Experts comments CACDS - Southern Caucasus

Theon Akubardia: The risk of "Putinization" of Georgia. Or any success of Georgian democracy is a threat to the Kremlin

Interview with co-founder of the Georgian Center for Strategic Analysis (GSAC), ex-Deputy of the National Security Council of Georgia Theon Akubardiy.

Speaking about what is happening in Georgia in an international context, how correct are the sometimes-sounding theories that Bidzin Ivanishvili can become "Putin for Georgia"?

This will not happen for two reasons. First, Georgia will not accept a figure similar to Putin. And second, B. Ivanishvili lacks the qualities that Putin possesses.

Of course, we have been trying to reduce the level of democracy, the flourishing of "kleptocracy", illicit enrichment, and so on. In order to polarize society, confrontation in society served one purpose - to preserve and prolong the tenure of power at the helm. But I am far from thinking that the "Putinization" of Georgia with Ivanishvili's hands could happen. Although the weakening of democratic development, the polarization of society and the systematic distance of Georgia from Western values, of course, this is quite the Kremlin's satisfaction. If we move further and further away from the international principles of the West declared by our foreign and domestic policies, it will only further Russia's interests when Georgia can become the "back standing court of Russia" in the sphere of privileged personal interests in the Kremlin.

How important to the West are the values ​​of democracy enshrined in us? Are you talking about geopolitical interests or values ​​of democracy?

I think that both of these postulates are equivalent. There was a period when, at the initial stage of rapprochement with the West, Georgia was called the "island of democracy" or "beacon." Georgia has participated in international missions, filling the niches of the international security system in these periods, demonstrating a successful model in the post-Soviet space. … And I am not tired of repeating - for Russia, the “red line” is not only Georgia's membership in NATO. In this context, any successful Georgian democracy is a threat to the Kremlin.

Today, Moscow is using the entire hybrid war toolkit against Georgia. He is well known. And the imposition of purely Russian values, far from our own, falls into this "hybrid" model of Kremlin behavior. But this will cause confrontation within Georgian society. The purpose of the hybrid Kremlin war is not only and not so much the Georgian power, the purpose is to create a split in society when it lacks agreement on the most important issues of the development and survival of the Georgian state. Possible leveling off by the authorities of Georgia's officially approved European and Euro-Atlantic course is part of Moscow's strategy.

And the alarms from the West are already coming.

There are different opinions about these signals. The authorities, for example, do not see the alarm, they say, they said they were disappointed ... So what?

I am reminded of the second presidential term of M. Saakashvili, when critical articles were published in the West regarding Georgian power. There were also US reports on Georgia's Democracy Assessment, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and so on. This just became a prerequisite for M. Saakashvili being forced to leave, however, in a democratically-elective way, and we were saved from another revolution. And it was a very important step in the development of state democracy.

Today, however, we see and hear different alarms. Recall the criticism from the West regarding the second round of the presidential election in Georgia (November 2018). Today, this is also a question of the port of Anakliya, when from the US at the State Department level there are comments and signals that Russia is not at all a reliable friend or partner of Georgia. Recent events (protests in the country) have signaled that the polarization of society is a threat that all problems must be resolved through dialogue. But we do not observe any signs of dialogue on the part of the government, all attempts of dialogue have been stopped. There is no threat to the fate of parties or politicians, it is about the fate of Georgia's democracy ...

There is a big difference compared to 2012. Saakashvili was in many ways dependent on the West; he was very confrontational with the Kremlin, which would simply swallow it. Saakashvili was told - "not to manipulate the elections", which he did. In today's situation, when the Georgian government has established relations with Moscow and, at the same time, our establishment (including B. Ivanishvili himself) depends on the West, the government is in principle ready to accept such advice, if it sounds?

There are several phases in B. Ivanishvili's involvement in the political process. During the first 2012 elections in the coalition government, Irakli Alasania with his party and David Usupashvili with his party. And despite the emerging issues regarding Ivanishvili's ties with Russia, there was a balance, as the two political figures balanced the first coalition, giving confidence that there was no pro-Russian coup in Georgia. After the second election and the victory of the Dream, we already see a different situation: there is no coalition, no majority, which was elected by the population in 2016 year. Already it is rumored that in the majority of the parliament no one was left with knowledge of English, which creates difficulties in communication. There are no people who understand the language of the West (literally and figuratively) and are able to convey in a clear language information about what is happening to us to foreign countries. But in doing so, we observe the language of force pressure with the society to save power.

The only thing we see and hear from the Georgian Dream is that the "nationals are bad" and what is done by the authorities does not matter. The "National Movement" was actually sent to rest in the 2012 year, but it turns out that the "nationals" are still to blame for the inability of the "Dream" to do business in the political context.

Therefore, I believe that today is the stage when Bidzin Ivanishvili is hardly 100% dependent on the perception of opinions or positions of the West. For a long time, he successfully maneuvered between the interests of Russia and the West, but this maneuver has shifted to the anti-western side. For example, the situation with the port of Anakliya is the watershed when we talk about maneuvering between the interests of the West and Russia. What do we see? The US addresses us at the highest level, saying that this port is very important for enhancing the security and economic development of Georgia, "we are helping you in this, but the issue of construction is delayed." And this is a clear indication that Ivanishvili no longer has that 50% western stake in this two-party flirtation.

