A leading opposition politician has accused the Georgian government of pro-Russian bias, tacitly condoned by the EU, but representatives of the ruling party, as well as diplomats, insist there is a consensus on big geopolitical matters and the entire country is pro-Western.
The 16th edition of the Batumi International Conference (11-12 July) gave opposition politicians an occasion to deliver critical messages to an international audience.
Giorgi Baramidze from the opposition United National Movement (UNM) of former Prime Minister Mikheil Saakashvili, told the conference that the West was unaware that the Georgia Dream–led government is at the command of a pro-Russian oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The recent presidential election provided a reality check of the opposition’s importance. The UNM candidate Grigor Vashadze lost to Georgia Dream-supported Salome Zurabishvili by 40% to 59%.
Speaking to EURACTIV later, Baramidze, a former deputy prime minister responsible for European affairs, said Georgia was “in deep crisis in terms of democracy”.
“A pro-Russian oligarch owns this country. He owns this country as a business project,” Baramidze said. He continued:
“He is doing it informally because he doesn’t hold any public position. But everybody in Georgia knows that he controls the majority of the parliament, subsequently the government, as well as the judiciary.”
“Also, through the security services, the police and the chief prosecutor’s office, he intimidates all pro-Western opposition parties, in particular the main opposition party. He officially declared that his goal is to destroy UNM. His long-serving minister of justice repeated that, these are public statements”, Baramidze said.
He also criticised the government for backsliding since 2012 and for the country’s economic performance. However, figures on the country’s economy consulted by EURACTIV don’t seem to substantiate this claim.
Baramidze further criticised the government for not being able to raise at the international scene Russia’s illegal occupation of 20% of Georgia’s territory. Since the August 2008 war, Russia has controlled South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
He said the international community was mobilised over the annexation of Crimea and had punished Russia with sanctions, while nothing similar happened with respect to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Asked how he could claim that the country is undemocratic when he was free to speak at an international conference while young people protested outside the conference venue over what they consider excessive use of violence recently in Tbilisi, he said:
“Our leaders are being arrested. Our main leader has been kicked out of the country, President Saakashvili, as you know. Our current leader, chairman of the Political Council, is under house arrest, accused of trying to perpetrate a coup d’état. It’s absolute nonsense.”
Asked if the oligarch Ivanishvili is pro-Russian, he said:
“I don’t know if he has signed any contract with FSB [the new name for the state security agency KGB], but by what he’s doing, he’s weakening Georgia in all sense. To this, I will add that our security institutions are totally infiltrated by Russian agents.”
He added that the country’s counter-intelligence had not been able to apprehend one single Russian intelligence agent in the past seven years.
Asked how many Russian agents had been apprehended by the previous government, he said:
“During our government, we practically eliminated, although not fully, Russia’s agent networks. There were also public announcements, and with the involvement of the international community, we have handed them to Russia, some of them went to prison. But when this government came to power, they set them free and gave them the status of political prisoners: Can you imagine, Russian citizens freed from prison for having been political prisoners?”
Asked why the West didn’t react to these issues, he said:
“Because they care – and I can understand – about the Eastern Partnership. They consider Georgia as better than the other five countries. Georgia is the best among the worst classmates. The EU doesn’t want to criticise the best among the worst.”
Government dismisses criticism
MP Tamar Khulordava, Chairperson of the Committee on European Integration in the Georgian parliament, said Baramidze’s statements were factually inaccurate.
“We have fundamentally different levels of democracy and human rights protection in the country than we had before. I’m not trying to suggest that everything has been done and the country is in perfect shape when it comes to democratic standards, human rights protection, rule of law and governance – it’s work in progress.”
“But as an objective observer, you have to recognise where the country was, how it has evolved, and what the progress is.”
Khulordava said that the country was developing in the right direction. For example, she said the parliament used to have very little power but had now become “a central political body in the country”.
“A testimony of that is the fact that we have now the prime minister, ministers appearing in the plenary, with very hot debates, with the opposition and all parties engaged, as we never had before. I know, what I’m saying may sound as if it was the basics, but it was not the case in Georgia. This has to be recognised as an indicator of progress.”
Asked about the role of Ivanishvili, she said:
“Ivanishvili is the founder of the party I represent. He is an influential person because he is the one that managed to put the party together, and despite quite an oppressive regime, which was ruling the country at that time, he was able to put the opposition in place, which following the elections was able to get the majority of seats in the parliament and therefore formed a government. His party remains in power and as a founder, but also as a chairman of the party, of course, he is influential.”
She dismissed accusations coming from the opposition that Ivanishvili is pro-Russian:
“This is ridiculous. The opposition’s allegations are evolving as time goes by. The unfortunate fact is that we are too polarised in Georgia. This is very unfortunate. There is a lot of common ground between the party in government and major opposition parties: our aspirations for the European Union, our assessment of the role of Russia in Georgia’s contemporary history, which are the same.”
Khulordava said there was no real geopolitical division between the government and opposition, but that the opposition was trying to find controversy wherever possible.
“It’s easy for them to label our party-as pro-Russian, which has no basis whatsoever. Someone may say: you are an elephant. But I’m not an elephant, I’m a human being.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]