ivanishvili’s pre-election promises and his incoming government’s program.
Before starting responding to the questions, Ivanishvili told UNM lawmakers that “it has never been our desire to defeat anyone, our desire has always been a victory for Georgia and we still remain on that position.”
“We do not want to defeat anyone or to punish anyone, but those who have violated laws, they probably will have to be held accountable before the law,” he said.
Asked when he planned to increase monthly minimal pensions to GEL 220 as pledged by some of the Georgian Dream leaders ahead of the elections, Ivanishvili responded that his plan was to increase pensions to the amount of subsistence level, which might be GEL 220 or even more. He said that he was “always refraining from specifying concrete amount.” He said that timing had also never been specified by him during the election campaign.
“I cannot specify an exact date when it will happen – in a year or later,” he said and added it depended on multiple factors, including on state budgetary resources. “But it is real in next few years.”
He was also asked how much it would cost to implement his government’s plans regarding state-funded universal health insurance.
Ivanishvili responded that he was not able now to specify how much it would cost, because he was not aware of resources currently available in the state budget in details; he, however, said that he would add money from his personal funds if it’s impossible to fully fund the project from the state budget. He recalled that he had once already channeled his personal funds to finance salaries of state officials immediately after the Rose Revolution.
He gave the same response to a question about sources of funding for his pre-election pledge to bankroll heavily agriculture, including funding small farmers to allow them carry out entire agricultural cycle involving the growth and harvest of a crop and access to markets free of charge. Ivanishvili said that he would start implementing the plan immediately after taking the office and if needed he would add funds from his personal coffers to fund the project.
Ivanishvili also said that he would use his own money, if state funds become insufficient, to deliver on his pre-election promise about reimbursing in full the damage inflicted by strong wind, hailstorm and flooding in the Kakheti region this July.
Ivanishvili said that he had no specific date when allowances for internally displaced persons would increase to the amount of subsistence level.
Asked how he was planning to deliver on his pre-election promise about lowering tariffs for household electricity and gas consumption, the incoming PM said that his team was still studying the issue; he said that it would be possible by “removing” such companies from utility supply chain which, he said, “are involved there artificially”, unnecessarily increasing the cost.
Senior UNM lawmaker, Giorgi Gabashvili, told Ivanishvili that after listening to his answers he got “more confused about your policies than I was yesterday.”
“We are probably the first country in the world where [incoming] PM says that he is not aware about the [resources in the] state budget and that he will finance healthcare and agriculture with own money,” MP Gabashvili said.
“You have not counted it yourself, but we did and what you are promising to voters will cost 700 million annually, which you personally have to allocate to make you promises real,” he added.
“You say in a year and a half you will leave behind this team [referring to Ivanishvili ministerial nominees who were also present in the chamber], but I do not know, will you also leave them part of your money to maintain free healthcare and agriculture?” he said. “Georgia has never seen such unrealistic program, such unrealistic team and such unrealistic plans.”
Russian Embargo, August War
Ivanishvili was asked to specify when he was expecting to deliver on his pre-election promise about achieving lifting of Russian embargo on import of Georgian products.
“Possibility of that happening is real; it is in the interest of the both countries,” Ivanishvili said.
Responding on timing question, he told UNM lawmakers: “You could have set a concrete date for that when you agreed for unclear reasons on Russia’s WTO accession; possibility [of setting the date] existed at that time if you had demanded it, but you had no such will.”
He said that he had no contacts with the Russian authorities yet, but he thought that lifting of embargo was possible “in the near future”; he also reiterated his allegations that it was President Saakashvili’s tough rhetoric that led to Russia’s decision to ban import of the Georgian products, among them wine and mineral waters, in 2006.
“I cannot say an exact date, but in the near future I think it will be possible to restore trade and cultural relations with Russia,” Ivanishvili said.
Ivanishvili has also reiterated his position that it was President Saakashvili’s “provocation” that was used by Russia “to occupy” Georgia’s territories.
“If it were not a huge provocation, in which you [referring to UNM MP Shota Malashkhia who asked him about this topic] probably have also participated personally and which took place under the leadership of your commander-in-chief Saakashvili - that is also described in the Tagliavini report and that is recognized by all Europeans and Americans – this process could not have developed this way,” Ivanishvili said.
“Because of that provocation, Russia seized upon this pretext – you gave him a possibility to do it – and it made its long-time dream come true and as a result our territories are occupied,” he said.
Ivanishvili also said that situation with conflict resolution issues was now “very difficult”, because present authorities’ policies brought the conflict resolution process “to a deadlock.” He said that “a quick” solution to the problem was unlikely. He, however, also said that in case of favorable global political developments restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity “may take place sooner than we can imagine.”
“But the key [to conflict resolution] lies inside Georgia itself,” he said, adding that Georgia should become such a country, which will attract “our brothers Abkhazians and Ossetians”.