Tedo Japaridze is former Foreign Minister of Georgia and an advisor to Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Prometheus is in the Cave!

by Tedo Japaridze, former foreign minister of Georgia and political advisor to Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Last year, the government of Georgia held a session of the cabinet in a grotto named after the mythical martyr of humanity, Prometheus, who delivered us with fire. Over the last few days, I was reflecting on this symbolic gesture, trying to understand whether the government was feeling a spirit of affinity with Prometheus or with the Gods who chained him to a rock in the Caucasus, condemning him to have his liver eaten by vultures as a form of eternal punishment. Given the events that have taken place over the last few days, I believe the government, in its infinite wisdom, clearly identifies with the Gods. Let me explain why.

If Prometheus had supplied satellite dishes to the people, instead of fire, the Gods of Georgia would have closed him into a dark cave, perhaps somewhere in the Western part of this country, in the very same grotto. This is because, clearly, chaining Prometheus to a rock is hardly discreet and, besides, it would attract much unwanted media attention. Prometheus was, after all, a populist, although his connections with Russia have not as yet been verified.

What if we could contain all the populists and allegedly Russian-connected Prometheus of this world in a cave, allowing them to see the day of light for only small periods of time? Say, sixty days? When others dream, the Georgian government acts! This cave might still be under construction, because even nature does not provide us with the standards of divine perfection required by the Georgian government and so it has to be modernized, but it is clear that once completed, every democratic government in the world will want a similar place to hide its very own populists (and allegedly Russian connected) political foes.

If every western democracy had such a cave, a lot of the problems faced by the imperfect democratic system of ours could be addressed. Imagine the Mediaset group in Italy being denied a national broadcasting license all year around, allowed most of the year to broadcast only around Milan or Rome, except for sixty days before legislative elections. Imagine Fox News being able to cater to all viewers around the United States, but only for 60 days prior to the US Presidential elections, while the rest of the time being confined to broadcast only in a zone no longer than 15 miles radius from Houston, Texas. Well, having imagined all this, come live your myth in Georgia. For here, in the mythical place were the Gods chained Prometheus, a model democracy has been created, where populism is simply not tolerated.

If we were to emulate this democratic “model,” there would be no Berlusconis, no Murdochs, no socialist parties, just plain vanilla establishment parties, except for sixty days before the elections. A world with no TV populism; a world where the “popular” has the stamp of enlightened approval. If this is the world you dream of, welcome to Georgia, where the rulers are Gods, supervising democracy, for the people, despite the people, filled with divine inspiration. They clearly know what’s best for us.

Normally, TV airtime is a commodity that money can’t buy in this country. Who can buy divine wisdom after all? But, the Georgian government is now offering a “window of democratic media coverage” for a few days – sixty to be precise – just enough to get the elections out of the way without major complaints from western monitors. After this period, Georgia can return to “normality” again, when all opposition voices will be muted and TV sets around the country and some beyond it, in Europe and America, can once again continue chanting hosanna: “Georgia is the beacon of democracy,” except when it is not, “Georgia is an investor’s paradise,” except when it is not. And who will be around to say something to the contrary?

For sixty days, satellite television subscribers in Georgia (about 170 000), will have the opportunity to view television channels of stations based in Tbilisi, of whom some are not directly or indirectly controlled by the government. This is supposed to be a triumph for Georgian democracy, as some friends in the West repeatedly tell me. Alas, it is a triumph of merely a few days – sixty to be precise – since “must-carry” legislation adopted by the Georgian parliament on June 29th, obliges cable service providers to allow the transmission of all TV channels, including those conveying ideas of the opposition, until a day before national elections take place. In sum, once everything is said and done, publicly questioning the integrity of the electoral process will not be on offer. It is a bit like giving fire to the people, for sixty days, taking it back afterwards.

Turning vice into virtue, this piece of Georgian legislation was supposed to counter-balance the perception that the government sought to defend its established media monopoly by confiscating thousands of satellite dishes that were imported by Global TV Corporation or the “Maestro TV” channel. Importing thousands of satellite dishes to distribute them at minimal cost was considered vote rigging, because airing views that are not in tune with the government’s mantra somehow breaks “democratic rules”, as interpreted by Saakashvili and his inner circle. Such a development would institutionalize blasphemy. But, fear not, along with the confiscated dishes, all other available dishes in the Georgian market have suddenly disappeared. If some lucky and impious person can find a dish currently in Georgia, the Gods will torment him/her with so many fines that he will be soon begging for redemption. So, it is only the 170 000 people who already have dishes that will be exposed to oppositional profanity.

