In a wide-ranging interview with EURACTIV, Georgian politician Tamar Chugoshvili speaks of the reactions in her country following the recent EU decision not to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, and of Georgia’s plans to remain in the EU orbit nevertheless.
Tamar Chugoshvili is a Georgian politician serving as the first vice-chair of the Georgian parliament since November 2016. She is the foreign secretary and member of the political council of the party “Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia”.
She spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
Let’s look at the broad context… There are fears in Brussels that enlargement is, if not halted, then in the “deep freezer.” At the same time, Georgia makes no secret of its wish to join the European Union. What’s your take on that?
Well, for us, obviously, this is very clear for us the dynamics are in capitals, and that it is not the best timing to speak about the membership or speak about very big bold steps. The way we approach this is that European integration is a strategic priority for this country. We have that in our Constitution, we have that declared as a national goal because of this simple reason: because we have our path either as a democratic country and part of the democratic world, or again being manipulated by Russia and by different forces.
So we have this decision of being an integral part of the democratic society and aspire for the membership is something that is very deep in here, and in Georgians, as you rightly mentioned. So optimism is quite high. And actually the measurements of the public aspirations are showing this huge willingness to move in that direction. Though the difficulties are there and the way we are approaching this is that on the one hand, yes, politically we are asking for the European perspective but we also understand …
This is not doable.
…this is a very difficult conversation to have. Our attitude and approach is that the Eastern Partnership for these last ten years for us has delivered its results and these have been: Association Agreement, Free Trade Agreement, and the visa-free movement.
Now how do we continue on this? We have our roadmap to the EU, so we have our steps planned and the topics that we talk to the European Union, and we hope that if the perspective is not and if this enlargement process is somewhere in a very difficult stage right now, at least what we want to engage in conversations with, is supporting Georgia’s aspirations in terms of economic progress and democratic progress.
And there are some very concrete things that we’ve been talking to the European Union about this. Very practical things, very concrete things that our citizens also need to see as tangible deliverables from these aspirations. And these are things like access to the infrastructural funds, for example, which is very important for us to develop our infrastructure …
Some of them are made available under the TEN-T Action Plan…
We do not have access to the infrastructural funds, which needs a very specific political decision, also not an easy one, but we are not asking for huge portions of it. Also, we are talking about the different capitals about labour migration. So labour migration and circular migration is something that we are negotiating now with several countries. We want to start talking with the European Union, this is a difficult part…
Can you explain, circular migration means that the same people from a third country go for a certain period of time to work in the EU, and you want this to be regulated, or…?
Yes, that has to be an agreement, this has to be bilateral agreements between the governments, unless the EU decides to open its labour market for Georgia. Which is a more difficult conversation to have, despite the fact that it will not make a big influence on the EU, it will probably not be even noticeable because among four million citizens of Georgia, a very small portion of citizens can use these opportunities actually, which is a very nominal number for the EU.
But unless the EU makes a political decision on this, we are in parallel talking with the European capitals about circular migration. Circular migration deals are arranged bilaterally and give quotas for the country for certain professions, for certain periods of time. So it can be two years, it can be one year, it can be six months…
So it’s according to the interests of the respective country: maybe medical services are sought in Belgium or in the Netherlands or something like that?
So it might be that Germany needs nurses, for example, let’s say 2,000 nurses. We train people, give them the necessary qualification, and we are building on vocational training a lot and we are investing in that very much. We are sending them under this agreement and then these people are coming back after some time. This is for our benefit because, first of all, these people are getting a much higher income and salary for this period of time and they are also getting additional qualifications and improved skills. So this labour part is important for us and we are trying somehow to push this forward. Then there are aspects like for example to join the roaming space…
I would welcome that because roaming between the EU and Georgia is very expensive.
[Laughs.] Exactly. I think that there will be some progress in that regard. It is a more difficult conversation to have access to infrastructural funds and access to the labour market. Which is obviously for us the perfect thing, and in that case, we would not need these circular migration deals, but it is very difficult and we understand.
It was also difficult in the case of the latest countries that joined the European Union. Most of the member countries, at least the richest countries kept the 7-year transition period before opening their job market. I don’t think this is going to change.
Yes, and we understand that. We are still advocating for this, that is why in parallel we are speaking about circular migration, which is more realistic for us. Meanwhile, we are trying to resolve all the issues, not huge ones, but all the issues that have been there with the asylum seekers, as some countries had issues with the asylum seekers coming from Georgia. So we are now also introducing our legal regulations that would help us to protect the European states, which might face issues.
