Lincoln Mitchell, Associate at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.

-The absence of a free media makes any kind of meaningful democracy impossible. Saakashvili’s givernment is using legalistic and legislative pyrotechnics to ensure an unfair political system, says Lincoln Mitchell, Associate at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and Georgia-expert.

DF Watch talked with him via Skype, and we opened by asking what Georgia’s prospects are for NATO membership after the Chicago summit in May.

Lincoln Mitchell: I think Chicago is a dip sideways for Georgia and NATO. What I mean by that is that it didn’t move it forward or didn’t move it backwards, there was no MAP, there were the same positive statements without any concrete commitments from the NATO members as there were in 2008 in Bucharest, so I think it’s neither a step forward nor a step backwards. What strikes me is two things: one, how the Georgian leadership understood this and began to downplay expectations leading up to the summit. So instead of saying we’re going to get a MAP or we’re going to get in, they keep saying, we’re going to get some positive statement, which they did, but that’s meaningless, and secondly how Georgia’s failure – let me rephrase that – Saakashvili’s inability to keep his promise about NATO membership is bad for Georgia, but it also speaks for an unwillingness on the part of the Georgian leadership to do what is necessary to get into NATO. Let’s be honest. There are some countries like mine that want to get Georgia into NATO; there are some that don’t, but until Georgia does its own work, the countries that do want to get Georgia in, can’t help them and right now the problem is that until Georgia strengthens its democratic institutions it’s so easy to keep them out and when the government in Georgia, coming into an election season, is harassing the opposition, has this bizarre kafkaesque story of taking away the citizenship of their major opponent, and is firing people because somebody they know attends a rally and all of these kinds of things, the message that the Georgian government is sending to the Georgian people and the world is it’s more important for us to stay in power than it is to get into NATO. That’s seems to me to be very plain.

DF Watch: You speak about democratic institutions and does the Russia factor work here too, in the NATO issue?

LM: It’s a factor. There are countries in NATO that don’t want to let Georgia in, because they don’t want to ruffle the feathers with Russia. But, but we know that and we know that in Washington we can’t help Georgia; we can’t go to those countries and say we’ve got to get Georgia in, until Georgia gets its act together. So right now, Georgia is making very hard for USA, who is, frankly, Georgia’s biggest advocate, to help them.

DFW: The second question is about Hillary Clinton’s visit; what do you think, what will be the main topics of discussion with Saakashvili?

LM: I suspect the main topics are that Hillary Clinton is going to come to express her gratitude to Saakashvili and the Georgian people for sending troops out to support NATO efforts in Afghanistan. That’s what I’m hearing is the main topic. I hope that she takes this opportunity to be frank with Saakashvili about what the U.S. hopes to see from now and until the election, and how important democracy is for Georgia’s future and how it’s increasingly difficult for the U.S. to run around Europe and the world telling people that he is a democrat, because it’s just an impossible sell right now. But I don’t know if she’s going to say that or not.

DFW: What do you think, would it be the topic about the elections; last month the State Department was very vocal towards Georgian authorities regarding holding free and democratic elections in the fall and on the cases of pressure towards opposition. Do you think this will be a topic too?

LM: I think the U.S. has been much stronger and much more vocal on these issues over last few months. I would hope that that would be a topic. I think this is a real opportunity for Secretary of State Clinton who is you know, broadly respected and who has addressed a whole range of issues in her very good tenure as Secretary of the State. It will be very good opportunity to bring that up. But I don’t know for sure that she will. I think it would be very smart for the U.S. if she did bring it up, but again I don’t know for sure.

DFW: Last weekend we had a large opposition rally in downtown Tbilisi held by this new Georgian Dream coalition led by the billionaire Ivanishvili, who has become the top opponent of Saakashvili here. How do people in Washington perceive these messages from Ivanishvili and what do people in Washington expect to hear from the Georgian opposition?

LM: I think that the message from the demonstration was a clear message and I think people in Washington got it. I think there were a few messages from the demonstration. One, that Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream have real support. And I know that we can argue about the numbers, I mean I wasn’t there, I can’t count the numbers, but I’m hearing plausible estimates in the one to two hundred thousand rage and that shows that there is real support in the country like Georgia. Doesn’t show that he has won the election, it just shows that he has real support. I think it shows some other very important things too, which should not be overlooked. A year ago, other political leaders in Georgia had demonstrations, where they provoked, they spoke about violence, they had ties to Russia and it were a mess and the Georgian government provoked them and Georgian government attacked them and it was a bloody mess and everyone looked terrible. This leader and this opposition brings people onto the streets. Again, I didn’t say I was there, but I have seen lot of videos on various links. Bring people on the streets. The man, Ivanishvili, gives what I thought was – I have seen bits and pieces translated – a pretty good speech about Georgia and about Georgians and about his vision for his country and then what happened after the demonstration? Everyone took their signs and t-shirt and they went home. That tells me and that should tell Washington that this is a serious political operation. One that is very anxious to play within the rules, and it would be a lot easier for them to play within the rules if he was allowed to be a citizen of Georgia, and my view is that preventing Ivanishvili being a citizen of Georgia is about as logical as preventing me from being a citizen of the U.S. I think most Georgians agree with me on that. So the message that I see is that this guy has support, and he’s legit, and he’s not going to try to do violence, and he wants to have a serious hard-fought campaign. That should be music to the ears for people in Washington. Might be a little frightening to the government of Georgia, but that’s a different story.

