Ambassador Zurab KATCHKATCHISHVILI: "Most urgent matter is to free the Judiciary from political pressure"

interview
27.02.2019 (Caucasian Journal). Ambassador Zurab KATCHKATCHISHVILI, Secretary General of International Chamber of Commerce (ICC Georgia), has kindly agreed to give interview to Caucasian Journal.

Caucasian Journal:  International Chamber of Commerce is the key partner of  Caucasian Journal in Georgia. I take this opportunity to thank you for support, which vividly demonstrates that ICC is more than an ordinary business association. Since inception, ICC Georgia has been very attentive to the pace democratic reforms and civil society formation. I would like to start with a specific question. According to Economist’s 2018 Democracy Index, Georgia’s position dropped from 78th to 89th place. How justified is this estimation, in your view? If you agree with it, is this something that causes concern of ICC and the business community?

Ambassador Zurab KATCHKATCHISHVILI: In the first place, let me congratulate you with the kick-off of Caucasian Journal and express hope that it will successfully serve to faithfully depict and analyze the political and economic environment in Georgia and the whole region.

As to your question – yes, we are deeply concerned by the deterioration of democratic development in the country. Even if we generally assess the business climate in the country, you know that for it to be progressing and attractive, democracy and full independence of governing bodies is essential. We are worried about the state of the Judiciary, which today is far from being independent and fair and, as you know, this is one of the main preconditions for attracting investors from abroad.  So yes, ICC Georgia is anxious about how political life in the country affects business.

CJ:  Despite this sharp decrease of Georgia’s democracy rating, country’s position is still above its neighbors – Armenia (103) and Azerbaijan (149). However, Armenia has improved its rating by 8 points since previous year. If we extrapolate the year’s trends into future, before too long Georgia and Armenia will have identical indexes of democracy. What consequences this may have for the regional business climate?

ZK: We can but rejoice with the democratic advancement of our Armenian friends and neighbors. Regional cooperation and stability can become a major tool for successful economic development. On the other hand, what we today observe in Georgia prompts us that if this tendency is not reversed in our country, the whole of the region can be damaged. We definitely consider that the future of the three Caucasian countries lies in common policies and joint efforts.

CJ:  Let us look at this from a broader perspective. I know that your organization pays serious attention to the civil society agenda and the democratic values, but what about the average businesspeople? Is it true, that all that matters to entrepreneurs is just stability?

ZK: Stability is obviously an important component for a good business climate, but this is not enough. A totally independent and competent Judiciary can also be considered as one of the pillars for economic speedup, along with a special attention given to foreign investments that are so much needed for Georgia. I would say – stability is good and essential but not enough; anything that helps strengthening democracy also contributes to business.

CJ:  ICC unites the largest Georgian as well and foreign companies and all your governing bodies are international, comprising of both Georgians and expats. Many foreigners coming from Western democracies occupy top executive positions and can – in theory – assist in bringing the Western values to Georgia.  How can you assess such influence?  Do you observe any difference in attitudes of Western executives vis-à-vis their local colleagues towards the civil society agenda?

ZK: The input of Western companies and businessmen is of course of crucial  importance: along with modern technologies and know-how they bring to our market, they also introduce and strengthen what I would call universal values that are so important for maintaining and developing a sound democratic atmosphere in the country. 

CJ:  We want to find  the most efficient ways of using the vast American and European civil society experience to the advantage of our region’s peoples. You have been witnessing for a long time the way foreign assistance has been implementing in Georgia. How effective is it? Could you comment on the good and bad effects, or any concrete cases? Perhaps you can name areas where the foreign experience might be especially needed?

ZK: Many foreign states and international bodies invest millions and millions in order to support reforms in the country. They are targeting democratic institutions, civil society and it should be noted that a huge progress has been achieved, but more has to be done. But primarily, it is up to the Georgian nation itself to make a fundamental choice: should we just remain a “post-Soviet” country, or do we aim at becoming a member of the so-called Western civilization, making ours values that will make Georgia a modern society with Rule of Law as our main instrument for progress.There is still much to be done, and help and support from Western countries in areas like business regulations, norms and standards accepted widely, is very much welcomed.

CJ:   We have touched upon the democracy rating, but there another controversial index I wanted to ask you about – the World Bank’s Dousing Business.  In contract to Democracy Index, Georgia’s rating has gone up – jumping 3 positions to 6th place in the world. This is of course an outstanding achievement for a small post-Soviet country, but how accurate is this assessment, in your view, and the World Bank’s methodology in general?

ZK: The Doing Business Index is quite tricky: is depicts the conditions under which you can start and do business in a country, but in fact it does not reflect the reality behind the legislation. We are of course delighted with Georgia’s progress in that field, but reality prompts us to be very careful. So many of our member companies had and still have problems with governmental bodies, without being able to solve the disputes in a fair and just manner. So our view is that methodology of the World Bank should be modified and brought closer to reality, in order to give a brighter picture of the business environment.

CJ:  We at Caucasian Journal are hoping to create a useful and effective communication platform. Can you name 1-3 top priority areas of your organization, where our involvement could be especially effective?

"The most urgent matter is to free the Judiciary from political pressure, get necessary tools for a civil society that would act as a whistleblower."

ZK: Our priority, as a business organization, has always been better business climate, so anything that contributes to it is important for us. I would underline, as I already mentioned it, that the most urgent matter is to free the Judiciary from any political pressure, get the necessary tools for a civil society that would act as a whistleblower whenever things go wrong, and last but not least – business should be free from any kind of pressure from the authorities side, which ultimately is the reflection of a healthy democratic society.

CJ:  You have a distinguished diplomatic career, including an ambassador position in India. You know the famous Kipling’s line: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. So my last question is more about your experiences in the Eastern and Western countries.  There is interesting sociological data published recently by Pew Research Center, which includes Georgia and Armenia, putting them in comparison with the rest of Europe across many parameters. For example, while the survey shows that “Eastern Europeans are more likely to regard their culture as superior to others”, the highest percentage of such opinion was found in Greece (89%!), Georgia (85%), and Armenia (84%). The levels for Western Europe were vastly different, starting from just 20% in Spain. Other surveys also suggest a sharp division in views and mentality between the East and the West. Do you agree with this perception?

ZK: I think that this is mainly due to our Soviet heritage. Being a small country, we have always turned to our glorious past, the present being what it used to be in those times and expectations for the future were also out of our control. Today we are learning to be independent, to decide for ourselves and believe me, it is a hard task. It’s like learning to walk… But once you know how to make two, than three and four and five steps together, you feel more self-assured. I do believe that we can be good students and learn quickly in order to integrate in the modern community of free, independent states, who respect law and order.
 
CJ:  Thank you very much!