Laura THORNTON: "Georgians increasingly believe the country is moving in the wrong direction"

Do Georgians have savings? Are they happy with the quality of healthcare? How does Georgian public perceive the performance of government and political parties? Is the approval for EU and NATO membership as strong as it used to be? 

19.09.2019 (Caucasian Journal) For the most up-to-date answers to key social and political questions, Caucasian Journal traditionally turns to Laura THORNTON, Global Associate/Senior Director at National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Georgia. Today Laura kindly agreed to comment on NDI's latest public opinion polls exclusively for readers of CJ.
(Read the Georgian translation here.)

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ: Dear Laura, welcome back to Caucasian Journal. A lot has happened in Georgia since our last conversation six months ago (read here). And as always, your organization has the latest information on public sentiments regarding the most burning social and political issues. With great interest I have reviewed NDI's latest public polls results, and I do recommend to our readers to review your original charts and tables. But as always with statistical data, their interpretation is critically important. What's your general impression of the latest changes in Georgian public attitudes - could you summarize it?

Laura THORNTON: Thank you very much for having me back! NDI and our partner CRRC are proud to have the most transparent polls in Georgia, so you can find all of our data at You can download the full questionnaire, do your own cross-tabulations, generate tables and graphs, etc. We really do hold the view that opinion research – particularly since there is not a lot being done here – is a public good, and we love to see a wide array of people put our data to use.

Overall, I think this NDI-CRRC poll has shown some things have indeed shifted in public opinion, though, frankly, much stays the same. The NATO and EU figures remain stable and consistent with our last few polls. For years now, Georgians indicate that they are un-impressed with their political options and while planning to vote, have no idea for whom. Certain institutions, like the church and public service halls, continue to have the public’s positive assessment. This poll has also shown us that Georgians positively assess the quality and accessibility of healthcare, approve of universal health care, and trust doctors and clinics.

With regard to changes, rather than focusing too much on a specific data point in one poll, it is important to look at trends over time. One trend we’ve been seeing is that Georgians increasingly believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, the state of the economy is poor, and the government’s performance is worsening.

AK: Indeed, your poll results reflect a growing public criticism towards the government.  So, before we proceed to details of your poll's results, a more general question: Who are the typical users of your data? I believe they are a priceless resource for the opposition parties and journalists, who use such data to support political rhetoric. But are there cases of any government bodies' practical interest in your figures? Or perhaps the parliament has used them to change legislation?

LT: NDI is fortunate to work with many partners on our research program. In fact, given the economy and healthcare focus of this poll, we relied a lot on our partners to help design our instrument and come up with the right questions. We work closely with MPs, factions, and committees in parliament, as you suggest, to use the poll to test a policy or idea for legislation. Our research on sexual harassment (read more here), for example, helped inform legislation on that issue. And the healthcare committee was particularly keen on this poll to inform their planned interventions on medicine costs. We also partner with the strategic communications teams in several ministries and advise them on how to utilize research findings in their work. Our last poll on foreign policy, and particularly the differences in perceptions between Armenian and Azerbaijani settlements, is being used to identify specific targets and messages for their European and Euro Atlantic communication strategy. NGOs have relied on our data to strengthen their advocacy efforts. So, we do indeed have many folks using our research, which is our aim in order to ensure more responsive policy-making.

AK: That's excellent. Now let me ask, what was most surprising in your latest report results, from your personal standpoint? Or was everything predictable?

 It was hard to learn that half of Georgians report not being able to pay their utilities bill at some point over the past six months.

LT: There are so many interesting and surprising findings in the research, and as you dig further and do more analysis, new discoveries emerge. It was hard to learn that half of Georgians report not being able to pay their utilities bill at some point over the past six months. Or that a majority could not come up with 300 GEL (without interest) if they urgently needed it. That really was a stark reminder of the hardship facing many people in this country. I thought it was useful to look at the cross tabs on the economy by age and gender. For instance, women and older people will accept a far lower salary than younger people and men. Also, the younger age group is slightly less likely to say their parents’ generation was better off than theirs. But if you think about it, their parents were coming of age in the 1990s, so not that surprising. I also thought it was interesting that minority settlements are more likely to save money, and report having more of a personal safety net as a result.