DFW: Many people here in Georgia, and not only among the opposition but among civil society too, want to have long-term election observers here. What do you think, has this idea any prospect for becoming a reality?

LM: I think those decisions will be made soon; I think it does have a chance of coming true and I think it’s very important, but I would add that we need long-term observers, because in countries like Georgia the election problems occur in well in advance and not just in Georgia. It’s not just Georgia, but many countries like Georgia. People are harassed, people are intimidated, some parties don’t get access to television, and people lose their jobs, all that kind of thing. It’s not just enough to observe it. We have to have governments that are sending those observers and willing to make statements and have consequences for early election fraud, if we see it. That’s a form of election fraud the same way that stuffing a ballot box on election day is.

DFW: We published this morning an opinion piece from former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Mr. Yalowitz and one of his points is that he expressed his concern about the situation around the mountainous Karabakh Republic and at some point he doesn’t rule out some escalation here with involving regional superpowers like Russia, Turkey and Iran. What’s your opinion about the odds of a broader scenario of hostilities in this region?

LM: I’m told and I’m hearing now for couple of years that things are very tense there, so it’s something we should be very concerned about and very aware about. I think there should be a fair amount of watchful attention paid to this. This is not just going to go away and it hasn’t just gone. So I think Ambassador Yalowitz is right about that.

DFW: Civil society figures and editors proposed a draft bill about new regulations of TV channels and the question is whether the situation with the media is making ripples in Washington?

LM: It’s a good question. Not as much as it should. To me the absence of a free media really makes any kind of meaningful democracy impossible. I think most people would agree with that statement. And while there are monitoring agencies, Freedom House and others, who report out how bad the Georgian media, let’s be clear, we’re talking about the television here. But television is where most Georgians get their news. So that’s very important media in Georgia, television. Even though they report that out nobody really understand just how significant that is for questions of democracy in Georgia. I think the U.S. ambassador to Georgia has brought this up, but it remains a very very vexing problem. Without independent television that can reach the whole country it’s very hard to speak meaningfully about fair elections. I mean it’s very striking to me that the major opposition figure has to explore buying a television network, because he can’t get any coverage on the regular television, and he knows he won’t be able to get his ads on the regular television. That speaks to me about a very very bad media environment, and with a bad media environment, other things like whether there’s fraud on election day aren’t really so relevant, because the media environment precludes that kind of fairness.

DFW: The most important issue, discontent from the government from the majority in parliament is the ‘must-carry’ principle. Because the government’s people set up some large cable television networks and they didn’t put in the sets from some independent and some opposition televisions. This means that the opposition and independent TV channels won’t have access to a majority of viewers and the main issue of this bill proposed by civil society is this ‘must-carry’ principle, and what do you think, is this relevant to the situation in here?

LM: It is relevant. What the Georgian government has demonstrated, it is very very good at using legalistic and legislative pyrotechnics to ensure an unfair political system. To put it in more political science terms, using [inaudible] just to keep a non-democratic system in place, and this is an example of that. Everybody knows what media fairness is. Everyone knows what fair media is when they see it and they don’t see it in Georgia. So, legal approaches to try to overcome that are very important. I’m not confident that they will be implemented, but they’re very important.

DFW: The campaign This Affects You Too has made several proposals to parliament, first of all to introduce the ‘must-carry’ and ‘must-offer’ principles; and the second is that we want to have debates in this field because you know we never had debates between political parties here and we want to have debates here, especially on public TV. We want to have a voice from international community because our government doesn’t want to secure pluralism in the media field and they want to have one voice during the election period, so we want to have equal opportunities for players.

LM: I think these debates would be a great idea. One thing that comes to mind is that you can’t even have a debate between the candidates for Prime Minister, because we don’t even know who the national movement wants to have as their Prime Minister candidate, but that would be interesting to know. And also, I think, for some of the single mandate seats, and those don’t even have to be on national television, you know, you can do single mandate fora in a public place out in the regions, in Gori or somewhere, and have it broadcast locally. There’s plenty of ways to get that information out there. I think it’s very important and in a context where the state media is dominated by the governing party, you have to have alternate ways to get information to voters.