Zaza BIBILASHVILI: "Democratic backsliding is evident"

27.07.2020 (Caucasian Journal)  How is the political and economic situation in Georgia seen from a viewpoint of one of the country's leading  professional lawyers?  

Today Caucasian Journal is pleased to present the answers given by  Zaza BIBILASHVILI, Senior Partner at BGI Legal, Georgia’s leading independent law firm, and founder of the Chavchavadze Center for European Studies and Civic Education. 

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of Caucasian Journal: Dear Zaza, thank you for being with us, and for your attention to Caucasian Journal – we are privileged to have you among our Board members. Let me start with what I consider central. You possess a rare - if not ideal - combination of professional and personal qualities, which make you equal to political challenge of any caliber. Recently you left UNM - the party, which you joined in 2013, and where you held a senior position. You said you would not associate with any other political force or take part in the 2020 elections. I am sure you had important reasons, but what will remain on the plate for the voter, if all the very best professionals would decide to step away?

Zaza BIBILASHVILI: Alex, thank you for inviting me for this interview. The honor is all mine to be on CJ board along with such distinguished group of individuals. Let me start by wishing you and Caucasian Journal all the best. I know there are quite a few new ideas and plans for the immediate future. Look forward to seeing the Journal grow! On to your question: 

I joined UNM in 2013. Georgia’s former ruling party had already lost the 2012 parliamentary elections. It was widely demonized, its members were targeted politically and persecuted by all branches of government. Hundreds were jailed or forced to flee Georgia, and thousands were pressured in various ways. Against this background, many struggled to explain my move – in a country where people are quick to switch camps to join the winner, it is rare to see a successful citizen, who had never been part of the government and with no vested interest, to risk it all for no apparent gain. 

When asked about my motive, I had a simple answer: Russia. That Ivanishvili’s principle policy goal would be to appease the Kremlin and “accommodate” Russian interests at the expense of Georgian sovereignty, was no surprise (I have outlined some of those actions in a 2018 brochure “Georgian Dream or a Russian One? – Only the Facts”). Yet, for years many tried to minimize the importance of or disregard this fact altogether. Georgians did so, because nobody likes to admit they were easily cheated, while our Western friends did so because they had supported the change of government in 2012 and genuinely wanted to see it succeed, against all evidence that the country was headed in a different direction. But at some point it became impossible to ignore the obvious. Ever since Gavrilov’s visit in June 2019, Georgian public and the international community increasingly started to call spade a spade. Notably, a notorious Kremlin propagandist Alexandr Dugin recently said that had Russia invaded Tbilisi with tanks and installed a puppet government in 2008, the result would not have been much different from what we have today. 

For several years I was intentionally uninvolved in routine party business. Then, in 2016, I fought actively to rescue the party from an attempted takeover (which resulted in the exit of what later became known as “European Georgia”). From then on, for almost two years, I was one of the leaders of UNM. My plan was to renovate and reinvent the party, to restore the damaged brand - not just cosmetically, but fundamentally. We needed to promote a real intra-party democracy (as we had promised our supporters in 2016), to say no to cronyism and behind the scenes deal-making (which had been a sad modus operandi under the previous leadership), to open up and bring new people with new ideas – not just “new faces” to cover up the old façade. We needed to be much sharper on public relations and ideological fronts… 

It turned out that the old system and the tradition of clinging on to power by silent party elite were solidly embedded in the party culture. For that and other reasons, which are probably beyond the format of this interview, we were unable to achieve these goals, despite the fact that rank and file or the party, as well as many board members, supported these ideas wholeheartedly. At the end of the day, we failed to deliver on the promises handed out in 2016. Nothing but a few name tags changed. Some would even say, problems worsened, and the voters remained hostage to a small group whose agenda was not always consistent with publicly declared goals.  At that point, I ceased all party activities and exited the party formally in February 2020, to concentrate fully on the Chavchavadze Center (http://chavchavadzecenter.ge/en).

The Chavchavadze Center is the first civil society organization in Georgia modeled after European political foundations.  The Center is an independent and nonpartisan institution with an ambitious, long-term vision of transforming Georgia through education, spread of critical thinking and cultivating a sense of individual responsibility. Named after Ilia Chavchavadze, a lasting symbol of Georgia’s national revival, the Center aims to promote active citizenship and civic engagement, within the overall framework of democracy promotion. It is also focused on creating a more transparent and accountable political system. The Center is dedicated to promoting Western values, supporting political pluralism, protecting mainstream political agenda and fostering a more informed, rational decision-making and political discourse both by citizens as well as Georgia’s political class.

AK: What’s your view on the current political situation? Perhaps you wish to talk about the amendments to constitution, the pension reform, or other important issues? 

