DF Watch talked with Georgia-analyst Lincoln Mitchell, Associate Professor at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.DFW: What has changed since July, when we last talked?
L.M: The euphoria of winning an election, of unseating Saakashvili, of getting rid of a regime that they thought was a very bad regime, has gone, and the challenge now is governing, solving problems and putting people to work, trying to move towards NATO and the EU – those are all governance questions and that’s a different field now than it was six months ago.DFW: The inauguration of Giorgi Margvelashvili was far more modest than previous inaugurations of Saakashvili and regarding gusts as well; there were not very high rank officials from US and that was caught immediately by people here and they wonder maybe there is some cooling ties between the two states?
L.M: I wouldn’t read too much into that. First of all, I agree it would have been nice to have a higher level delegation, and it wouldn’t have killed the US to send a couple of US senators over here to represent the country as well, but I wouldn’t read is as a cooling in the US-Georgia relations. What I would read it as is that the US, perhaps more than people of Georgia, believe what’s happened in the last year to be very ordinary. People in Georgia see it a little bit differently and because of that they think that this inauguration is much bigger deal in terms of historical transition and changes, but the US doesn’t. So the inauguration of just another president after a democratic election, it’s not as big deal as in 2003, when there was a Rose Revolution and they sent over Colin Powell, but the bilateral relationship is very strong.
DFW:There is some uncertainty about Ukraine on the eve of the Vilnius Summit. One day they stated that they will sign the agreement and next day that they will not. What do you think, is Mr Yanukovich trading to get some privileges from both sides, or is it something else?
“As long as Georgia is thinking about trying to get into NATO the chance of Russia acting here against Georgia is very high.”
L.M: Ukraine has always been in a different situation than Georgia. Georgia is a country which is unified in its desire to be the part of the EU and NATO, and that is reflected in its political leadership. For example in the last presidential campaign the two top finishers who got eighty percent of the votes, Giorgi Margvelashvili and Davit Bakradze, shared the same view on NATO and the EU and the people of Georgia all the data shows that a large majority shares that view. In Ukraine it’s different. Yanukovich’s base doesn’t want to be in the EU. He may know that that’s the best thing for his country, but politically he has both a more complicated game to play, but also more room to maneuver. So here the leader of Georgia can’t play the two sides off of each other, because the political consequence is too high: to be seen as not wanting to join the EU. Nobody wants to be seen that way. So they have to try to go full steam ahead to try to get in. In Ukraine, Yanukovich doesn’t get an Association Agreement, politically that doesn’t hurt them so much, among his base.DFW: It is more likely that the Ukraine will not sign the agreement. What consequences will this have for Georgia? If EU signs only with Moldova and Georgia?
L.M: If Ukraine would also got an Association Agreement it would be better because you could say that the momentum was really moving this way. But you could also say that without an Association Agreement, if Georgia and Moldova both get one, and Ukraine doesn’t, these are much smaller countries than Ukraine; it’s much easier to bring them along because of the size, so I think you can interpret it either way. I don’t think it is good or bad. Georgia getting Association Agreement is good and then Georgia doing what it needs to do to get to the EU is important and where Ukraine fits into this… I mean it is interesting and important globally, but it’s not important specifically for Georgia.DFW: Mr. Putin vigorously opposes the Association Agreement and there were different kinds of pressure over Ukraine, over Moldova, over Armenia for example they were supplying arms to Azerbaijan and then in some time Mr Sarksyan made a U-turn, and in Georgia we have these fences along the administrative border. Do you expect some other kind of pressure from Russia?
L.M: Yes, I do expect that Russia will put pressure on Georgia. I don’t expect that it will happen until after the Olympics. Russia probably wants to be on its best behavior between now and then and wants to avoid any international criticism between now and then, but I do expect that Russia wil seek to create problems for Georgia. This is the challenge for Georgia and its leaders. How do you move forward quickly and get to the EU and NATO and to do it quickly, because as soon as you are in, Russia’s ability to damage you becomes much less, because the stakes are much higher for them if they make trouble for a member of the EU or NATO. But for now yes, that’s a real threat, but on the other hand should the government of Georgia or should Georgia be coward or been bullied into not seeking EU membership? No, of course they shouldn’t do that. So there’s not a lot of options here.DFW: Next year there is NATO summit in the UK and if we are correct in some statements and reports NATO has praised Georgia the last couple of months. Can we expect some kind of sign of encouragement, a MAP or maybe something else?
L.M: You are going to get a sign of encouragement no matter what, but so what? I mean, honestly… Georgia doesn’t need a sign of encouragement. Georgia needs a MAP – Membership Action Plan. So I think, going into that summit, that the goal should be to get a MAP. Words of encouragement are not helpful. I mean they are better than nothing, but NATO in particular – if you are a member of NATO you either want Georgia in or you want Georgia out, but keeping this discussion just going and going and going is not good. As long as Georgia is thinking about trying to get into NATO the chance of Russia acting here against Georgia is very high. If Georgia would say tomorrow – hey, we don’t want to get into NATO – that would make tensions with Russia go away. I don’t think Georgia should do that. My sense is for the NATO members, I would urge them to give Georgia a MAP. Georgia I hope will do everything in their power to get that MAP and then once they get it to move quickly from the MAP to membership, because in this process that would be when Russia will be most concerned about Georgia.DFW: How do you envisage Saakashvili in near future? He only wrote in his open letter that he has offers from the Universities tied with his name, but no further details.
