Transcript: Georgia's October 1 Parliamentary Elections
|Welcome and Moderator:
Director of the Patriciu Eurasia Center,
Eurasia Regional Director,
International Republican Institute;
Associate Director and Professorial Lecturer of International Affairs,
The George Washington University’s
Elliott School of International Affairs;
Executive Vice President,
Former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia (1998-2001),
To Belarus (1994-1997)
Date: Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Federal News Service
ROSS WILSON: My name is Ross Wilson, I’m the director of the Patriciu Eurasia Center here at the Atlantic Council, and on behalf of all of us here, welcome to the council and to this, I think, very important and timely conversation about Georgia on the eve of parliamentary elections that will take place on October 1st. This is another in a series of ongoing events and work on Georgia that has been one of the Atlantic Council’s flagship efforts over the past several years. We were very pleased and honored to have had with us senators Lindsey Graham and Jeanne Shaheen to head up a formal Atlantic Council task force on Georgia, chaired by Council Vice Presidents Damon Wilson, who’s with us today, and Fran Burwell, that issued a report in late 2011 entitled, “Georgia and the West, a policy roadmap to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic future.”
I think there were a few of us that were involved in various activities associated with that task force. I think all of us were very proud of the report that we released. That report looked at both the internal and external challenges facing Georgia and made clear, I think, how closely interrelated or interlinked these are with one another. A key conclusion of that report was, in little over a decade, Georgia has transformed itself from a failed state to a transitional, Western-oriented democracy. The report went on to note that democracy, of course, is not built overnight, that Georgia has work to do to improve its democratic credentials that bear significantly on fully achieving its Euro-Atlantic future, and that the 2012 parliamentary elections and the 2013 presidential election represent a historic opportunity for the country to achieve and to witness its first peaceful and democratic transfer of power.
Clearly, the election that takes place in just 12 days will be a key test for Georgia, for its ability to stay on the democratic path and for its relationships with the United States, Europe and perhaps in a different vein, Russia and other neighbors in its immediate region. How this is – how this election is conducted is important for Georgia and its future; so is who wins. The stakes are high, and the council is very pleased to welcome here for this discussion about Georgia, on the eve of these crucial parliamentary elections, three very well-informed experts – four very well-informed experts who have been deeply involved in and with Georgia in various capacities over a decade or more.
You have their biographies, so I won’t repeat that, but very briefly, Dr. Cory Welt is an associate professor – professorial lecturer of international affairs at George Washington’s – George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, where he co-directs a program on Eurasia and also teaches on post-Soviet Eurasian politics and security.
Steve Nix is the Eurasia regional director for the International Republican Institute, where he oversees programs on Belarus, Georgia, the Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova, Ukraine and Russia. He has experience at the U.S. Agency for International Development and also with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and is well-versed on matters Georgian.
Ken Yalowitz retired from the U.S Department of State in 2001 after 36 years as a career diplomat that culminated in service as America’s ambassador first to Belarus and then to Georgia in 1998 and 2001, an assignment, as Ken will note, I had just a teeny little bit to do with, and Ken extraordinarily well served our country and U.S. interests at an important time in Georgia’s recent history. Ambassador Yalowitz recently stepped down as director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, and has returned home to the mother ship of Washington, where he is affiliated with Georgetown University – Georgetown and George Mason Universities.
And last, Damon Wilson is executive vice president here at the Atlantic Council. Before joining the Council in 2009, he served as special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council. His early work included a stint at the U.S embassy in Baghdad, and as deputy director of the private office of NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson.
Our format today – this is a – this is an on-the record, open discussion about Georgia and about developments there. I think Dr. Welt will lead off with some introductory remarks and observations about the context in which this election takes place. Steve Nix, sort of give us a little bit of a sense of the texture on the ground and what some of the polling data shows. Ken Yalowitz talk about sort of the broader context, how this – how this election relates to Georgia’s development over the course of the last 15 or 20 years, and Damon Wilson will bat cleanup. So in that – in that baseball season that we’re all very – very much a part of, I want to welcome our guests. Thank you for joining us, and I’ll turn the floor over to Dr. Cory Welt.
CORY WELT: Right. Thanks Ross, thanks to the Atlantic Council for putting together this great panel – timely panel, judging by the interest here and in many other events in the last few weeks. Many would think that the Georgian election is of – as much of – is as important as our own election would be in Washington, and that is clearly an exaggeration, but I think for the reasons that Ross pointed out, that the election is important, both its conduct, both what happens on election day and the aftermath of election and the results.
What I’m going to do is just say my two cents on why I think parliamentary elections matter, what the main consequences of these elections are, then talk a little about something which is generally not discussed very often, which are issues, and basing my discussion of that on some public opinion polling, talk a little bit about some of the results – anticipated results that emerge from public opinion polls, and then talk a bit more about some of the challenges and the problems that we’ve already seen in the course of this election.
So in terms of why election matter – why this election matters, my emphasis is a bit different than the emphasis that’s placed by many others here, by those in the government of Georgia and perhaps those in opposition as well, and I think the key to keeping them on is the fact that the – Georgia’s governing system is undergoing dramatic change as a consequence of constitutional reform, the outcome of these elections and the outcome of a presidential election next year, Georgia is transforming to, essentially, a parliamentary system of governance – a dramatically more parliamentary system of governance than it has had in the past, which means, basically, much more power is going into the hands of the collective, going into the hands of those who are actually elected in parliament. The party or the coalition that receives the most votes has the power to appoint a prime minister who will be the most important leader in the country in terms of day-to-day governance, much more important than the directly elected president. So whoever wins, however they win, will be critical in determining the trajectory of Georgian governance over the next – at least the next four years. And that’s, for me, the main reason why this is a much more significant election than elections we’ve had in the past. There are other reasons why I think these elections might not be as important as others have made them out to be; it’s something I’ll discuss a little bit later.
But let me turn now to issues. If – there’s been any number of opinion polls; IRI’s done polls, NDI has commissioned polls. The ruling party has commissioned polls, the opposition has commissioned polls, but in terms of asking about issues, I just want to go off of – base my discussion on some of the material that NDI-commissioned polls have produced over the last several months and years – polls that they’ve commissioned from the Caucasus Research Resource Center, which is a local and foreign-supported think tank in Tbilisi. But their results – and their most recent results are released this month – suggest an interesting juxtaposition of how – what the population thinks matters, and there’s three things that I want to point out.
One is that, if you look at overall – what the population thinks in terms of what direction the country is going in, over half of the respondents are saying – and this has been consistent – that Georgia is going in the right direction more or less. Only about 21 percent would say that the country’s been going in the wrong direction, and about 10 and 11 percent say the country’s not moving in any direction, but over half say things are going pretty well. But then, if you look at questions related to how they think their own personal fortunes have shifted over the last several years, it gets a little bit muddier, because then we see that only about a quarter of the population thinks that their situation has improved over the last four years; about a quarter think their situation has worsened, and about half of respondents – half the population think that the situation has more or less remained unchanged.
So their personal situation hasn’t changed dramatically, but generally, people seem to be optimistic. If you dig a little bit deeper and you say, well, what is it that people are more confident about, what are they less confident about, then another interesting divide emerges. Again, for most of the answers, people say things haven’t changed that much over the last four years, but if you look at the difference between the number of people who say that the situation has improved in certain areas versus other areas, where have things been more – have – where do you find people have said that the situation has worsened more than they say it’s improved? The job situation has worsened? More people say the health care has worsened, level of poverty has worsened, inflation has dramatically worsened, wages – more worse than better, and the cost of utilities dramatically increased. So there are a number of issues on the economic side and on people’s personal standard of living where you say that they’re dissatisfied, which is, in part, clearly a consequence of a global economic crisis, but in part, perhaps, it’s attributed to the government; it’s something we can discuss.