ZB: At the risk of being very unoriginal I have to say that the current political and economic situation in Georgia is grave. There is a prevailing sense of stagnation, which goes back to way before COVID crisis. People are fed up with crime and corruption (which are fast approaching the pre-Rose Revolution levels), nepotism, fundamental failures within the judiciary and the law enforcement system, devalued national currency, which makes an average Georgian poorer than yesterday, parallel/informal structures of power subordinate to the Ivanishvili family, inability or unwillingness of government agencies to act (unless special interests are involved)… 

But this is just one side of the problem. Another side is that the opposition has largely discredited itself as an alternative and is thus unable to capitalize on people’s fatigue with the government. A recent opinion poll commissioned by an opposition Formula TV and conducted by Edison Research show that all political parties in Georgia have at least 2 to 1 negative approval ratings!  This means that Georgians are tired of this political class, who is seen as detached from public and acting in self-interest. Against this background, the ruling party feels like they can get away with anything, and routinely manages to do just that. 

You mentioned “pension reform”.  In reality, that “reform” is nothing but a not-so-veiled 4% tax hike - in essence, “free money” given by citizens to the government, money which is spent on maintaining the artificially swollen bureaucracy staffed mostly by GD members and activists. The irony is that 8 years ago, GD came to power promising free money and interest-free mortgages to Georgian citizens. Now, the government is extracting free money from citizens for its own good, promising to return the money at some point in the future. Even if that were the case, by then GEL will have devalued so much that any gain would be nullified. Worse yet, sad history of modern Georgia leads us to assume that by the time this money has to be repaid, it will have been wasted and there will be other people in the seats of power, saying they are not at fault. 

COVID-19 crisis has acted as a perfect excuse for the government to blame all economic problems wholesale on the pandemic.

AK: Georgia never has been an especially prosperous country, but now after pandemics its main sources of income, like the tourism, have dried up even more. We all hope this situation will improve soon, but in a long-term perspective do you see any alternative routes for country's economic development, which would make it less dependent on external factors?

ZB: Hope is indeed a good thing, Alex, but only when grounded on something specific and not dependent on divine intervention… Ideally, a hope should be based on the present work, on the foundations we lay today for future success. In Georgia’s case, COVID-19 crisis has acted as a perfect excuse for the government to blame all economic problems wholesale on the pandemic. While the catastrophic effect of the pandemic cannot be belittled (especially on the tourism sector), most of our economic woes originate from before the COVID era. Sharp drop in FDI and massive job losses began way before the pandemic. And while the pandemic will eventually go away, the reasons behind the economic slowdown will remain, for all of these factors are still very much in place:

One-party rule, when a single party and the oligarch’s family control everything in the country makes it less likely that a reputable investor will seriously consider Georgia as a destination. News about fundamental flaws with the rule of law and the judiciary have reached US Congress, who now speak in defense of US businesses abused by GD government (and I don’t mean Frontera). Government policies have often resulted in making it more difficult to do business in Georgia, e.g., the so-called “visa reform” proudly authored by the Minister of Justice – a “reform” which has now been almost entirely reversed, but which caused significant damage to the economy. I would also recall the prohibition to sell agricultural land to foreigners, despite two rulings by the Constitutional Court that such ban was illegal. This ban is even more bewildering, considering that GD has declared agriculture as its priority. 

Deliberate attempts to stifle major infrastructure projects have now been decried on an international scale. Anaklia deep seaport would have already received ships, if not for GD intervention. Construction of the Kutaisi Airport (the main gateway to the West for middle and low-income Georgians) during UNM rule was deemed as “embezzlement of funds” by a special government commission formed by GD. The railway connection to Turkey has been delayed, while Tbilisi by-pass railway and the famous “jugs” in Tbilisi’s Rike park – both of which are 80% completed – remain decaying due to Ivanishvili’s policy of undoing the legacy of his predecessor. 

Latest changes to Communications Law have been exposed to have been directed specifically against “Caucasus Online”, which wants to connect Central Asia with Europe through optical infrastructure it owns – a project opposed by Russia. 

Under these conditions, hoping that things will get better is naïve at best. The economy will not pick up until there is a major political shift in the country, for which, in turn, there is popular demand but little, if any supply by way of a decayed political class. 

AK: Foreign observers are used to praise Georgia’s anti-corruption efforts as one of its brightest achievements and success stories. However, the Prime Minister has recently admitted that the corruption still remains a problem. And according to the report of a Transparency International, “most of the country’s key institutions do not perform effectively their role in terms of facilitating democratic governance and preventing corruption”. Areas most hit by corruption are the courts, law enforcers, and public services. How do you assess the situation from professional viewpoint? 