L.M: Misha is a young man. I hope he’s young man, ’cause I’m almost exactly the same age. So he’ll be 46 on December 21 and no longer the president of Georgia. There are people who at 46 start running for president of their country. That’s how young he is still. He believes he has a great deal to contribute. Georgian people might not believe that anymore, but he believes that. And there is a part of him that obviously enjoys that authority and enjoys being in power, so my sense is that this isn’t the end of Misha politically. If he goes in the university in Brussels or in the university in the US, that’s an opportunity to create a comeback. But the politics of that are complicated, because his party lost badly. In this election they lost very badly, sufficiently badly that you can’t really yet speak of Georgia having a two party system. We all heard, particularly in the Western media, what a weak candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili was and that nobody knew who he was, you know, the narrative that nobody really challenged. But he won three to one against a guy who has been speaker of the parliament, a guy who was generally viewed as one of the better people in the UNM, right? My sense about Davit Bakradze is that he’s not viewed by Georgian people as one of the really bad guys in the UNM. We can all imagine other people who, had they run, would have been less popular. So Bakradze, who is a smart guy, experienced guy, not hated, loses three to one. That tells you where the National Movement’s ratings are right now. So on the one hand for Saakashvili to breathe new life into that party would have been an impressive accomplishment, and he is an impressive guy, so it’s possible. But secondly internally within the party the leadership of the party may be beginning to realize that their party is better off without him and that Saakashvili is dragging the party down, so he has internal party issues as well. On the other hand, time is on his side. He can wait this out. The economy here is not strong and it hasn’t been strong for many many years and to the great extent that is why the previous government fell. So this government could stumble, people could look to Saakashvili again, but I think time would have to go by, and by time I don’t mean three months or a year. I mean real time, but he is young enough. He can wait a decade and still be young enough to be a president, no problem. He can wait 20 years and still young enough to be president. He has to figure out what he will do tomorrow and day after, but he also knows that he can wait. Now, temperamentally can Saakashvili wait? I don’t know. If you ask me to list a thousand adjectives that comes to mind when you say Misha’s name, ‘patient’ wouldn’t be one of them. But patience may be what he needs now.
“He said: ‘You can’t lecture us for twenty years about rule of law and then tell us not to arrest your friends.’ “
DFW: Recently in one of his public speeches former Ambassador Mr Yalowitz warned Mikheil Saakashvili that he might be jailed and he advised to be away from Georgia for some time.
L.M: It is a difficult question, but it’s a complicated question, because the Georgian government is in a quandary and because rule of law is a complicated thing. The position of some in the US, and some in in Europe, has been, after an election you can’t just go and arrest your political enemies and my sense is that phrased like that everybody would agree with that. How in a democracy can you imagine – oh, you lost the election, now we are going to round you up and put you in jail just automatically. But if you commit crimes when you are in office, then what? Should somebody be immune from arrest simply because they were in high office? Do the crimes you commit in high office not count because then it would be political prosecution? It’s a complicated rule of law question. A high-ranking member of this government, who I won’t name, said to me almost a year ago that he had had a conversation with an American who urged him not to arrest anybody. He said: “You can’t lecture us for twenty years about rule of law and then tell us not to arrest your friends.” The sentiment is an accurate one. As I see it, there are several dynamics here. One: the Georgian government, I believe, thinks they have a case against Saakashvili on human rights issues on funding issues and they have a case that would stand up in a court of law. They believe that. Now personally I haven’t seen the evidence, so is it a good case or bad case? I don’t know, but they believe that. Secondly, there is a large chunk of the Georgian people who want to see him arrested and one of the issues in this last election was justice. It was not the way we saw it in the West, but it was one of the issues. You should never arrest somebody just because people think he is a bad guy and want him arrested. That’s not how rule of law works, but if you have case against somebody and people think he is a bad guy – well, maybe you should arrest him. On the third hand, it’s not good to arrest a former president. If you can avoid it, you should, and the reason for that is that in a country like Georgia for many people in the office is almost impossible not to break to the law. So where do you draw the line? Even if you have a great case against Saakashvili it just means that when Margvelashvili loses an election they’re going to arrest him, and you get this tit for tat, and you can never control it. The fourth thing is that if you are a country like Georgia that is seeking to get into NATO, seeking to get into EU and that has a close relationship with the US, which they would like to keep, then you can’t ignore what the US says and you can’t ignore what Europe says. You have to explain your thinking. Even if you decide not to arrest him, you have to explain that this is a political decision. It comes with a political cost. If they don’t arrest Saakashvili it will cost them politically here. I don’t think too many people in the West don’t understand that. So you need to explain that. And then you make the best decision for Georgia, but you explain it to the all players and you think through the consequences. The worst thing they can do would be to arrest him tomorrow without talking to anybody. The second worst thing would be to announce “we will never arrest Saakashvili” without explaining it to the Georgian people.
L.M: I don’t know. On the one hand, they believe, if you talk to the leaders of the State Department or foreign ministries in Europe, that it is just not a good thing for Georgia to arrest a former president. But in the US in particular, this is their friend. They don’t want to confront the fact that their friend was head of state for a criminal government. They don’t want to confront that, but there is evidence to suggest that that is true. So even if they arrest and convict him and then not send him to jail this is still kind of throwing mud in the eyes of the US. But regardless what decision you make you have to explain it.