In terms of what’s improved, well, infrastructure has gotten a lot of good marks: gas supply, water supply, sewage, trash collection, roads dramatically better; corruption – more people say that it’s – the situation with corruption is better off than before, education and then a whole slew of democracy-related indicators: human rights, freedom of speech, the courts, properties, media independence, and even fair elections – that generally, the situation hasn’t changed or more people think the situation is better than worse.
How it translates into attitudes towards the government – this is where it gets interesting, is – you find – which shouldn’t, perhaps surprise to many of us either – is that you don’t have an overwhelming endorsement of the government or individual leaders in the government or people in the opposition – our opposition parties. In general, the population still seems to be – the core, most of the population seems to be largely apathetic or supports one or the other without any dramatic commitment. The only exception to this, I’d say, right now, is Vano Merabishvili, the current prime minister, who is still polling over 50 percent. But the National Movement as a whole – and again, the polls range somewhat – you’ve got a range of polls that suggest that National Movement is polling at around the mid-30s to the mid-40s, and is the clear leader. The only other horse in the game is the Georgian Dream led by Ivanishvili, and they’re polling at about the mid-teens to the mid-20s.
So what you find based on the opinion polls is, you’ve got a good diversity of opinions – majority doesn’t have terribly great enthusiasm for anyone, but it does – the population does seem to indicate some sense of – some confidence that elections matter, and that the elections will decide the leadership of the country. And this message, I think, is something that – it’s been important for U.S. policymakers to convey, and they’ve conveyed it rather consistently over the last several months. Most recently, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Thomas Melia has underlined – notwithstanding a variety of shortcomings in recent months – it is clear that there is a competitive campaign under way. It’s a message that Ambassador Bass has suggested before. And some have criticized these messages to suggest that they overlook the shortcomings – which I will get to momentarily – but I think the most important part of that message is to suggest to the Georgian people, the voters, that despite whatever challenges they feel they have faced over the course of this last year, election day is looming, they have an opportunity to go to the polls, they have an opportunity to cast their ballot the way they see fit, and the outcome – based on the count, there’s a great expectation that that will reflect the decisions that the voters make on election day, and that’s significant; I think that’s important.
A few problems or a few uncertainties: one – and we’ll discuss this a little bit later – is the high numbers, or relatively high numbers of those who don’t know who they’re going to vote for or refuse to answer, and frankly, it’s just very difficult to tell what those numbers mean. Anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of those who have responded to polls have refrained from saying who they’re going to vote for, which means we could have a decisive victory for the ruling party above 50 percent, or the ruling – United National Movement and Georgian Dream could end up in a neck-to-neck race on the party list.
Let me go – I’ll – let me talk about some challenges now. The first challenge, which I think – it’s always important; it comes up in practically every election in the post-Soviet space – we focus too much on the party list results. This parliament is going to be composed of approximately half deputies who are elected on party lists, and half that are elected in their districts, like congressman, and in those races, whoever comes in first with 30 percent of the vote is going to win, and the election – the legacy of elections has shown here in Georgia and in other countries like Georgia, that the ruling party tends to collect most of those seats, and this time, even though the Georgian Dream and other opposition have put together a quite diverse and competitive list of single-mandate candidates, there’s still no indication that they’re going to do any – they’re going to do significantly better than opposition has done in the past. Presumably, they’ll do somewhat better, but if you ignore the anticipated success of the ruling party in the single-mandate seats, then you ignore the fact that it doesn’t matter if it’s even a tie on the party list; the government will still have a majority vote, a majority in parliament.
The second point – and this is really my main point – is that there’s been – there’s naturally a lot of focus on the course of election day itself. We tend to characterize the election day as another of many tests of democracy that Georgia is undergoing. And while we’re aware that elections are much more of a process, and they’re not just what happens on election day, there seems to be a sense that, well, as long as election day is clean and generally free and fair and problem-free, then Georgia will have passed, and the problem with this understanding or this interpretation is that there is – there have been many problems with the election campaign to date over the course of the year, many controversies. And in general, I would – I would characterize the essential problem as one of the Georgian government’s strategy, the Georgian ruling party’s strategy in elections has essentially been to criminalize the opposition and its supporters.
Now we may argue – and I’m happy to do that in discussion, as to whether the verdicts in terms of campaign finance violation, in terms of the accusations with regard to the ways in which the opposition works – or the accusations that the opposition is working for Russia – we can discuss whether these have a basis in fact – but the problem is that the processes that have been under way in order to decide whether or not the opposition is guilty of major violations that have warranted the kinds of fines, the kinds of other punishments that have been inflicted and the kind of rhetoric that has been – has been flung upon them, we just haven’t had a process in place that would allow us to make a reasonable assessment of whether the accusations are correct. So it’s essentially led to a situation where the population is free to choose on election day who they want, but the government has framed the choice as one of a government that can lead Georgia in the right direction towards a continuously brighter future and an opposition that is essentially a criminal opposition and potentially a traitorous opposition. Those are concerns that are reasonable to air, but they extend beyond concerns and have come out with verdicts and accusations that the level of evidence supporting them has been rather questionable.
So the bottom line, to conclude, I’d say we want to be very cautious about how we interpret the results of this election. If the opposition performs to reasonable expectations – which is not to say that they will win – then I think that we’ll want to say that Georgia – it’s not that Georgia’s passed the democratic test, but that the opposition has overcome some substantial rather nondemocratic hurdles, and if the ruling party totally blows away the opposition in this election and what looks like a free vote on election day, then I think we’re still going to be left grappling with the fact that it did so in what was already a heavily flawed election environment, and we’re just going to have deal with that as a fact. Thanks.
MR. WILSON: Thank you very much, Cory. Let’s continue on through and then – and then take some questions.
STEPHEN NIX: Sure. Well, first of all, thank you, Ross, and thank you to the council for convening this important event, and a very important election. We’re in the middle of an election marathon, if you will, in our part of the world. We kick off with Belarusian parliamentary elections next week, and then, obviously, these elections followed by Ukraine’s parliamentary elections on October 28th, but this is an extremely important election for a number of reasons; a lot of attention focused on this race. I’d like to present today, really, on three key areas from on-the-ground perspective to practitioner’s perspective: first, on the pre-campaign environment, the context, and secondly, the – obviously, the campaign cycle, how it’s gone so far, then focus just briefly on some election day matters.
Starting first with the context, IRI’s worked in Georgia for a long time, and our goal is – quite simply is to build a competitive multi-party political system in Georgia. And you’ll see from our remarks, we think that Georgia has made some strides in that area. They’ve put into place some institutions that I think are very helpful to point out. First and foremost, we all know that the voters list has been problematic for the last three national election cycles. It’s been a persistent problem. I think that the voter registration committee, an apparatus that the government has put in place, has been very helpful in terms of maintaining that list, refining it. I think we’ll have a much improved voter list going into this election.
Secondly, I’d like to allude to the interagency council that’s been set up to try to convene political parties together with government officials. This is chaired by the National Security Council adviser to the president. And I think that has worked well in terms of promoting dialogue between the competing political parties and the government entities that will be regulating – are regulating this election.
There are a number of other steps that have – the government has taken to try to ensure a more competitive process. And I think it’s important to note that the Georgian election code that codifies presidential, parliamentary, local elections into one statute – and the fact that that was adopted – wasn’t perfect, but the fact that the timing of it allowed the political parties competing to prepare effectively for this campaign.