Unless you refer to a different episode, I recall that the Prime Minister in fact rejected the allegation that corruption was a problem. While addressing the Parliament, he asked: “maybe someone did something to somebody in a good-old Georgian way, but c’mon - is that really corruption?” – Yes, Mr. Prime Minister! What you described is a classical case of corruption which we are seeing increasingly in every avenue of life. Moreover, corruption is back in courts – something we did not have prior to 2012 (despite other shortcomings, all of which are still there). That corruption prevents rapid economic growth is an axiom. That the government has little, if any, political will to tackle it, is, unfortunately, also evident. 

Just when official criminal state were about to hit a negative ground, exposing the absurdity of this practice, the Ministry stopped its cynical practice and ceased publishing the stats altogether.

AK: What’s the state of violent and “white collar” crime in Georgia, and how can you characterize the government’s policies in that sphere?

ZB: Georgian Dream started its tenure in office by declaring a mass amnesty of prisoners. In an accompanying statement, then Prime Minister Ivanishvili said that crime would increase, but people should treat this fact with understanding (easy for him to say, with so many fortresses throughout Georgia). Soon thereafter, Minister of Justice opened a monument to violent criminals who had been shot by police after the Rose Revolution, when Georgia was still battling one of the highest crime rates in the world. From then on, everything has developed logically, in line with the tone/policy set as per above. Despite the evident increase in violent crimes, for years the Ministry of the Interior kept publishing altered figures showing steadily and dramatically decreasing crime rates. Just as when official criminal state were about to hit a negative ground, exposing the absurdity of this practice, the Ministry stopped its cynical practice and ceased publishing the stats altogether.

Recent pardoning of a cop-killer, a drug-dealer and a pedophile by President Zourabichvili has not been conducive to changing the perception that GD is lenient on and loyal towards crime.

Democratic backsliding is evident. Economic growth has slowed significantly. Crime and corruption are fast-approaching pre-Rose Revolution levels. 

AK: How did the situation in Georgia change during the recent years, from a legal standpoint, and from your personal standpoint?

ZB: When we talk about “recent years”, we should treat 2012 as a milestone. That year GD came to power, promising a wide range of benefits from interest-free mortgages to halving utility prices for households to 5 million dollars to every Georgian village. In 2012 Georgia needed some fundamental reforms in several areas such as the judiciary, prisons and the media. Many naïvely believed that GD would retain all that was good under UNM and would tackle the obvious problems. That would have been ideal, but in fact, the opposite happened – positive trends were reversed, and negative ones were deepened. The only exception is the situation in prisons, which improved somewhat at the expense of worsening crime rates elsewhere in the country. Plus government allowed criminal syndicates to regain control inside prisons in exchange for assistance during elections. 

Democratic backsliding is evident. Economic growth has slowed significantly. Crime and corruption are fast-approaching pre-Rose Revolution levels. More and more people are talking about the government’s ties with Russia – not just politicians but bureaucrats such as Germany’s prosecutor’s office, which has dubbed the current Georgian government as “pro-Russian” in a recent report about the targeted Russian assassination of a Georgian citizen in Berlin.

There have been 4 waves of judicial reform, but there is little left to reform: Most stakeholders agree that the system needs to be completely dismantled and built anew (sorry to those international donors who have spent so much time, money and effort on a project which was destined to fail, with Tsulukiani at the helm of the process). 

Looking at a broader picture, it seems that those who fought against UNM and who are now in power did not have a problem with the concrete abuses and wrongdoings, but were in fact striving to be in a position to commit those acts themselves, on a greater scale. 

AK: The mass media reports all kinds of problems people are facing– from street crime to air pollution, and from incompetent medical service to irregular water supply. How often does a complaint transform into legal suit? How helpful is the Judiciary? 

ZB: As I just mentioned, trust towards to judiciary is lower than before 2012. Back then, the judiciary was swift (typically, a civil case would be adjudicated within 14-16 months, including all appeals).  Corruption was nonexistent. Now, proceedings often last for years on end, and judges are susceptible to extra-judicial influences. Corruption is back. There is a consensus among diplomats, business associations and civil society members that the judiciary now is corrupt and politicized, more so than before. 

AK: You have a huge legal experience, but your clients have been mostly big-name. What about ordinary people in Georgia - do they know how to use their rights? I know a lady who has not received a single tetri from a divorced husband, who left her with a 1-year old baby. According to Western standards, she would easily get compensation in such an obvious case. But when she consulted with lawyer, he said in Georgia it was hopeless! Where lies the main problem, and what are the ways to solve it?

ZB: Well, there is a legal aide system, which was established during the previous government. Plus, there are many NGO’s which are generously funded to assist ordinary citizens. In addition, many law firms engage in pro bono work.  In fact, I was the founder of the Pro Bono initiative at the Association of Georgian Law Firms. My law firm, BGI Legal routinely engages in such work.

