A free trade agreement with the United States is going to force Georgia to change its current very anti-worker labor laws, says Lincoln Mitchell, Associate at Columbia University's Harriman Institute.

Lincoln Mitchell.

Lincoln Mitchell, Associate Professor at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, recently visited Georgia to attend a conference in Batumi from 18th to 19th June Georgia’s European way. After arriving in Tbilisi Mitchell, who is a Georgia-analyst, met with us to speak about the situation in Georgia and share his views about ongoing processes.

Generally speaking can you assess how Georgia has changed since 2012?

First thing I would say for people who are involved in Georgia, living here, working here, involved in civil society, media, politics, that’s the past and we can’t keep rehashing that because we have to move the country forward. It very clear that Georgia has made steps forward since 2012. It is also very clear that Georgia needs to continue making steps forward. When civil society for example makes demands on the government in that way and it needs to be understood in that sense. Democracy in Georgia in my view is closer to democracy than it has ever been. It means that people or the civil society organizations or even the media are always saying to the government: ‘What have you done for me lately?’ And the government never wants to hear that, but in the democratic system it is very legitimate direction for the civil society or people to go.

So since 2012 by most measures Georgia is more free. That’s clear. Is it 100% free? Of course not. Is it significantly more free? Yes. There has always been some pluralism in Georgian society, but it is moving forward of having that pluralism represented in its legislature, but not now. Now we still have legislature dominated by one major government bloc and one major opposition party. But in 2016 it is easy to imagine a multi-party legislature and it is easy to imagine a legislature where different views are represented and it is easy to imagine election which is not dominated by government vs. opposition.

In 2012, which in my view was a democratic breakthrough in Georgia, it was opposition vs government. 2016 is not going to be that way. Pluralism is developing in Georgia, which I see as a good sign. I think that the parliament is a better functioning institution than it’s been in a very long time. There are problems of course.

The problems I see are in very broad strokes, but problems of governance, not politics. There are still problems in democracy. The major problems are in governance. The government is unable to solve what continue to be the confounding problems which have faced Georgia for a long time. The economy has not turned around. This government did pledge to do that. It is very difficult to do that. It’s the kind of promises you make in a campaign. I think there are signs that the economy is improving. There has been potential for the economy to improve. When you talk to people, I think there is more of a vision here.

This government seems more oriented around in pragmatic approaches, rather than kind of blind ideological fervor which was nonsensical, but it’s not working yet. But it’s not working – yet. Obviously, the devaluation of the lari is a huge economic problem. We don’t talk about the conflict regions, occupied territories, as much as we used to here, I mean, I’ve noticed that very clearly. The government isn’t as competent as it might be, as responsive as it might be, as the state is not as strong as might be.

What is the major setback of this government, if you can say?

L.M: There’s a couple. First is – I don’t think they came in with the real plan. I think that their greatest accomplishment was unseating the UNM, which is an extraordinary accomplishment, but that’s not enough, right? What you do the day after that happens? There is this great American movie called ‘The Candidate’ with Robert Redford. It’s an old movie. Redford plays a guy running for the senate from state of California. He is young, he’s good-looking, his father was famous and it’s all about how the advertising guys sell you as a candidate. At the end of a movie he wins, he turns to his advisory and says: “What now?” This is little bit like that for Georgian dream, this moment of accomplishment and then, “Oh no, what now?” So what is the vision for a prosperous Georgia? What is the vision for secure Georgia? Those questions had to be answered on the fly. So that’s one set of problems.

A second set of problems, which is little bit picky, but it’s important: This government’s communication strategy is dreadful, and communication is hugely important. I’m talking only about foreign but also domestic. To lead, which a government has to be able to at a time like this, you have to be able to communicate effectively with the people in your country. You have to be able to build support, not for like “oh, we are great because we’ve built a railroad or a hospital”, but “this is our vision for Georgia”. So the example that I’ve spent a lot of time on this trip, is the previous government successfully built a consensus around European or Western orientation for Georgia, but they built that on the cheap. What I mean by that is the way they were able to build that is by telling people it would happen quickly, which everyone knew wasn’t true.

So one of the reasons we see the erosion of the support now as people are realizing that it’s not going to be quickly. This government needs to build support for Georgia, support for that Western vision with the understanding that it is going to be difficult. To do that you have to communicate effectively. A foreign diplomat here, I won’t say who, said that when Misha [Mikheil Saakashvili] would build 30 kilometers of road he would hold ten press conferences to announce it and ten ribbon cuttings. When the Georgian Dream builds three hundreds of kilometers of road, they don’t even bother to tell anybody. So one of the reasons people think they’re not doing anything is there’s very little awareness of what they’re doing. And that’s a communication problem. I want to be clear, it’s not only a communication problem, but communication is part of it.

DFW: You spoke about communication problem in the country, but what about communication in the foreign affairs, how that is that affected?

L.M: UNM is very influential how George is perceived overseas. I think that’s lessening because as people come here and realize what’s really going on, but I would say well into late 2013 in Washington the general view was that 2012 was a pro-Russian coup. That’s how bad this communication has been. If you read the Western media, who is quoted when there’s an article about Georgia? It’s people who everyone in Georgia knows are associated with the UNM. It’s not the UNM’s fault. That’s what they’re supposed to do. It’s the Georgian Dream’s fault for not facilitating getting their very good spokespeople for this government. And there are very good, balanced and objective civil society people. An organization like GYLA, for example. These are not people who are saying ‘this government is doing a great job’. They have been very critical. If you listen to what they have to say, they have  a story to tell that is legit, balanced and important.

