Monday 18 November 2013

The President - or just a puppet on a string?

(Extract published in The Independent)

The new Georgian premier owes his position to the state's billionaire Prime Minister

Tbilisi, 16 November 2013

When Giorgi Margvelashvili is sworn as Georgia’s new President on Sunday, he'll be stepping into the rather large and controversial shoes of the outgoing leader Mikhail Saakashvili. 

Having whipped what had been regarded as a corrupt and failing state into shape, Saakashvili used his authoritarian tenure to transform Georgia into a growing economy. The government functions, and the streets are safer.

Mr Margvelashvili, however, will inherit a downsized version of the Georgian Presidency, wielding far fewer powers than his predecessor. According to a new constitution approved last year, Margvelashvili will hold ultimate control of Georgia’s armed forces, and play an important role in its foreign policy.

But the real ruler of Georgia will be the eccentric and often irritable billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of Georgia’s ruling coalition ‘Georgian Dream’, and current Prime Minister.

It is the Prime Minister’s office that the president’s powers will be transferred to when the new constitution takes effect on Sunday, and it is he who has catapulted Margvelashvili to the presidency.

By all accounts the 44-year old Margvelashvili is a charming man. While working as an academic and philosopher he won over the Georgian Dream founder, who he considers “a good friend”. Affability appears to be his main qualification for the Presidency – with only a year’s experience in cabinet, he is a political novice.

Earlier this year he was hand-picked by Mr. Ivanishvili as the coalition’s Presidential candidate for last month’s elections. He swept to a landslide victory on the party ticket, winning 62% of the vote.

The incoming President is enthusiastic about the part his friend has played in his success. “His role… in my overwhelming victory cannot be underestimated”, he announced while hosting The Independent at the Georgian Dream party office in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.

The depth of their relationship had become clear earlier, when it took an hour with his photographer and press team to find a photo of him in action without the 57 year-old billionaire. The one that features above has had Mr. Ivanishvili cropped out.

That the President is close to the leader of parliament is not necessarily a bad thing. Things become a little bit more complicated though at the end of the month, when Mr. Ivanishvili will step down as Prime Minister and retires, in theory, from politics.

Ivanishvili’s prime ministerial venture appears to have served solely to oust Saaksashvili and his party from power, after the former President led Georgia into a kamikaze war with Russia in 2008, oversaw the arrest of opposition members who became too outspoken, and was tainted by allegations of systematic rape and torture in Georgia’s prisons.

The outgoing Prime Minister nominated 31 year-old Irakli Gabriashvili as his successor, telling reporters, without a hint of irony:

Such a nomination happened in a democratic country; none of [the] team members expressed anything else save ovations and everyone was absolutely happy. This is very important and I am also happy that I have made a correct choice."

Ivanishvili’s nominee started in government as its youngest member when he became Interior Minister in late 2012. Another political unknown, Gabriashvili had worked for the current premier since 2005 as director of his charity foundation Cartu.

The young minister immediately set about bringing charges against his predecessor in the Interior Ministry and about twenty other senior officials from the previous government.

The introduction of two inexperienced politicians into Georgia’s two foremost political posts, solely on the basis of their relationship with Mr. Ivanishivili, has caused consternation amongst many Georgian political commentators, who fear the country will soon be run by an unaccountable billionaire businessman from a luxury mansion overlooking his own private zoo.

So will Ivanishvili influence the new President’s decisions? “Of course he will”. Mr. Margvelashvili is nothing if not honest.

At times his admiration for the coalition founder verges on adulation. He explains that although Ivanishvili “has broken all paradigms”, he does not want to become “a messiah.” So instead, President Margvelashvli, Prime Minister Gabriashvili, and mysterious benefactor Ivanishvili will form a wholly untransparent trinity.

The President-Elect does little to assuage investors’ concerns about lack of official leadership and therefore stability in Georgia, which have been plaguing Georgia’s economy ever since Prime Minister Ivanishvili announced he would step down.