We also see an increase in our country's anti-Western movements and the corresponding rhetoric that is very beneficial to the Kremlin. The leaders of these movements and groups broadcast from the media in a spirit that is at odds with our democratic principles. The authorities, in these cases, either do nothing, or they are simply limited in their ability to prevent it. Then a reasonable question arises: whose interests is power?

Georgia's Foreign Minister Zalkaliani recently met secretly with Russian counterpart Lavrov. And then this meeting is explained by the escalating escalation - supposedly, as in the 2008 year, warfare should have been prevented. There are many questions about this meeting. Tensions between us and Russia after it did not go anywhere, but on the contrary, only increased. The ongoing abductions of our citizens along the line of demarcation, the so-called “borderisation process,” all point to Russia's activation for further pressure on Georgia. Both in power and in the country, the population as a whole.

We are also dealing with Russia, which interferes with the US election process, which interferes with the UK's internal affairs. Publication of reports on Russian intervention in Brexit and so on.

Is it possible to rig a 2020 election in Georgia?

It's an effective method, but still, I think, it's outdated. Today it is possible to influence the outcome of the election by propaganda methods, influence on public opinion, trolls, bots and various manipulations. Although there will be ballot stuffs, there will be coordinators, voter bribes, and so on.

In the present case, power contributes to the split of society. The situation in Georgia is difficult because a picture is formed that does not like the current government or its alternative, but the third variant does not exist. Bet on the disorientation of the population.

And all this is happening against the backdrop of broken promises (again, against protests in the summer) to introduce a proportional electoral system. Promises were made both to their own people and to the West. In fact, all got "Kidalovo." I would like to remind that from the high UN stand, President S. Zurabishvili spoke about the high level of democracy, that the proportional system of elections is a settled issue. But it turned out that no.

There are already signs that Ivanishvili is not listening to the West, applying the Russian style of government and appropriate methods to maintain his own power and secure his own capital. But corruption, and generally the style of leadership normal for Russia, is unacceptable for Georgia. We are slipping into the past. Now there is a fight for the election of 2020, and it is not only a struggle for the domestic political agenda, but also for the preservation and development of our national interests, principles and values. This is no longer a question of the Georgian Dream, which weakens democracy and is very passive in the international arena.

It turns out a rather disturbing picture. For example, Nino Burjanadze made an interesting statement that any political force should work with its political centers. Who is Washington and Brussels for - that he will work with them, and I would say that I will work with Moscow to remove Ivanishvili from power. Does this not remind you of the Moldovan scenario, the Plahotniuc case, and so on? How real is this in Georgia?

The international political context is very worrying for Georgia today. On the one hand, we see the level of democracy around us falling. Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova were the three countries from the former pro-Russian space that headed west. Georgia, in fact, has been punished by Putin for having such aspirations, and she has successfully implemented them. Similarly, Ukraine was also punished.

And today's Moldovan example is a very dangerous scenario for Georgia. On the one hand, there were pro-Western and pro-Russian parties united there to receive parliamentary seats. This alliance proved short-lived, and as a result of its collapse, in Chisinau, pro-Russian power was established. Such a scenario for Georgia, by the way, is quite acceptable for our northern neighbor. Today, the situation is that whether it is Nino Burjanadze or Irma Inashvili (“Patriots Alliance”), other political forces representing other vectors of development are all against Bidzina Ivanishvili. How far all these political parties can convince the population that they have the forces capable of defeating him (with not only his personal money, but also his administrative resources) and deprive his majority of the authorities in this polarized society, time will tell. Still, there is a powerful counterbalance to the pro-Russian opposition.

In turn, the West today is occupied with the problems of the Middle East, internal unrest, and crisis of identity within many European countries. The statements of the French President and German Chancellor, the problem of the Nord Stream, are a huge number of problems for the West. Russia has not gone anywhere, in Moscow, in the person of Putin, there is no change in power, and the Kremlin continues its efforts to ensure its own goals and objectives.

Of course, Russia will try to implement the Moldovan scenario in Georgia, increase the pressure and systematically increase the intervention. On the one hand, the creeping occupation, the abduction of our citizens, and the murder continue. For example, we witnessed when two of our residents became ill and ambulances were not passed through the demarcation line, causing them to die. Consequently, this pressure will continue until the election of 2020, Russian special services in Georgia will be activated in parallel, and here we must be very careful not to harm our national interests. The opposition must take these risks into account…

For me, the Moldovan script is unacceptable, since it was painted in the Kremlin ...

Should Georgia, in principle, put its hopes on the West in this situation?

Unfortunately, we sometimes have over-exaggerated expectations. Especially when we ask the West to do our own thing for us and solve our problems. Perhaps this is the specificity of our character or history… I will not say that the West is obliged to save us. I will also not say that the West will do nothing. The West will do everything it can to support us, to help carry out reforms designed to strengthen democracy. Public statements or backstage meetings will be required for this, - the West will. The West acts as a friend, who, if requested, helps, and Russia wants to be an older brother, giving instructions and forcing us to do everything contrary to our wishes.

I very much hope that when a new US ambassador arrives in Georgia, this coordination will go to a different level and the necessary contacts will be established and current assistance to democratic institutions on the ground will increase. We have had problems with the lack of a long time US Ambassador to Georgia. And our government has participated in a game of "antipathy-sympathy" for the proposed US ambassadors. We remember this rather sad and scandalous story.

But the West will not do our job for us, and democracy must be protected, above all, by ourselves. It is about the security of Georgia in the broad - value - sense of the word ...

CIACAR-South Caucasus