Couple notes about the actual campaign itself. IRI’s had long-term observers in the field since July. And the weekly reports that we’re receiving say that there are some problems in remote areas. Sometimes there’s not access given to opposition candidates passing out bulletins, passing out their literature. But by and large these are isolated. We have not seen, from our reporting, any systemic attempt to commit massive falsification during the campaign cycle. Yes, there have been problems, but they’ve been isolated. By and large, our reports indicate that the PECs and DECs are doing their best, making a good faith effort to implement the laws, as they’re required to do.
And I will point to one fault, one issue with regard to the election code. And this is something that we’ll have to grapple with and talk about. And I guarantee we’ll discuss it post-election. And that is the disparity in size, the disparity in number of voters between single-mandate districts in Georgia. As you all know, I mean, the disparity is large; it’s in the thousands, in some cases, between districts.
And this is something that the United States grappled with years ago in the ’70s and ’80s. We had massive litigation about what the absolute deviation could be between congressional districts. The various states made arguments similar to what the Georgian government has made, and that is preservation of communities of interest. We can’t separate this community from that community. We’ve got mountain regions; we’ve got geographic areas that need to be preserved. That is an issue that’s going to have to be addressed. But by and large, we think that the structures have been put in place for a fair, competitive election campaign. And that’s what our reports are telling us from the field.
With regard to the polling data, I don’t want to get into the details. Our data indicates that if the election were held today, UNM would win a majority of seats and would form a government. That’s not my opinion; that’s public opinion as generated by our survey data. I think it’s an important point that was made earlier that we can’t put our faith entirely in polls that reflect national numbers, because as has been pointed out, almost half of the districts – the seats in play are single-mandate districts. And those are not accurately reflected in national polling data at times. So the lead is a substantial one. We think that that will probably play out, but we’ll have to see what happens on election day.
I just want to point out in terms of issues, our data indicates that the key issues, the predominant issues, are jobs and health care. It’s jobs and health care – not much different than here in the United States and our campaign. Unfortunately, because you’ve had a new situation with one candidate who has infused – or one coalition which has infused a considerable amount of funding into the election cycle, and the government is trying to regulate that – because of that conflict, that interplay, campaign finance issues have really dominated this campaign. And so we’d obviously like to see the focus go back to what Georgian voters really think is important – again, jobs and health care.
But it’s a fact: Campaign finance is a big issue. One can argue either way about these expenditures, the government’s amendments of the election law to preclude corporate contributions, to put a cap on individual contributions – persuasive arguments on both sides. But in addition to the disparity in sizes of congressional districts, this is another issue that Georgia is really going to have to focus on post-election to really put in place long-term campaign finance regulatory system.
There’s going to be a winner and a loser on election day, and our hope is that whoever’s in the latter category will accept the results and will take their mandates in Parliament and work constructively to continue to build Georgia’s democratic institutions. That’s our hope; that’s our anticipation, what we see happening. It hasn’t been historically the case in Georgia that politicians have accepted defeat graciously, but there is precedent. When Mr. Alasania lost his bid for the mayor of Tbilisi, he gave a very, in our view, profound, very gracious concession speech. So there is precedent; it can be done in Georgia. And we hope that it happens this time.
I’ll sum up by saying I think the institutions have – (inaudible) – put in place for a fair and competitive campaign. This has been a very vigorous and exciting campaign. It’s been a competitive campaign. So we’ll all wait to see the outcome. And then I’ll remind all of us that the day after elections, we then go into a presidential election cycle in Georgia. So we’ll be doing this again in the very near future. Thank you.
MR. R. WILSON: Good. Thank you very much. Lots of elections – not only in your part of the world but also, of course, in the United States – we won’t talk about – (laughter) – here.
KEN YALOWITZ: Yeah, thanks very much, Ross. And again, thanks to you for inviting and for convening this meeting. And just hello to many dear friends out in the audience, including two of my fellow former ambassadors to Georgia, Dick Miles and Bill Courtney. Very, very glad to see you.
I’m trying to put this into a little bit more of a – of a context. Elections in Georgia, you know, have not been very pretty, historically. The years that I was in Georgia, ’98 to 2001, there were parliamentary elections and presidential elections. And those that proceeded – there were usually, you know, loss of life and not exactly, you know, free and fair elections. And I think this coming election is important to determine whether or not that sort of, you know, dimension, you know, of Georgian political life is going to change.
If you recall, no Georgian elected president has sort of left office voluntarily. Gamsakhurdia was shown the door, as was Mr. Shevardnadze. And when I was there in the late ’90s, the presidential election – I believe it was the year 2000, when Shevardnadze ran for re-election – it was a patently, you know, rigged election. And I do believe that that was one of the steps that led to his eventual ouster. And it’s also worth reminding, you know, that one of the key precipitating events for the rose revolution, you know, was parliamentary elections, you know, which were rigged. So as I say, there is a history here of very tainted elections. And one hopes, you know, that what we’re going to see in – you know, in just a few days from now is going to change that complexion. But I just simply caution, you know, that there is a long – a long history there.
I would also want to point out that these elections are going on in a regional context. We’ve alluded to that before, but there are going to be elections in my former favorite ambassadorial post of Belarus. And I’m sure that they will not be free and fair and open. The elections coming up in Ukraine a bit later – also a dark cloud hanging over those elections and also the course of politics in Ukraine, the nature of the sort of degenerating Ukrainian dialogue with the European Union over the continued imprisonment of Mrs. Tymoshenko, and sort of what that means for Ukraine and Europe. And finally in Russia, it’s – I think it’s fairly clear in the last few months there have been developments that are not very heartening in terms of the future of democracy.
And what I’m reminded of is very frequently when I would meet with President Shevardnadze, he would say, you know, that our efforts at democracy building here are very much part of the regional context and that if things go in the wrong direction, particularly in Ukraine, it’s going to be very hard, you know, for Georgia to continue in the direction in which we hope to go. And I just simply want to point out it’s not just Ukraine, Belarus, but Central Asia; you don’t have a very forthcoming democratic situation in Azerbaijan and Armenia and Central Asia. And I just simply, you know, am concerned that no matter the outcome of these elections in Georgia, the regional context, if you will, in terms of democratic movement, is not a very happy one. And I think that’s something also we’re going to have to take into account.
A third thing – and Cory mentioned – and I think it’s an important one – the allegations thrown against the opposition of being Russian puppets, et cetera, et cetera. I’m certainly in no position, you know, to judge one way or the other. But one thing that always troubled me so much after serving in Russia at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the way what we would call the healthy forces – the more liberal, more democratically inclined forces – instead of aligning together, fought each other. We saw that in Ukraine, you know, again, after, you know, the Orange Revolution.
And I think this is something that – again, I think, you know, from us here in Washington and elsewhere to do as much as we can to encourage the – after the election for the parties to work together – things that both of you have said – because the last thing I would like to see is, you know, those who want to see a free, democratic Georgia, sovereign and independent, fighting each other and hurling perhaps groundless allegations. I don’t know, but it – as I say, it’s simply something that I don’t want to see.
And another factor that I wanted to mention is Georgian politics, you know, have really largely been about one man, one person: Gamsakhurdia, Shevardnadze, Saakashvili and now the opposition, you know, with Ivanishvili, you know, sort of the figure, if you will, of the opposition. Cory mentioned that with the constitutional changes, you know, that may be changing. I still would like to see it happen. I would still be very encouraged, you know, to see Georgian politics move in the direction of more – you know, more sort of popularly based political parties that are real political parties and not built around one person or sort of a coalition, you know, of factions that come together. I hope that this new parliamentary system will do it, but I think we’re – it’s not quite clear that this is – you know, that this is exactly going to happen.
And I would also point out, you know, there was so much speculation that President Saakashvili might do what Mr. Putin did and, you know, have himself appointed prime minister. That seems not to be the case, you know, with the UNM nominating Vano Merabishvili for that position. But I do think, you know, for the sake of Georgian politics, you know, for the future, that to move away from this idea of sort of focusing on one man – that it would be very healthy for Georgian democracy, you know, if there is a clean transfer of power, you know, to a new prime minister, a new president; and that, you know, the way is made for a new generation of leaders, you know, to – you know, to take their – to take their place. So I think I’ll leave it there.