Who will hold the coalition together? Who will become the new leader of the Georgian Dream? With less than a fortnight to go before Mr. Ivanishvili is due to leave office, Mr. Margvelashvili elucidates: “We will observe that.”

Little wonder then, that Georgia’s economic growth rate has fallen from 7.5% to 1.3% in the year since Georgian Dream took office. Paata Sheshelidze, President of the New Economic School of Georgia, believes the climate of uncertainty extends beyond political leadership.

“They said everything that was done before, was wrong. Therefore, we should change everything. The government’s idea was to break down everything and make a brave new world.”

According to the New Economic School of Georgia, large businesses who prospered under the previous government have been targeted for investigation and their assets frozen. Shopkeepers who raised prices, contradicting the government’s pledge to keep prices down, arrested.

Unfortunately even the best intentioned Georgian Dream reforms appear to have damaged the Georgian economy. For example, all Georgian schoolchildren now get free textbooks. But these are produced under a single state contract, causing the collapse of several publishing houses that had previously sold textbooks.

The New Economic School of Georgia says that Georgian Dream's measures to protect the Georgian market – such as banning the import of foreign eggs, have in fact hurt Georgia’s poorest and most vulnerable, by pushing up the prices of staple goods.

The discussion with President-Elect Margvelashvili takes place in the heart of old Tbilisi, a charming riddle of cobbled roads, intricate wooden terraces and ancient stone masonry. The Georgian Dream offices are right opposite the house of the Georgian Patriarch, the head of the country’s incredibly powerful Orthodox Church.

When it comes to religion, there is yet more confusion in store for Margvelashvili as he tries to navigate the inevitable clash between centuries old tradition and the modern European values Georgia aspires to. Georgian Dream enjoy strong support from the Orthodox Church – despite the fact that the President-Elect lives with a partner he is not married to.

Strong homophobic sentiment in the church boiled over into horrific scenes of violence in May this year, as thousands of church members, led by Orthodox priests, brushed past a police cordon with ease and assaulted a small group of people with rocks and fists as they protested against homophobia.

While the President-Elect is clear about violence being unacceptable (unless conducted by the state in a measured fashion) he is far less clear about his government’s obligation to tackle hate speech and discrimination.

“Hate speech is unacceptable – but Christianity existed for the last 20 centuries and… they also have the right of free expression.”

Does that mean they have the right to hate speech? Margvelashvili appears visibly torn as he wrestles with the concept.

“As I told you hate speech is unacceptable, but you cannot prohibit your own… if we go in depth hate speech is essentially non-Christian so… but there is Christianity there is Christian morale, and people that believe in that morale should have the right to express their own thoughts as well.” 

Probably the President's greatest challenge will be dealing with one Vladimir Putin. Russia’s recent reaction to the prospect of European integration for Ukraine, Armenia and Moldova has been aggression and coercion - bullying with gas prices and trade barriers, then cajoling with loan offers, discounts and admission to its own free trade area.  

Georgian Dream have decided that Georgia will no longer antagonise its enormous northern neighbour, and will try to rebuild relations with them. However, their strategy for balanced relations with Russia and the EU is widely criticised as na├»ve. 

“[We aim] to describe to our international partners and to show Russians that by violating Georgia’s national interests there is no whatsoever benefit for Russia, but the opposite. We will try to show neither NATO nor European membership is a threat to Russia, Georgia [will] prosper as part of the European family, national stability for Georgia will create better opportunities for economic and political development for Russia”. 

The future President's response to how Georgia would react to Russian hostility towards European integration, and how Georgia would choose if forced to between NATO and Russia? 

“I’m not in a position to discuss the specifics. You are interviewing a President, not a Foreign Minister.” 

It is not just political commentators then, who are struggling to grasp how Georgia’s new triumvirate will function. So too is at least one of its members. 

Mr. Margvelashvili’s brave new world starts on 17 November.