In Western states, media conglomerates have been known as being able to tilt the balance of the electorate process by providing certain candidates with increased public exposure. In Italy, Berlusconi has been repeatedly accused of maintaining a media monopoly that is not legitimate, given his central position in the political spectrum. In the UK, the scandals associated with Rupert Murdhoch’s media empire continue to tarnish the moral credentials of the political establishment. And the world is filled with despair about the state of US democracy, when each successive electorate campaign breaks every previous record in campaign funding. In Georgia, that is, a country that poses as a model for democracy in the region, money can’t buy dominance in the public space thanks to the (selectively) vigilant attitude of the electoral law. Because in Georgia, the enlightened ruling class makes sure that people do not have access to fire, in fear they burn themselves, or lose some of their piety. Protection from sin is the objective of the often-misunderstood Georgian regime.

Surely, Georgia might be seen as setting an example. You can go through an election campaign without knowing that a specific party is running, unless of course it is the ruling party or a “constructive parliamentary opposition” party. Meanwhile, journalists that do not simply follow ruling party lines (hello Comrade Stalin!), find themselves harassed and threatened. What is one to do? After all, you cannot legislate against men in black whose existence everyone can deny. On the contrary, you can legislate your way into muting the opposition, keeping all but pious voices in the dark, except for 60 days every few years.

Winner takes all. This is democracy in Georgia. Once in government, the ruling party found at last freedom of expression and kept it all for itself. Georgian democracy is a game where elections are never lost, unless “a revolution” comes about, which is surely to be condemned as “profound.” In this scheme, who would be blasphemous enough to unchain Prometheus?

In America, each candidate must show where his or her sponsorship comes from. And the public is regularly informed which candidate has amassed more money, from which interest groups. Obama’s seminal victory in 2008 gained special attention, not least because it gained wide support rather than being restricted to individual super-donors. de Tocqueville used to say that in America civic organizations, not least parties, often get together to show their numbers; and even in the 19th century, it was clear that people had to put their wallet next to their ideas if they wanted to get somewhere. This was and is the name of the game and it is open to everyone. It is not a perfect system, but it is open to public scrutiny. Not in Georgia. In Georgia, democracy works when everyone is pious, law abiding and, of course, does not go around being blasphemous.

In certain European polities, only the state can provide funding for parties, which receive money and air time proportional to their electoral appeal. There is strict regulation covering how much cash individual donors can contribute to campaigns and strict transparency regulations. This is the case in places like France or Germany. The idea is not to allow cash rather than ideas to dominate politics. And while scandals of illegal campaign money often make the headlines, people somehow have a sense of what is “normal” and what is “abnormal.” Normally, everyone tries their best to buy as much airtime as possible, or make the most of the state-allocated time. It is a mixed system, it is even imperfect, but it is open to public scrutiny. Not in Georgia. In Georgia, there is no tolerable “imperfection.”

In Georgia, there is democracy without blasphemy where rather than chaining Prometheus to a rock for everyone to see, it is preferred to have him locked into a cave with a sign on the door “beware of the Russian monster.” The ruling party’s enlightened leadership can take as many donations as it likes; it can pay for a nation-wide infrastructure of “electoral coordinators” monitoring who votes “right” and who votes “wrong;” it can fill polling stations with “its own people;” it can dominate TV channels; it can fire anyone from the public service that is not politically loyal; it can even dictate what kind of opposition is “constructive.” And, for a brief period of no longer than sixty days, it allows the monster to come out of the cave, to be seen by 170 000 people, who can then tell the rest of the world how terrible this monster really is.

And when the OSCE, EU and certain circles in Washington have heard of the existence of this monster, which they know by name but have never seen, they will join the rest of the pious population of Georgia chanting, Hosanna, democracy and us – the custodians of democracy – have triumphed against this blasphemous lot!” Therefore, fear not of Caucasian Berlusconis, Oscar Lafontaines, Romneys and Haiders, for you can rely on plain vanilla, effectively predictable or “mystic” electoral results that are also super democratic with no “imperfections.” If there are imperfections, they are safely closed into a cave, with a face to be shunned, to be denied the light of day, to be feared as much as Russia and dreaded as much as reality. Who needs reality anyway, we have TV. And the Gods of Georgia rejoice.