MR. R. WILSON: Great. Thank you very much.
And to close out this opening part of our session, Damon Wilson.
DAMON WILSON: Thank you very much, Ross. And let me thank you, Ross, and the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, for organizing this event at the council. We took a decision a few years back to really try to help focus on Georgia in particular as we built out our program at the Atlantic Council because we’re convinced of the significance of the outcome, of either the success or failure of what’s happening in Georgia right now. And I think we’re invested in that success.
So I want to talk a little bit today to help close out the first part of this discussion and offer my thoughts on how to think about this election, put it a little bit more in strategic context and begin to look towards the future and next steps. And I’m going to come at this more from the perspective – I’m a policy guy, not as much of a regional expert. My colleagues here, I’d say, would bring more regional expertise to the table. I know no one better who – to look at the electoral dynamics than Steve Nix on the specifics of the campaign. And so I want to try to come at this from a policy perspective a bit.
First, what are we watching? We’re watching democracy in action. It’s a little messy; it’s a little dirty. But as Tom Melia from the State Department’s democracy bureau has said, we do see a credible and open process with distinct alternatives unfolding before the Georgian people, and that’s a significant development. Is it polarized? Well, yes, perhaps; it certainly is, probably. But that’s frankly a lot better than the alternative of not having that type of – set of options.
It is a bit of a missed opportunity in some respects as we look at this election, however, as well. We’ve talked about here, and when we had Ambassador John Bass with us, the hunger for normalcy in Georgia and Georgian politics. And if you – if I was looking at the scene 18 months ago, my prediction was that this would have been significant because it would have been an insignificant part of the process, beginning the normalcy of Georgian politics. Well, this isn’t exactly the most normal election playing out, with someone like Ivanishvili, a billionaire, entering the race. And as Ken pointed out, Ambassador Yalowitz pointed out, I also thought this would have been an opportunity to begin to move beyond the personality-based politics. That’s not going to happen right now, as we have the personalities of Ivanishvili and President Saakashvili still at the heart of the debate taking place.
The second point is about the election – the election itself. And first of all, in any election the governments, the incumbents – they carry an extra burden of responsibility for how to manage an election because they’re running the government; they’re running the process. And here, if you think about the election – electoral process in Georgia, democracy is really Georgia’s insurance, to some respects. The more the democratic process strengthens and becomes mature in Georgia, the more it gives Georgia’s NATO and EU aspirations legitimacy and a strong boost. And it really helps the Georgians begin to overcome geography in some respects. And you’ve seen the government lean forward on some of these issues related to the media access; the law; the open door to international observers, international presence; the open door to foreign government spending, U.S. government spending for civil society groups involved in helping to strengthen the process.
But as I look at the election, there are some things that I think we need to be watching out for now in helping us think about it. First, my concern is that we see – we see a force that has tried to run against the election rather than in the election, to a certain degree. I fear that – I fear that we have a tendency of an opposition that wants to contest – not contest the elections but contest the legitimacy of the election up front. This is significant in Georgia. There’s a historic – there’s a historic context to this, as Ambassador Yalowitz has said. Georgia’s going through a longer-term process of the maturation of its politics. And that means increasingly playing by the rules and rule of law.
We’ve seen with – as Steve mentioned, when Irakli Alasania was a mayoral candidate in Tbilisi, his acceptance of defeat was quite an important statement in Georgian politics. But in many respects he was attacked by others on the outside of the political system for doing that. So I think that’s one of the things that governments, observers, folks need to have their eye on right now – the warning signs. We’ve heard statements about calling a million people into the streets, of boycotting the Parliament, of staying out of the debates as they play in. We need to be weighing in right now to say, we want – we want a fight. We want this to be an electoral fight. But we do need a fight that’s by the rules, and we need folks that are willing to contest the elections, not the legitimacy of the elections first and foremost.
Even the most mature democracies would have difficulty handling the influx of money that’s happened as we’ve seen in Georgia. It’s a very complicated issue that’s challenged the processes; it’s challenged the regulations; it’s challenged the government. It’s not an easy issue. But what I think is important is increasingly moving towards normalcy in Georgian politics the day after. We need political parties to take seats in Parliament and not sit on the streets, not to take to the streets. That’s why the code of conduct that Stefan Fule has called on all parties – the EU commissioner for enlargement has called on all parties in Georgia to sign the code of conduct. These are important steps.
The other thing that I think has been a little bit of a tenor in the – in the electoral campaign that causes me a bit of concern is the divisiveness that plays on some of the historical trends of political violence in Georgia – whether it’s ethnic, religious, homophobic, chauvinism – as a wedge issue in Georgian politics. I think, again, that’s something where international observers and foreign governments have an ability and a responsibility to call on folks to be responsible political actors as this unfolds.
Third, a little bit of perspective: As Ambassador Yalowitz said, I think what’s unfolding here we have to appreciate a little bit in the regional context. What’s happening in the South Caucasus, the former Soviet Union, Russia itself? Over the past several months I’ve had the opportunity to visit Yulia Tymoshenko in prison. I’ve been able to talk to Andrei Sannikov, a presidential candidate in Belarus who came out of prison. That’s not what we’re talking about in Georgia. This is different.
As Ambassador Bass said here on this stage when he came to give his valedictory address, what’s really taking place is a mental revolution in Georgia. That’s really significant, and this is part of that process. On top of that, this small country isn’t just a small country sitting in the South Caucuses. As Ambassador Bass put it, it’s a country of vision.
And in many respects, I think that’s why this is a little bit more significant than a small election in the South Caucuses might otherwise be. That Georgia’s not just a trailing country of – in transition in a difficult space, it’s actually a leading edge of that – it’s leading the way. We’re disappointed with what we see in the rest of the South Caucuses and Ukraine, in Belarus, in Russia in particular with the expulsion of USAID today. This is where the experiment is tipping in the right balance not the wrong balance. And that – therefore I think it make it a bit more significant.
To come to my final points, what does that mean in terms of our attitude as we watch this unfold? Well, we’re actually not just innocent bystanders. I would argue, as a policymaker – or former policymaker in this context, we’re not invested in the success of any one party – we’re not. And I’ve got good friends in the opposition, good friends in the government. We should never be invested in the success of one individual, one party. We are invested in the success of this process and this democracy developing.
This is a country that wants to become our ally. It wants to join our – the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic community. It’s a bit audacious. It has an audacious vision, but that’s a good thing, a country that’s already one of the largest contributors in Afghanistan, a NATO operation. And our – I think our posture therefore is as we look through the process of the democratic elections playing out, and we look through the day after of governance and execution, what’s our role to be able to assist this development, assist this process – not just criticize and attack but actually figure out how to learn from these lessons and improve the process?
So what does that mean for us for preparing the agenda for the day after? It actually means that I think we have a responsibility in Washington and the West and Europe for us to have a bit more of a coherent vision for Georgia and for our relationship with Georgia, first of all. Second, that we actually be real actors in helping to continue to promote the normalcy of democracy and democratic competition.
And that means continuing to move forward with support for organizations like IRI and NDI on really helping the parliament figure out how to function. A system that’s now going to have a much more important parliament, let’s be in that game, ensure that both the parliamentarians across the range of the political spectrum have the tools, have the training, have the habits and resources to be able to be effective.