It’s also revealing to look at the data by party supporters. Normally, this is not so surprising, with Georgian Dream supporters viewing things more positively than others. I found it interesting, though, that on economic ideology, we actually saw slight contrast – United National Movement (UNM) supporters lean a bit more economically liberal than GD supporters. Although this could be in part driven by a reflection of overall trust in government.

 Georgians indicate that they are un-impressed with their political options and while planning to vote, have no idea for whom.

AK: Majority of Georgians evaluates the current government’s performance as “bad”. However, they have voted to support the ruling party. And Georgian public neither tends to support other parties. Is the public generally reluctant, unwilling to change, or losing the hope?

LT: I have been asked this a lot over the past few days. And I cannot say I have an answer. If I flew into another country and was shown the data that a majority of folks feel the country is going in the wrong direction, the economy is terrible, and the government’s performance is bad, I would think that government was in trouble in the next year’s election. However, in Georgia, you will notice that this does not translate into support for any of the opposition parties in a serious way. Or at least not yet. Just because folks are not pleased with the current government does not mean they may not dislike the opposition options even more.  And, as you said, going into the last few elections, GD support was not high and people were not particularly pleased with the government’s performance, but they still won.

We recently conducted focus groups on this – what do Georgians think of political parties, what are they looking for in a party, how do they make a determination on election day, etc. While this research is qualitative – and thus not statistically representative – the picture was that a lot of people did not like any of their options and voted for what they perceived as the “lesser of evils.” This is consistent with the poll and voting data, which show lots of undecideds before elections, but then it appears those undecideds pull the lever for the ruling party. What is interesting to me is that Georgians report they would like “alternatives,” yet they don’t vote for them. There are many parties in Georgia – with different ideologies and backgrounds – but voters still mainly vote for either GD or UNM, perhaps this is strategic, a fear of “throwing one’s vote away” and inadvertently getting their least favorite party elected.

Several politicians have explained to me there is a desire in Georgia to vote for strength, for winners, making it difficult for new parties to emerge. Further, they say, the two leading parties have successfully sucked up all the oxygen and media coverage, shaping any campaign into a two-way contest. The playing field isn’t exactly even in Georgia, with GD having the lion’s share of resources, which also makes it hard for other parties to get their voices heard. It is also important to keep in mind, as everywhere, incumbents are usually at an advantage and the status quo is often considered the safer choice, particularly in a country where much of the employed population is employed by the state, so there is a desire not to “rock the boat.”

 The playing field isn’t exactly even in Georgia, with GD having the lion’s share of resources, which makes it hard for other parties to get their voices heard.

However, it is also important to keep in mind how Georgia’s electoral system can impact outcomes.  Under the majoritarian system, as you know well, GD got just shy of 50% of the vote, but that translated into a constitutional majority in the parliament. With the fully proportional system, we are likely to see different outcomes in 2020.

AK: The social and economic agenda is the most important for the public - your top issues remain the same since 2009. But now, the Lari depreciation curve visibly correlates with your "Country direction" curve, and it's one of most "spectacular" findings of your latest poll (see graph below). Would you like to comment on it?

LT: Yes – and it is a correlation that CRRC tested statistically. It is likely that people perceive the value of the Lari as an indication of the health of the economy – correctly or incorrectly – and they also associate it with rising prices and, hence, their economic well-being. Though reports show that inflation in Georgia is not, in fact, high, we see that Georgians perceive that things are more expensive. It is indeed true that many Georgians have debt and property in dollars, or purchase imported products, so this does indeed impact them greatly. While it certainly makes sense that there is this correlation, to see it on a graph fitting so remarkably in sync is remarkable.

AK: If you compare the public sentiments to situation several years ago - when you started your polling perhaps - what's the most drastic change?

LT: If you look at NDI’s institutional performance charts over time, the increasing negative evaluation of the courts and parliament since 2012 is jarring indeed, although not drastic. I am always interested in looking at the internet usage figures and how they just continue to tick upwards.

AK: Democracy in Georgia: Do you feel it is declining, stays the same, or getting stronger? Can you compare it to democracy level in the neighboring countries - for example, the recent rise in democracy level in Armenia, perhaps?