That said, with this question, we go to the core of the problem. No one will do the job for us. Not the existing political parties, not mass media, not this government, its courts, prosecutors or the police. It is naïve and counterproductive to expect others to do the job for us and/or to vote based on such expectation. The only way forward to is to help citizens empower themselves so that they hold politicians accountable, know their rights, fight for them and cannot be subdued by fear-mongering and other worn-out tricks. 

The Chavchavadze Center aims to do just that. 

AK: In many countries we see, with regret, the most competent and intelligent people being washed away from politics and the establishment. In the case of Georgia, I understand that you are working to improve the situation by developing the Chavchavadze Center, which aims at “nurturing a new generation of active citizens and opinion-makers”. Can you summarize how your Center is different from other organizations of such type? 

ZB: Thank you for this question. As noted at the outset, we are not a watchdog, nor a typical NGO, many of which shape their policies in accordance with current donor priorities. We are the first civil society organization in Georgia modeled after Western political foundations. We are political but not partisan (as it should be obvious). We have a clear vision of what this country needs to advance and that is an ambitious, educated and active citizen, participating in public life, contributing to decisions that affect him/her, and demanding answers from those who should be accountable to citizens. 

We believe in hands-on approach to our tasks. Our goal is not to write reports in NGO-speak which only donors will read, but to connect with people and cause change on the ground. Our goal is to spread the ideas of individual responsibility and change people’s minds in this post-Soviet part of the world, where many still view government as supplementary to their own efforts, which is ultimately a dead end. 

In a way, we would like to view ourselves as a legacy of the Society for the Spread of Literacy Amongst Georgians, which was the first and the largest Georgian NGO, set up more than 140 years ago. Since then, challenges have changed. Literacy is no longer a problem, but today the problem is media literacy, including how to identify and counter massive propaganda coming from Russian sources. 

We have several ongoing projects, including but not limited to Project Common Sense – Civil Society vs. Politics, Project Agora, Youth for Justice, all of which are aimed at advancing the goals discussed above. I know these goals sound ambitious, but we are in this game long term. As they say, every great journey starts with one step, and we have already made a couple of steps in the right direction. 

AK: Speaking about the role of civil society, one cannot help bringing the recent case of Georgian church, which had opposed quite successfully to the government’s pressure regarding adopting lockdown requirements. Do you see the church as the civil society’s strongest actor?  Are there any other features that make the Georgian version of civil society unique?

ZB: I would not view the Georgian church (rather, the Georgian patriarchate) as part of the “civil society”. I would say, they are a state within the state, with their own business interests and political agenda. While the former is often guided by mundane commercial considerations, the latter is typically in harmony with Russia’s anti-Western stance, which is a problem that persists. 

AK: Among our Journal’s partners are the Aspen Institutes, which are known for success in connecting business and civil society, so we are particularly interested in this sphere. But in Georgia there is often an impression that business community and the civil society organizations live parallel lives, and do not have many ways to interact. Since there are no tax incentives, there are few grant giving foundations. In your view, are the Georgian businesses generally supportive to strengthening the values of a civil society? What should be done to implement a modern legislation to provide better fiscal incentives to companies?

Those in the NGO sector have no idea of how the real world works, while those in business have little regard for public good and rarely have corporate social responsibility projects. That culture needs to change.

ZB: Unfortunately, your observation is accurate. Businesses and civil society organizations live in separate, parallel universes, with their paths rarely crossing each other. While promotion of tax incentives is an option, in our experience it also carries significant corruption risks and a potential of being abused, with little or no affect on real picture on the ground. 

The goal, therefore, should be to make them understand each other, seek common values and thus bring them closer. Very often it is a matter of education: those in the NGO sector have no idea of how the real world (e.g., business, economy) works, while those in business have little regard for public good and rarely have corporate social responsibility projects. That culture needs to change.

First and foremost, fundamental reforms need to affect our educational system and our judiciary. Given their current state, both will be painful, but I see no other way forward.

AK: Lastly, let’s imagine that you can implement any law or amendment in Georgia. What would be you 3 (or more) immediate priorities? And what’s your proposed agenda in general?

ZB: There are quite a few reforms that need to be implemented. Several laws adopted in recent years need to be abolished (e.g., the so-called pension reform needs to be scrapped altogether). I will not go into specific details but overall, the philosophy behind every change that we would implement would be to reduce taxes and regulations, cut bureaucracy, allocate less money for government programs and leave more money for citizens to spend. But first and foremost, fundamental reforms need to affect our educational system and our judiciary. No doubt, given their current state, both will be painful, but I see no other way forward.

AK: Thank you for this comprehensive analysis, Zaza, and I hope to see you with us again before too long! 

ZB: Thank you, Alex – and once again wish every success to Caucasian Journal! 


This article was re-published by:
- ICC Georgia republished Caucasian Journal's interview with Zaza Bibilashvili in its newsletter.

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