That we continue to be really invested in helping to support media independence, media training in Georgia, civil society development, judicial reform. The incident in the prisons today – is this a bad thing that happened over yesterday I guess in the prison system? Absolutely. Absolutely. Atrocities like that happen to democracies every day. What matters is how you respond and deal with it and address it. And that’s, again, where I think we need to be in there helping to think about assisting that process of – the reform process going forward, regardless of election outcome.
The third point is on the economic front. As the EU moves forward with finalizing the DCFTA conference and free trade agreement, we can push forward our free trade agreement in a Congress that, under constellation, is going to be more favorable, more open to trade than it has been in the past few years, and that we actually begin to think now about what a thoughtful strategy is going into 2014 on defense issues, on NATO.
We can’t roll off of this election blindly and fumble into a NATO summit without a well thought out strategy. Between now and 2014 we need to begin laying groundwork, working with the constellation of political actors, government and opposition very importantly, after this – after this election as well. So I’ll stop with that, Ross, and open it up – let you open it up for a conversation.
MR. R. WILSON: OK, excellent. Thank you very – thank you very much, Ken. I think these were four very useful and complementary presentations. Starting from the – sort of the micro-level and the – some of the specific issues and concerns and attitudes in Georgia and moving toward the longer term and the strategic issues that what’s taking place now in Georgia raises both for the country and for the United States and Western interests.
Let me take the moderator’s prerogative and ask a – ask a first question and then turn to – turn to the audience. One of the things that I’m struck by when I’ve look at the polling data, and I think, Cory, you referred to this, a seemingly high level of undecided voters which to me, at least, says there’s this – there may be a certain level – there could be, it’s hard to know what that represents, but it could be a certainly level of ambivalence toward the government since if they were really excited about the government, they might not be – they might not react as undecided when asked by pollsters.
In addition, you, Cory, cited a number – cited some polling and other data that talks about public discontent with certain specific issues, public appreciation of progress in other areas. Talk a – I’d appreciate from any of the – any of the four of you to talk a little bit more about how those things play out – all of these pieces play out in the electoral dynamic. Is the election, to put it in one – in one way, is this – you referred to a sort of personality-driven politics – is this a referendum about Saakashvili? Is this a referendum about Ivanishvili and what – and what he represents?
Or is this more oriented, or ought it be more oriented, at some of the specific issues where the opposition seems not to be getting a whole lot of traction publicly, based on the poll data, based on – based on some of the problems that you pointed to and the government maybe not quite getting the credit that it deserves for the progress in the areas you referred to. I’d – anyway, if any of the – any four of you – any the four of you’d like to comment I’d appreciate it and then we’ll turn to the audience.
Cory, go ahead.
MR. WELT: I’ll – I spoke about the polls; I’ll let somebody else answer that. But on this issue of individuals, I mean, clearly Ivanishvili is a looming personality. Saakashvili is a looming personality, but somewhat on the decline I would argue. And there’s a certain charisma, for better or for worse, around the both of them. But one of the distinctions I think about this election has been the start of a transformation – two not necessarily platforms but two ideas vaguely articulated into teams.
So I don’t think that support for the National Movement would necessarily be support for Saakashvili personally. I mean, it may be support for the policies that the National Movement has taken. It may be a reaction against the fear of what the other side might bring, and the same thing on the other side. You have people who support Ivanishvili. You have others who support the various other groups around him and don’t necessarily support Ivanishvili per se, and they also may be capturing a lot of the protest vote as well. So I do see a transformation there.
MR. YALOWITZ: I just wanted to – this is – my comment is more of a question. I want to just ask, does the polling data still show that Tbilisi is probably more of a strong point for the opposition and the rural areas, you know, for the government? Because what I wanted to ask is whether or not –
MR. NIX: Yes. The answer is yes.
MR. YALOWITZ: Well, what I wanted to ask, and it goes to Ross’ question, is whether or not, you know, the allegations of violations, are you seeing more of it in the rural areas? Because traditionally those are the areas where the government, you know, could have – you know, or traditional, you know, conservative forces are, you know, usually the local officials, you know, can be manipulated a bit better. If the government has a – or the sitting power has an opportunity to sort of manipulate the election it’s easier usually in the urban area – I mean, the – you know, the rural areas. So I just wanted to just ask if that is at all in play there as well, if anyone could answer that.
MR. R. WILSON: Steve.
MR. NIX: Well, sure. Well, first of all, Ambassador, you’re correct that looking at the polling data UNM has traditionally polled more strongly in the rural areas than it has in Tbilisi and that’s the case today. Our reports indicate a higher number of incidents in more of the rural areas, but there are incidents that are taking place in Tbilisi as well. I don’t think it’s dispositive of the overall picture to say that one is really outweighing the other, because we are seeing sporadic reports throughout the country.
MR. YALOWITZ: Then I would simply agree with you, Ross, you know, that – you know, if the movement is more towards and ideas and programs, as Cory suggests, that’s going to be a very significant result of this election.
MR. R. WILSON: Damon.
MR. D. WILSON: I mean, I think unfortunately the ideas and programs have been a little bit of a victim of how the drama’s played out of the election campaign because you could even see before the entry of Ivanishvili, the opposition was coming to terms with the fact that it needed – first of all, there’s a serious debate to be had on jobs, on employment, agricultural policy. As Steve said, those issues are high on voters’ minds. Rural unemployment’s a huge issue, agricultural – I mean, there’re just real issues to continue to deal with as Georgia goes through an economic and political transformation.
And in some degree, I feel like many of the – much of the effort to develop positions and platforms and policy papers and all that is getting swept aside a big in the tsunami of debate over satellite television dishes on every house. And while that’s a significant issue as it relates to how you develop Georgia’s democracy, there is a bit of an opportunity cost on still having an issue-based set of issues that get to focus a population and give a population a choice on some policy options.
MR. R. WILSON: Let me turn it over to our audience. I’ll identify people. If you’d please wait to ask your question until a microphone comes and please identify yourselves.
Q: Hi. David Soumbadze from Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at SAIS. I have a quick question and then make a comment to Damon. Correct me if I overheard this wrong, but you mentioned about the prison scandal, that atrocities like that happen in democracies every day. Can you give us an example of a democracy where this happens every day? And comment is that this is not an isolated accident or accidents that we saw yesterday. And basically – I haven’t slept last night, as many Georgians haven’t slept last night here and Tbilisi.
This is not an accident or accident. This is a part of a system. And this was not a secret to many Georgians because Tbilisi is – and Georgia is a small country, Tbilisi’s a small town. Everybody’s relative to everybody, everybody’s friend to everybody. And many people have went through this hell which was going in Georgian penitentiary for years. And it is immoral what happened. And it is even more immoral that the government is now trying to blame this on Georgian Dream supporters – that they orchestrated all this.
And this is a problem of a system operating in Georgia. It’s not an isolated accident or accident. So, Damon, can you please give us examples of other democracies where these kinds of things happen?
MR. D. WILSON: Sure.
Q: Where – I’m sorry – and these are group beatings, rapes of prisoners including minors, which are happening in many places over the years almost every day.
MR. D. WILSON: This is a very serious issue. And frankly, absolutely right, this has been an issue of long-standing concern in Georgia, the situation of prison conditions. Very serious issue; it’s atrocious. And you see the Georgian people responding with outrage and what’s happened. It is immoral. And I think what my – it’s not the time just for scapegoating. It’s the time for how you respond to this.
My point was not to be flip at all. This is – this is a very serious incident, very serious scandal. But our societies are not immune to massive defects. Think of the shame that I felt for my country with Abu Ghraib or whatever the issues may be. Things happen that need to be addressed. And this has been exposed. It’s been exposed in a very prominent way in the past 24 hours. And I think it’s a real test of the government to deal with it now and judge the – judge the government on its response, I would say.
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. R. WILSON: One minute. One minute, please.