But Georgia is a democratic country. I don’t think it is possible to make the case somebody’s really persecuted…
Most countries have included Georgia on the secure country list. Mostly the problem is that once a person applies, before a response is granted from the country, it takes several months, sometimes nine months to a year. And in this period of time, they can stay there. A very small portion is getting asylum, almost none. So the granting of asylum has been very minor, though these people who can stay while the decision on asylum granting is delivered. So that has been raised by Germany and France, and some other countries also, so we are working with them, their ambassadors are well aware and involved in this process, and they work with our Ministry of Interior and border control and the Parliament to find solutions to this.
So from our side, of course, it is a huge discouragement, the dynamics that we see in European politics right now, though, on the other hand, we also think and we want to think and hope that our decision and our aspirations and all the effort that we invest towards EU, is of some value for the European Union as well. At least to the extent that the EU would be willing to go beyond of what we have achieved right now.
And there has been some really good cooperation on the education front, for example, there has been some good cooperation establishing standards in production to help export our goods to the EU market. We want to enhance that these opportunities much better. Basically, for us, the main challenge right now is that our economy is very weak. Despite the fact that we have growth we have a very small economy, and we have a huge amount of poverty. And maintain these democratic aspirations that we have while having a big scope of poverty is very difficult. It is easy to manipulate people who are poor, and who are suffering and who do not have some basic income.
And we are trying to communicate this with the EU and saying that we need more engagement. If you cannot give us perspective and if you cannot talk to us about membership potential opportunities at some point in the future, at least so that we could cooperate on those fronts, which would strengthen this country economically, in terms of infrastructure, and in terms of democratic standards so that we are ready for the moment where the potentially EU might change, the dynamics in the EU might change and there might be additional appetite for enlargement, which definitely is not there right now.
In any case, you want to play by EU rules: that is clear.
Do we have a choice?
I don’t know. Maybe you would prefer the Chinese model, when you take the money and run.
[laughs] We have not considered that.
Still, we are speaking close to the location of the Silk Road Form that took place in Tbilisi: a big event gathering more than 2,000 participants from 60 countries, and obviously China is in the lead of all this, and the European Union is not very visible. What is the Georgian view of the New Silk Road?
The initiative is a natural thing for us, seeing ourselves as a potential connection between East and West. That, of course, makes us talk to the different players, to Asia, to Europe, and we have free trade agreements both with China and with the European Union for example. Though, in terms of what kind of politics, and what kind of country do we want to be: we want to be a European country. And this is how we see ourselves. And this is what I believe that for up to 80% of Georgians is a very clear decision made.
In other countries China has been generous, giving grants and sometimes countries have fallen into the debt trap. And then even governments have been manipulated, you certainly want to avoid this?
We have not had that, and I don’t think that there are any plans on that.
Speaking about democracy, you mentioned poverty. Indeed, poverty is a big issue, maybe even globally. Maybe the reason why we have so many populist governments even in countries with democratic traditions is because poor people, often living in the countryside, tend to vote for people proposing easy solutions. And you said that poor people can be easily manipulated. It’s a big problem for democracy, isn’t it? How do you plan to address it?
For Georgia, it is, especially because we are vulnerable to anti-Western propaganda, which is taking place everywhere and is also taking place here. Here it is very easy to say things like: “if Georgia becomes a member of NATO, NATO troops will come and seize your land, and you will not have any property left,” which is total nonsense. But there have been these kind of rumours spread, and people are, especially in minority-populated regions, people are very vulnerable to this kind of complete disinformation.
So, for us, when we talk about democracy, in our case we have had, in my opinion at least, much greater progress on developing as a democratic country, and there is still a lot of work to do in terms of developing our economy. When talking about democratic progress, the main things that we are going through right now and which are going to make a crucial change in the parliamentary election in October 2020 are the Constitutional changes.
We are going through a very important process. In the Parliament, at this stage, the reform is not finally voted but it is in the pipeline. And basically what this reform says is that, if up to now Georgia had a system which was establishing a strong domination of the winning party – whoever was winning the elections was big, was winning big majority in the parliament, was winning the cabinet and was winning all the key appointments everywhere. This is changing.
You will have a more proportional system of representation….
This will be proportional, fully proportional. Many European countries have full proportional systems, the difference is quite often this threshold. And this time, in the next elections, we will have basically no threshold, which means that whoever manages to pass a very low barrier, which will be at 0.67%, will be gaining a seat in the parliament. And the reason why this decision was made is that for years we have been told “you are a one-party domination system”. So yes, you are a democracy, but you are getting too much power.
So before us, it was UNM (United National Movement), before UNM it was Shevardnadze’s party, but everybody was playing with the same electoral system, getting a huge power in parliamentary elections. So we are stepping away from that, we are imposing a system, which basically gives the same number of seats as the proportion of votes received in the elections.
But you will have one hundred parties represented…
Well, we might have quite a big number. Friends have been telling us that we must be crazy to introduce this system that weakens our party because we are the only one to loses seats. Moreover, the new system might create a reality where we will have to establish a coalition government, so which means that we will have to partner with some other parties in order to appoint the ministers. And this will be a challenge because our political system is not used to coalition rule, but to one-party very strong domination. But we think that in terms of who makes the decisions in the country, and how balanced or shared the power is, this is something that is going to be in benefit of the democratic progress.