There are plenty of people in this Georgian government who are well-spoken in English and in Georgian, who certainly can hold their own with the Western media, but they are not getting the exposure they should, and as a result their story isn’t being told and that is damaging. I think for most part, many in the West are troubled by what they call selective justice. Now they kind of understand that these people did commit crimes. A year ago, they didn’t understand that, but that’s more because they’ve actually looked into what’s going on here rather because their side of the story has been presented, and that is important.

DFW: The opposition accuses the government of being pro-Russian and that it has changed foreign policy direction. What is your opinion, is that true?  

L.M: So let’s talk about domestic politics in regard to Russia. In Georgia, if I go up to your typical Georgian politician and I say, “hey, where’s the nearest place I can get a khachapuri?” they’re going to say to me: “That other party is pro-Russian”. That’s just what people say in Georgia. If you’re in politics here and you haven’t been called pro-Russian, it’s because you haven’t been around long enough. If you’re a scholar and academic and analyst you have haven’t been called pro-Russian it is because you’re not trying hard enough to do real work. It’s a product of the political climate here. So in the political sense, it’s meaningless. The notion that this government is pro-Russian is not taken seriously in the West. Every time the opposition says it in the West other than the far-right, the EPP, the right wing of the Republican Party, which remains the base of the UNM, politically speaking, but otherwise if you go to Washington and say to the State Department, to the Obama White House or to the European Parliament that this Georgian government is pro-Russian, they are going to say: “But they’ve signed the Association Agreement with the European Union and they don’t have a MAP yet but NATO is cooperating with them and their defense minister.” Whether you can agree with her tactics or not, it is pretty hard to characterize what the new defense minister has said and done in the time she has been in the office as pro-Russian. What I’ve heard, is she has been too aggressive, but she’s been too aggressive in advocating for NATO. That’s kind of a strange characterization of her. I understand that the UNM is doing that and it is politics and it’s okay. That’s what we do here in Georgia. But there is another piece of it too: if this government is pro-Russian, then Georgia’s Western aspirations are simply off the table. Here’s why: This government won handily against an incumbent, entrenched government that had all kinds of resources at their disposal, in a context where the West was willing to turn a blind eye to some election fraud. And they beat the crap out of them. If they were pro-Russian, then the Georgian people are really pro-Russian and they wouldn’t be in discussions with NATO. But that’s not true. They are not pro-Russian.

DFW: The appointment of Saakashvili in the new Ukrainian government with his allies, how successful can it be? Was it the right decision to make?

L.M: To grasp the realities in 2004 to 2007, November 7, this was a government that was trying to do the right thing, made some mistakes and made some accomplishments. After 2008, you cannot say that anymore. All the major accomplishments of the UNM government happened before 2007, which is seven and half years ago already. But Odessa is not an easy case at all.  I want to be clear: I want him to succeed, my analysis of Georgian politics is not as important as Ukraine succeeding, functioning and pushing back against Russia. I think all Georgians regardless of their views of Saakashvili should feel that way.

However, I don’t think it is a smart move. I think it’s a move that communicates that the Ukrainian government has an understanding of Georgian politics and Georgian events that is so limited that one worries that they have that same view of Ukraine.  It is a signal to the ideological far-right. I know no-one says this, but there’s lot of things about Ukraine that no-one says right now. This is a country of forty five million people that has been in the state building process for a quarter of a century. If you can’t competently staff your government with Ukrainians it really undermines the plausibility of you being a state.

The Russian president famously said that Ukraine is not really a country or something to that effect and when he said that rightly, those words were used as evidence of how dangerous he was and how he did not have a fundamental understanding of the laws that seek to hold our international system together. Ukraine is a state, Georgia is a state, Moldova is a state. When you say things like that it is very dangerous, and the West was right in condemning them. But when the president comes in and says, ‘we cannot even staff our state with our own people’, he is doing Putin’s PR and I know that’s an unpopular thing to say.

To me this is very concerning. It still keeps Saakashvili as the most famous Georgian in the world, the most prominent Georgian in global media and we know what stories he still tells about this government, but when he tells stories about this government he tells stories about this country. In that very telling interview that he gave to Rustavi 2, he said two things that were striking: one, he described Georgia as – ‘you know it used to be cool, but now it isn’t anymore.’ Well what does that even mean? But implicitly if Georgia has lost its pro-western course because you’re not there anymore, then the rest would walk away because it is not pro-West.

Secondly: “I’m going to come back.” How are you going to come back? You are president who served out two terms. What are you going to do? Are you going to come back as the head of the party that would make you a prime minister? Or win an election that will magically make you a prime minister? Or you will come back through extra-constitutional measures?  What is it that you are trying to do? Georgia is moving and, according to most of the analysts, with real success, toward being a functioning stable country.

DFW: What is the future of UNM without Saakashvili?

L.M: I’ve heard a range of opinions here. One person said to me the UNM is a cult that’s built around Saakashvili. So without him there is no UNM. I’m not sure I will buy that. The best hope for UNM, and I think this is not impossible: they’re not going to take over the government, they are not going to be majority, but they can play a useful role in the parliament.