Q: First of all, what we saw yesterday on Georgian TV puts Abu Ghraib pictures in the category of PG, even not PG-13. And second, this is a panel related to the elections in Georgia. And this scandal – this issue has very huge implications on the election process – not only on the day of voting on the first of October, but it shows the intimidation which was in the country and it puts under the question all polling data which you were talking about. So in the – in the country where intimidation is so widespread, who can believe to any polls – whether they are conducted by the government, by the opposition or by independent organizations?
So I would say that this is a potential game changer in Georgia. I was very surprised that none of the speakers mentioned this except for Damon. And I was even more surprised at the context Damon put this in his remarks. So this has the potential of having huge implications on the – not only these elections but in the entire political system in the months and years to come in Georgia. Thank you.
MR. R. WILSON: Damon has expressed one view about how this will play out in the electoral dynamic in Georgia. I wonder if – obviously it’s sort of speculative because there’s – this is a very fresh event. But would any of you like to talk about how Georgians will view this and what impact it may have – maybe very specifically what impact this will have on an election that’s only a couple of weeks away?
MR. YALOWITZ: I – this kind of abuse, you know, has gone on a long time. You know, the human rights reports every year that the State Department prepares have always highlighted, you know, prisons as a major – you know, major problem – not just the abuse but also the health conditions, the rampant tuberculosis. Anybody sentenced to a jail, you know, you could be sure coming out was going to – you know, was going to be tubercular.
I – you know, David, I respect you enormously, but I just don’t know – given the fact that this is a long-known issue, this is not – you know, I think the prison system has been in abominable shape for a long time. I just question whether or not it will make that much of an impact, you know, in the election. I don’t know. I – you know, as I – you know the situation far better than I.
All I’m simply saying is that, you know, this has been known a long time. The fact that is graphically has been demonstrated may have an impact. But it’s just like here in this country. You know, there have been all kinds of issues coming up, but at the end it’s jobs, you know, and everything keeps going back to that.
MR. R. WILSON: Cory.
MR. WELT: Yeah, just briefly. I mean, I think it’s still undetermined and it’s certainly going to firm up the convictions of those who are against the government. I don’t’ know – there may be some change in terms of those who support the government the question is in this middle group. But there’s two problems I think that they’re – and to the – benefit of the – to the government’s credit, as Damon pointed out, the government is swiftly moving now to rectify this. Now that may say to some, you see, the government at least is responsive and can reform when pushed. The flip side of that – I see two major problems.
One is it’s not only the fact that it was known – Saakashvili even his response said the ombudsman has been talking about problems in our prison for quite some time, it appears that he was right – which suggests that there was an absolute lack of willingness to do what was necessary for all of this time and it also suggests a certain arrogance on the part of the government that it didn’t need to act until this kind of scandal broke and raises some questions about why it didn’t act for all of this time. So I think the – it has to have a negative impact on the government. How significant that impact is, though, remains to be seen.
MR. R. WILSON: OK, let’s go on. Please. Here – yeah, behind you, sorry.
Q: Thank you very much, Ambassador. Paul Joyal. I’m a registered agent of Mr. Ivanishvili. And I am not now nor I have ever been an agent of influence of the Soviet Union or Russia. I just wanted to point that out. Anyone that knows me I think can verify that. Stop laughing, Ken.
MR. YALOWITZ: I’m not laughing, Paul. I know you very well. (Laughter.)
Q: Listen, just one point and then a question. The first videos were released to the press by the Georgian government itself. And the reason why the first set of videos, which were beatings, were released, is because of the active political surveillance program on the Georgian opposition. And Mr. Ignatius will be writing about that tomorrow in The Washington Post. So they wanted to get out in front of this issue and they put some lower-level video.
And they also put out a statement blaming Mr. Tamaz Tamazashvili, the father-in-law of – basically the CEO of Mr. Ivanishvili – as being responsible. He’s in prison there and he was responsible for this. So I think that some of these videos, however, that have been released go back to 2011, well before Mr. Tamaz Tamazashvili was in prison.
With that said, I would like to ask Mr. Nix and Mr. Wilson – you’ve mentioned the case of this large infusion of money by one particular candidate into the campaign. And I would like to know, how much money are we talking about? Mr. Nix, can you tell us – can you tell the group about what the size of this large infusion is? Or, Mr. Wilson, can you tell us?
MR. R. WILSON: And maybe in the process kind of expand on the broader issue here that’s at play. You referred to this to some extent, Steve.
MR. NIX: Well, I think it’s a well-settled fact that this particular coalition has resources behind it.
Q: No, no. How much –
MR. NIX: I haven’t seen any Federal Election Commission reports, if that’s what you’re referring to, sir.
Q: OK, the –
MR. NIX: But, no, I can’t give you a detailed account of every dollar that’s been spent on the campaign by Georgian Dream.
Q: OK. Mr. Wilson, can you tell us how much?
MR. D. WILSON: I can’t give you the specifics. Maybe you can, but again the part – the part –
Q: I can. I can tell you what the Chamber of Control says.
MR. D. WILSON: Part of what’s at issue is – I mean, resources behind the opposition is a great thing in a country like Georgia where you need to be able to have competitive politics bring voices to political actors. Part of the issue at play is, how do you actually maintain a credible, regulatory environment, credible campaign finance rules, and how do you manage the influx of such resources?
We struggle with that type of issue in our – in a mature democracy. It’s been a very complicated issue in Georgia in this electoral cycle as well.
MR. : OK, well, you know that these rules were passed after the announcement of Mr. Ivanishvili. And according to the Chamber of Control, the reporting is that there were $6 million; the Georgian Dream reported that it had collected $6 million. The Chamber of Control says there’s an additional 18 million (dollars), but they haven’t been able to identify where all that money comes from. And members of the campaign have been fined 125 million (dollars), homes have been auctioned, people are – banks have been seized, so I think we should put this in context about this large infusion. Six million dollars, I would say, is not a large infusion. And the way that this has been orchestrated – again, as part of this systematic intimidation that’s going on in this election – and if you match that with the use of domestic spying on political opposition, the use of malware and computer penetrations of not only Georgian Dream members, but of family members – and this is systematic, it’s intimidating and it is a far cry from democratic processes.
MR. R. WILSON: Questions, comments.
Q: I have a couple of very important questions, and I think we really –
MR. R. WILSON: If you could, please identify yourself.
Q: My name is George Cartozi (sp); I’m the director of communications of International Friends of Georgia. I have a couple questions on behalf of my board that I would like addressed by this committee.
First and foremost, why hasn’t anybody addressed the fact that over 1 million votes have been completely – completely neglected? And I’m talking about the diaspora votes spread all across the world. It’s a fact a lot of these embassies can only maybe accommodate 1,000 people per day, and even those – and even those embassies aren’t being used as polling stations. And over a million people have been stripped of their right to vote. And is this a democracy? I would –you know, I would just like to put that in question.
And another question is, can we address anything about the, you know – in the news, I’ve been reading lately a lot about conflict of interest within NDI and IRI operating in the Republic of Georgia. For example, there has been allegations of people, such as Mark Mullen, working for this, like – working for NDI, IRI, and on the Saakashvili administration, those types of people.
Can anybody address these questions for me please?
MR. R. WILSON: Thank you for the questions. Any of our group?
MR. NIX: Well, I’m not in a position – I’m with IRI. I’m very sorry; I’m not in a position to comment on someone that may have worked for NDI at some point in time.
Q: (But seriously ?).
MR. NIX: OK, well, again, I’m not sure who you’re referring to from NDI.
Q: Well, like, what would you say about – if that type of scenario was true, what would you say about it? Were there – would a conflict of interest compromise – would a conflict of interest –
MR. : Well, that’s – I think that’s a speculative question, that –
MR. NIX: Yeah, I’m an attorney. I’m not going to commit to a hypothetical. But I appreciate the – you know, the line of questioning. And I just – I’m just not in a position to talk about NDI.