So, we will see, but we think that at this stage, this is the right step to make. And in parallel with that, as we have established ourselves as a parliamentary democracy, we are going through a lot of reforms in the Parliament, and here in this building because for many years, unfortunately, Parliament was seen as a rubber-stamp institution, instead of an institution that holds government accountable.
The reason is precisely because one party is in power…
Not only that. I would say because we have new legislation in place from January this year, and the way Parliament scrutinizes the work of the government has changed dramatically. We had a dramatic transformation in that sense. If parliament has never had prime minister and ministers summoned, we have that on a regular basis, almost every plenary week. And if parliament has never really organized inquiries into some big topics, we have this permanent inquiry processes going on.
Despite the fact that nothing has changed, in terms of who is in power, but the parliament has really changed, the parliament saw its role very differently from how it was seeing it throughout the years. These are big shifts and changes in the political culture, obviously, we have a lot of challenges that we face, there are very clear difficulties that we face. But it is the right direction to move forward if we want to have some future progress in terms of where Georgia stands as a democratic state.
But give me an example when draft legislation didn’t come from the government, or when the Parliament made a difference by changing the draft legislation…
A lot of examples, actually. Regarding draft legislation, 80% of draft legislation comes from the executive, and it is the same in every parliament. Because the executive knows what are the problems in their operations so they propose the Parliament to pass the laws. 20% of initiatives coming from the parliamentarians, this is a normal distribution, compared to other countries. There are numerous examples where the legislation was proposed, did not go through, or the legislation that the government did not want, went through. Including, the major legislation that regulated government scrutiny from the parliament’s side.
There are no big tensions nowadays with the opposition? I remember the huge backlash a few months ago and violence during a protest, this episode has ended?
Well, I think that the opposition did not manage to gain the public support that they were hoping for. So, they have been organizing protests outside this room, right in front of us, you can still see some of the remains.
I saw two tents, indeed.
The protests themselves continued for several days, but then there were smaller groups, which were organising kind of like evening, online debates from here, from outside the steps of the Parliament’s entrance and the opposition did not manage to collect the public support for the street protests that they were hoping for. Our concern is that we find the opposition not arguing about any policy decisions, but engaged in personal attacks and insults rather than policy-based debates and discussions.
So we never argue about what kind of health policy or education policy or different things should be. So from their side it is always like, “Bidzina is a bad man” and then from our side is “let’s talk about education, Bidzina is a bad guy so let’s talk about education,” it’s usually how it goes. [Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman, is the founder and leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party. Although he is no longer Prime Minister, he is considered the strongman of the country.]
The leader of the opposition is Saakashvili? [Mikheil Saakashvili was the president of Georgia for two consecutive terms from 2004 to 2013. He is the founder and former chairman of the United National Movement party.]
Although he is not in Georgia?
He is not in Georgia right now; he is in Ukraine, as far as I’m aware. He is the notorious guy who runs opposition parties in two countries at the same time. He gave up the Georgian citizenship after his term expired as president, and he got Ukrainian citizenship. So he worked as a Ukrainian government official for several years and then he was expelled from Ukraine. And the new president gave back his citizenship.
Don’t you think it’s a political mistake?
That the new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy gave back Ukrainian citizenship to Saakashvili.
Yeah, I think it is a mistake, to be honest. Saakashvili is running the main opposition party. His attitude has been throughout this period of time running politics, which does not aim at government change through elections. So he has been very open and public about it. He has even caused conflicts internally within his party because there are people who are saying that we cannot anymore speak about revolutions. So we should speak about changes through the elections and changes which result in parliamentary elections. So, Saakashvili’s line has been that changes through the elections are not the way, his articulation of it is that Georgian Dream will never allow anybody else to win the elections, but the reality and fact is that they do not have the public support that is needed to win the elections.
So his messaging towards his constituency and his party has been that we should change this government not through the ballot box but through some different means. So the protests that you mentioned, the way it got violent actually, was that UNM supporters organized a violent attack on police officers who were standing in front of the Parliament building to defend the peaceful protest and the Parliament building. So this is how it ended up in a police use of force. So hundreds of people were attacking police offices for several hours, for two hours and a half. And the police was withstanding this for some time, and then they had to use force. So this is how it ended up in the dispersal decision of the police forces.
What will be the next occasion when you visit Brussels? What will be on your agenda?
I am coming on November 6 and 7, it’s an EU-Georgia Parliamentary Association Committee meeting. We will have rounds of meetings with the MEPs, especially the newcomers, and we might benefit from them being introduced to what happens in Georgia, what are our aspirations and what kind of support we are looking for.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]