LT: I think we have a democracy problem everywhere and it certainly is a rough time to be in the democracy-promotion business. Made harder when your own country is grappling with the same problems – establishing electoral systems that deliver one person-one vote, foreign interference, disinformation campaigns, lack of parliamentary oversight, money in politics -- you are trying to solve elsewhere.  Georgia is facing similar challenges we are seeing across the globe – a rise of far-right, xenophobic movements, a political elite and governing system that fails to deliver to citizens, political apathy coupled with vehement polarization, threats to information integrity, and security challenges. Not to sound too gloomy, but I think we have a lot of work to do. My ideas on that are for another interview!

AK: Agreed – that’s always a most interesting subject for Caucasian Journal. My next question is about the Georgian church. It appears to be almost the only public institution that preserves a stable favourable evaluation. How do you assess this tendency? Is it Georgia's specifics? It would be interesting to know how does that correlate to situation in the other countries.

LT: It is high in Georgia, when comparing to other countries. Pew and CRRC and a few researchers do have regional and global results. And, from other polls I have seen, Georgians do consider themselves quite religious and place great importance on religion.

AK: Shall we touch upon some concrete findings of your polls? For example, the absence of savings in most Georgian families. Is this a new development? Are Georgians becoming a poorer nation, and how quickly?

LT: This is our most extensive polling on savings, so I do not have a lot of historical data, but our regular poll question on household income and spending has consistently shown that Georgians report spending all that they earn. I’m not sure how this compares to neighboring countries. Some have explained to me this is a cultural tendency, and there simply isn’t a priority placed on saving. Others have described it as a post-Soviet legacy and a reliance on the state to take care of you. And then there is also the very real possibility that saving is simply a luxury, and people cannot make ends meet, let alone put money away.

AK: Very few Georgians - less than 1 percent - believe in Georgia's IT and other technological assets. For a 21-century economy, this appears as a rather saddening finding. Is there anything that can be done to improve this tendency, in your view? 

LT: Well, I think people answer with what they know and currently do – farming, tourism, etc. There is not (yet) a booming tech sector, so it is probably hard for people to envision that.

AK: According to your polls, Georgians are generally satisfied with the quality of healthcare, which appears to be a very positive result. But still, more than half of people would prefer to be treated abroad. Sounds paradoxical, doesn't it?

LT: Yes, these were very positive findings. Georgians believe the quality of healthcare is good, trust their doctors and clinics, report that healthcare facilities are accessible, and say they are treated with respect. And it is clear that universal healthcare is valued and appreciated. The question about treatment abroad was specifically related to complicated procedures. It is difficult in a small country to have specialized, niche expertise in the full array of medical interventions.

AK: Finally, I wanted to touch upon the foreign policy issues. Though many Georgians believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction, this does not include the foreign policy orientation. Your "Foreign Policy" poll section shows a remarkable stability of all the attitudes. This happens despite the lack of visible progress in further integration with EU/NATO. How would you comment?

LT: Georgians have a clear vision of what they want and how they position Georgia on the world stage, with western orientation and as a part of Europe. I would like to interpret this commitment, despite the lack of significant progress, like you said, as an understanding of broader principles. The process of joining the EU, for example, includes measures that are good for Georgia, membership or not. Consumer protections, for example, protect us and our children, make us safer. NATO partnerships, including the trainings and technical assistance, make Georgia more secure. But it is also a psychological state of mind, isn’t it? It is a statement of the values and ideals Georgians want for their country – a free, prosperous, secure democracy.

AK: Thank you very much. You are welcome to talk to the readers of Caucasian Journal anytime.

LT: Thank you. It is always a pleasure!

Read the Georgian translation here.
This article was re-published by:
- ICC Georgia republished Caucasian Journal's interview with Laura Thornton of NDI Georgia in its newsletter. Laura Thornton's interview is on pages 5-10.


1 comment:

  1. 1 post

    If most people think the country is going in the right direction, you are probably living in a country with no democracy, human rights or there is extreme poverty. 

    The countries that report the highest number of citizens who think their country is going in the right direction are China, Saudi Arabia and India. 

    The fact a small majority in Georgia think our direction is wrong mirrors all EU countries who express the same about their countries. 

    It is correlated to the growth of democracy in Georgia since 2012. There is now a free press, unrestricted access to social media and Georgians are no longer scared of retrubution if they criticise the Government or politicia