Q: Can we at least have an idea – (inaudible) – NDI working, and then lots of people are depending on NDI’s results?
MR. R. WILSON: I – let’s –
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m from NDI, and I can tell you –
MR. R. WILSON: Can – please. Please, you may have a seat, please.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, but there’s no conflict of interest. There are no – I think you referred to Mark Mullen – you referred to Mark Mullen who hasn’t worked for NDI since 2003, and I don’t – I’m not aware of Mr. Mullen working for the Saakashvili government, certainly not when he was employed for NDI, you know, 10 years ago. So I’m not aware of any conflict of interest that, you know, that –
Q: (Off mic.)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: He’s never worked for NDI, Mr. Saakashvili – no. (Laughs.)
Q: You have no information.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I can tell you, I do have information – that – he’s – I think you’re referring to – he worked for the CRRC, who has done our polling, and I think he left CRRC a year before we started doing our polling with CRRC. I think that’s what you’re referring to.
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. D. WILSON: I would just – I mean – I’ve worked – I’ve worked with IRI and NDI throughout the course of my career, as most of us have here, and these are incredibly reputable, (respected polling ?) organizations that play a tremendous role, I think, in many of the countries where they’re working. And so I don’t think this is the place to get into an argument over an individual here and there. Individuals have the ability to move on from employment and move to others. That’s not the point. It is the integrity of the process that IRI and NDI support, and from the work that I’ve seen these good folks do, I’m going to remain very proud of that.
Q: And what about first question, about over a million people without the right to vote?
MR. D. WILSON: Not in a position to address that.
Q: Please, come on.
MR. R. WILSON: Let’s take a question in the back, please.
Q: Thank you. My name is Rusadan Tsereteli (sp), TV Channel 9 – Georgia TV Channel 9, just to clarify. So the “must-carry” law, I have a question in terms of this recently passed by Georgian government to increase media diversity and accessibility, will only be in place for 60 days before the election, October election. So is a time length of 60 days enough for fair and free elections? And also, are you concerned with all these media limits, and the harassments and repression of my colleagues in Georgia?
MR. NIX (?): Well, let me just – I think, in general, we’re very supportive to see this legislation being adopted, and our position is that was a step in the right direction. Would we like to see it extend beyond elections? Yes, I think that’s a good idea. And, you know, I regret that it is ending on election day, and again, this is something I think that will be discussed postelection, along with the number of other items that I mentioned earlier about size of districts and trying to get a hold on getting clear rules on campaign finance regulation. I think these media rules are also – will be subject to some scrutiny and discussion, and hopefully some improvement postelection as we prepare for the next election cycle.
MR. R. WILSON: Ken?
MR. YALOWITZ: I would just simply add, as far as I’m concerned, you know, free access to the press, media freedom, is one of the really important, you know, demarcations of how developed you are towards democracy. And I think that – yeah, I think all of us would agree that, you know, very good to see this, you know, “must-carry,” but it would have been nice to see this, you know, 20 years ago, and, you know, and not just for a specific time period. And just simply going forward, I think this is one of the dimensions that those of us interested in Georgia are going to have to really keep on the – high on the agenda, is, you know, media and freedom of the press – very important issue.
MR. R. WILSON: Cory?
MR. WELT: No, I would just add that it’s not too late. And the Georgian government has heard the positions, have met NGOs, and I’m sure the position of the U.S. government representatives have been in Georgia as well. And frankly, I think they should just bite the bullet and extend “must-carry” through some kind of election process afterwards. I think it would at least take away one of the criticisms that’s still outstanding without too much of a cost to the government. So I think it would – it would be straightforward and it’s not something we can regret, we should continue to ask them to do so.
MR. R. WILSON: Damon, anything you want to add?
MR. D. WILSON: I basically agree with them. I mean, the media law “must carry” is a significant advance. It would have been better to have earlier, it would be better to extend it. When our task force went to Georgia, we had an opportunity to spend some time, a round table of media, of various media activists. And the challenge is complex both in terms of access, but also in terms of financing for a lot of these media outlets. And that might be a little bit different for your particular situation, but it’s a significant issue in a market the size of Georgia’s, that has to be overlaid with the legal structure, as well as how you actually make many of these media outlets financially viable, not just internet, but also radio and TV.
MR. R. WILSON: Let me ask you a question. None of you have touched, except in Damon’s remarks, all that much on the foreign affairs aspects of this campaign and of the implications of it. To what extent is foreign affairs an issue in Georgia’s election campaign? To what extent does it motivate voters as opposed to some of the domestic concerns that you – Cory, you in particular – identified? And what are some of the foreign policy implications? Damon identified, touched on a number of issues. I’d appreciate if any of you, maybe in particular Ken, if you wanted to elaborate on any of that, foreign affairs in this election and coming out of it.
MR. YALOWITZ: Yeah, I think foreign affairs, you know, has been approached, certainly indirectly, with the allegations, you know, that Ivanishvili is an agent of influence and not committed, you know, to – you know, to the Western integration, you know, as is President Saakashvili. So I think, you know, it’s there, but I don’t think it – I think the analogue, at least from what I can see, is a little bit similar to our elections, you know, where foreign policy, you know, directly, is not playing, you know, that much of a role. Personally, I asked Steve before our session today, I was just very interested whether or not the 2008, you know, Russian-Georgian War has come up, you know, as an issue, because I thought that perhaps that might be, you know, something that would come under discussion, the role of the government, the role of, you know, the relationship with Russia today. But it seems, you know, not to be, you know, based on what I’ve heard today, you know, at the top of the list.
I did want to mention one other thing. When I talked about the environment being, you know, not conducive, you know, to democratic development, to me it makes it even more important that Georgia move in the right direction. Despite all these obstacles and despite, you know, what – (inaudible) – said about, you know, the – you know, if Ukraine goes bad, to me it’s important that – you know, that Georgia be an example despite all of these problems surrounding it, you know, that you can, you know, move forward in a good direction. So I think that that – you know, the election has a lot of importance within Georgia, but I think it also has, you know, that – you know, a broader impact, you know, on the region as well.
MR. R. WILSON: Steve, Cory?
MR. WELT: Yeah, one, it’s – clearly, for the government, they’ve been trying to make it a major element of the campaign. They are trying to – almost making it one of the two main elements of the campaign – if the opposition is elected, Russia will take us over and we will regress into the last 10 to 20 years. But it’s – and it’s difficult to see what kind of an impact those kind of claims actually have on public opinion, but there is one question that NDI asks which is interesting. I don’t – unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact results, but there were two questions, rather. One question is, is Russia an enemy? And yes, most Georgians think that Russia is a threat, Russia is a threat. Some say Russia’s not as much of a threat as it’s made out to be, but it’s nonetheless a threat. Fine, consensus across the board.
But the other question is, who do you trust more for handling Russia? And there, on a series of questions, the UNM actually comes out pretty good and above the Georgian Dream. But on the question of handling the Russian threat, the UNM and Georgian Dream are actually more or less even. I was suggesting that accusations are not necessarily resonating with the population. And there’s a good segment of the population that actually believes the Georgian Dream would be more capable of dealing with Russia – (inaudible).
MR. R. WILSON: Anything from –
MR. NIX: Well, I would just say, I mean, if you go out on the streets today, I mean, you’re going to see billboards, you’re going to see campaign rallies on more localized issues, as I said earlier, for jobs, economic improvements, job creation, pensions, things like that. You don’t see a lot of – (inaudible) – a lot of advertisement about these foreign policy issues.
MR. R. WILSON: Damon, anything you want to add?
MR. D. WILSON: Just the only thing I’d add to what I’ve already said is that one of the significant things when you look at the electorate is the degree of support for a clear foreign policy trajectory across the Georgian electorate, rural and urban, for close relationships with Europe, closer relationship to NATO. And so in some respects, there’s a consistency across the electorate that mitigates the ability to turn this into a particular issue, but is also reassuring as you think about how to engage the country going forward.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: But you didn’t answer the question.
MR. R. WILSON: I believe your issues were addressed. Excuse me.
Q: No, we need an answer that question. (Inaudible) – quarter of the population of the country lost their right to vote.
MR. R. WILSON: Is there – OK. Is there anything anybody –
Q: (Off mic) – sitting here and let’s answer it, please.
MR. R. WILSON: Is there anybody who would like –
Q: Twenty-five percent of population lost their right to vote. If this would happen here in United States, you can imagine what would happen, right? And we lost our right to vote – 25 percent. Now answer please this question.
MR. : What’s the question?
Q: The question is, 25 percent of Georgians lost their right to vote. It was issued in a new law by Foreign Ministry of Georgia. And we don’t have rights, 25 percent. Answer it.
MR. R. WILSON: The issue relates to Georgians outside of Georgia and their ability to vote.
MR. YALOWITZ: No, I understand that, but –
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. YALOWITZ: No, I mean, it’s a fact. I mean, you know, obviously if you’re asking me, it’s wrong. I mean, just as long – we have a – in our own states right now efforts to limits, you know, people who can vote. I don’t like that.
Q: Yes, but we called the government – (off mic).
MR. R. WILSON: I think – excuse me, sir. We have the question.
MR. WELT: Part of my hesitation – (inaudible) – is simply, you know, I don’t know the numbers of those that would be eligible to vote, but we do know that there are not enough stations.
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. WELT: Clearly there ought to be more – more places where people who are located outside of Georgia ought to vote. But there is an opportunity to vote for those who are concentrated in the places – are in cities where Georgians are most concentrated. The rules might be more complicated than we would like. There are clearly registration problems. I know of certain registration problems. But I wouldn’t at all suggest that the entire population of Georgians outside of the country don’t have the right to vote. They do, but it’s problematic, and I’ll acknowledge that.
Q: 42,000 people out of 1.6 million people have (tried ?) to vote.
MR. WELT: I just disagree.
MR. R. WILSON: We have –
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. R. WILSON: Let’s move to the back. I think this may be the last question.
Q: Well, thanks. (Inaudible) – from Tbilisi State University. (Inaudible) – last question, so I wanted to ask about the American policy for Georgian elections. If we compare 2003 Rose Revolution or pre-election period, 2012, then I think there is a clear difference in American approach – that’s my opinion – that in – both structurally, especially in terms of democracy assistance, if you look at numbers, distribution, structure and political tone or statements. While at the same time, if you look at the estimates of Georgian democracy in 2003 and today, we might actually have slipped a bit downwards. And Georgian democracy rate’s now slightly lower than in the – even in the final period of – (inaudible).
So my question is whether you see a difference in American approach nine years ago and today towards democracy in Georgia and elections in particular and why that – if you see that, why that difference occurred? Or if you don’t see it, then why is there no difference, if you will? And also, I mean, if you could speculate a bit about what this kind of American policy toward Georgia might spell for American-Georgian elections in case the government changes there. Thank you.
MR. R. WILSON: That’s a good tone to end on.
Colleagues, who would like to go first? Cory?
MR. WELT: Well, I think that I would simply say that, you know, the things that Tom Melia was saying and the things that John Bass was saying I think are probably very similar to what the three of us, you know, were saying during our times in Georgia. We don’t take sides. What we want is a democratic process. We’ve always argued for freedom of the press, you know, free and fair and open transparent election process. And I think I would be hard-pressed to – you know, to find differences from what we were saying and doing in 2003 until now. If I recall correctly, James Baker came to Tbilisi in 2003 to urge free and fair elections. That was a former secretary of state, and now we had a deputy assistant secretary of state, you know, sitting, you know, coming for these elections. But I think we have gone out of our way, you know, not to take sides and to push for a fair process.
And (Dick ?), would you agree? You were – you were there.
MR. : As far as I know.
MR. WELT: Yeah. So – (inaudible) – I don’t really see a change.
You ask about U.S. policy. Damon correctly said, you know, that in the wake of the election, you know, we really need to have a very coherent, very well-structured, you know, approach to Georgia. I think the outcome, no matter what it is – if it’s a free and fair election and, you know, if the process leading up to it has been judged fair – because I for one, I agree with Cory that you can’t just simply look at election day. I’m much more concerned about what has preceded it, you know, in terms of possible, you know – you know, of figuring – of jiggering the results. But if these elections, you know, are deemed, you know, free, fair and open, you know, by the election observers, we’ll deal with whatever government, you know, emerges. I don’t think there’s any question, you know, about that. And obviously, if it’s a free and fair election, it’s going to be a lot easier for us to deal, you know, with that government.
MR. YALOWITZ: One big difference I think that helps to explain this, I agree in general that the policy is more or less the same. But one big difference is, in 2003, that government had largely fallen apart, right? And there were expectations that in a reasonably smooth election, the opposition not only would come really close, but had a really good chance of winning. Here, I think it’s much more our reading of what’s happening inside Georgia is much more complex, where we do see a more polarized spread of opinion.
And then the second way I disagree is I suggest that in Georgia, just as in many other countries, we often follow events just as much as we lead events, regardless of who is in the administration. And so a lot, for better or worse, does depend on what happens in election day and in the days to come, and then you might not see such – you might not see such a different approach.
MR. R. WILSON: Steve?
MR. NIX: Well, as I said earlier, I mean, again, the campaign has been competitive. There’s new players, new questions, new issues emerging, so I think there’s been a healthy debate and in a very, very competitive campaign, and that’s only to Georgia’s future and increasing its democratic institutions, building democratic institutions. Again, the key is, as I said before, you know, there’s going to be an outcome, and our hope is that Georgia has advanced to the point where all the players will accept the outcome, whatever it is. And again, we work with everyone. We’ve trained all the main political parties, provided training to everybody. We don’t have a stake in who wins. We just merely want to see that this is a competitive campaign. We think it is. But the key is the events right after elections, if international election observation missions, OSE, NDI, IRI and the many others that will be observing, if there’s a judgment that these elections essentially met standards and reflected the will of the people, it’s our hope that that will be respected by all sides. And parliament moves forward with the majority, with the minority and continues to build Georgia’s democratic institutions.
MR. R. WILSON: Damon, last words.
MR. D. WILSON: The only thing I would add is if you think about the United States’ relationships with our closest allies around the world, there’s a consistency there. There are vagaries based on elections on the margins – that’s true. And I think we just need to think about that in terms – that’s our aspiration for the long term – a long-term relationship with Georgia in which the underlying fundamentals are consistent and solid. And there may be vagaries to a certain degree depending on certain circumstances, as we have with other mature relationships, but I think that’s where we’re headed with Georgia and that’s actually a good thing.
MR. R. WILSON: Just – I think we’ve run out of time. It’s 3:30, and I need to close this session. I think that this has been a very useful conversation. It’s put on the table both some of the substantive issues and some of the passions and controversies that relate to this – relate to this election, and I’m very grateful to members of our audience and also to our panel here today for helping to facilitate that conversation and get these issues out on the table.
I want to thank – I want to thank the Atlantic Council staff for having arranged this, in particular Laura Linderman, assistant director of the Eurasia Center, who has authored a report on the Georgian elections which – copies of which are available outside for those of you who may not have it. I want to thank all of our audience for being part of this conversation, and especially our four panelists here. Please join me in thanking them. (Applause.)