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A French President for Georgia?

Interview with Renata Skardžiūtė-Kereselidze

INTERVIEW - 21 November 2018

Edit: Salome Zurabishvili has been elected as President of Georgia on November 28.

On November 28, Georgia will go to the polls for the second round of the presidential election. The country will have to choose between a French-born presidential candidate, Salome Zurabishvili, and a candidate backed by the opposition parties, Grigol Vashadze. What is to be expected from it? In which context does this election take place and what could be the implications for Georgia in the region? Renata Skardžiūtė-Kereselidze, Deputy Director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, gives us her analysis of this election and of the country’s current situation.

After the first round of the presidential election in Georgia, can you explain us what are the next steps of this election? Does that election highlight a change in the Georgian political landscape? 

On November 28, Georgian citizens will vote in the second round of the presidential election. This will be the last time that the Head of State will be elected through direct ballot. According to the new Constitution, which will enter into force following the presidential election, the next President will be elected by the 300-member Electoral College, for a five-year term. 

Georgia’s Constitution has been changed twice in the last decade, in 2012 and 2018, each change strengthening the roles of Parliament and of the government, and diminishing the President’s executive powers. Hence, the new position will be more representational. However, although this election might not redistribute political powers, it has become a testing ground before the next parliamentary elections, which will take place in 2020.

The ruling party – Georgian Dream coalition (GD) – has been in power for six years, and is facing public dissatisfaction over the pace of reforms, incomplete independence of the judiciary, and economic situation of the country. According to UNICEF’s Welfare Monitoring Survey, poverty rates in Georgia have increased, and the remaining challenges include the lack of strong and inclusive economic growth, unemployment, and increased consumer prices. The results of the first round of the presidential election have already indicated some challenges for the GD to maintain the public support it once enjoyed.

The second round of the election will see the GD government crossing swords with the now-united opposition.

For the presidential election, GD did not bring forward their own candidate, but endorsed an independent MP Salome Zurabishvili, a French-born former Minister of Foreign Affairs. She was raised in France after her grandparents fled Georgia’s Soviet occupation in 1921. Having worked for many years in the French diplomatic corps, Zurabishvili returned to Georgia in 2004 when then president Mikheil Saakashvili invited her to lead the Foreign Ministry of Georgia. 

Zurabishvili sparked controversy by making statements seeming to accuse Georgia’s previous government of starting the 2008 war with Russia. In addition, her anticlerical statements have triggered public criticism and disapproval from the powerful clergy. It cost her votes in the first round of the presidential election, which Zurabishvili has won with a thin margin against Grigol Vashadze, of the United National Movement.

The second round of the election will see the GD government crossing swords with the now-united opposition. Vashadze won in all the big cities in Georgia and got the foreign vote, including that of the Georgians who voted in France. His success exceeded expectations, and provided a strong base to challenge Zurabishvili. The GD’s leader, former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, announced electoral mobilisation to support Zurabishvili, increasing her chances of winning over GD’s base. But her close association with the GD has harmed her reputation as an independent. At the same time, three opposition parties have come together to support Vashadze: the opposition coalition led by the United National Movement (UNM); European Georgia, a party that broke off the UNM in 2017 and has 20 seats in Parliament; and the Republican party, a former member of the GD coalition with a liberal political platform.

Do you see Georgia's accession to EU and NATO as a possible scenario for the country? 

Georgia has made significant progress in transforming from a fragile state to one that is successfully reducing petty corruption, modernising state institutions and services, and has a vibrant civil society. Signing an Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU in 2014 marked an important benchmark, providing framework for deeper integration with the EU. The EU is now Georgia’s largest trade partner and the largest source of foreign direct investment. In addition, Georgia was awarded with the Schengen Visa Free regime in 2017, allowing for easier people-to-people interaction. Georgia has been pursuing what its government dubbed as "irreversible Europeanization", a policy direction that has also been included in the new version of the Constitution. At the same time, it will require more work to advance with the internal reforms for Europeanization to be successful. The Freedom House report "Nations in Transit", set the democracy score for Georgia at 4.68, classifying it as "transitional government". According to the report, all indicators raging from election process to independent media require effort to reach the standard of the consolidated democracy.

However, despite political pledge and strong public support for Europeanization and Euro-Atlantic integration (according to this year’s public polls, 75% support EU and 65% NATO), the Copenhagen criteria also includes a stipulation that "the Union's capacity to absorb new members, […], is also an important consideration". At the moment, the EU is rocked by internal challenges, such as migration crisis, rising populism and Euroscepticism from inside of the EU. While Georgia, and other Associated countries, would welcome European perspective from the EU, the accession talks are not yet on the table.

Georgia will require more work to advance with the internal reforms for Europeanization to be successful.

Similarly, while Georgia does not have a Membership Action Plan (MAP), the country’s integration with NATO has already advanced through different kinds of practical cooperation, such as Georgia’s participation in NATO-led operations, or programs to strengthen Georgia’s defence capabilities. Experts generally agree on the fact that a Georgian NATO membership is mainly a question of political will. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has stated that Georgia has all practical tools necessary for the membership. Yet while the 2008 Bucharest summit explicitly stated that one day Georgia will become a NATO member, the MAP was for now replaced by other instruments, such as Substantial NATO-Georgia Package, launched at the 2014 Wales summit in to strengthen Georgia’s ability to defend itself and "advance its preparations for membership".

On the international scene, what is the current geopolitical situation in the country? What happened since 2008 and Nicolas Sarkozy’s involvement in the crisis?

Georgia has found itself in the midst of a changing international environment. Since the launch of its Belt and Road initiative, China has appeared as a new player, offering investments, loans, and opening new markets for Georgian producers, but also a potential to change the economic development dynamics in the region. Meanwhile, the autocratic tendencies in Georgia’s neighbouring states Turkey and Azerbaijan have raised a dilemma for Georgia: to what extent can its European-Atlantic aspirations withstand political pressure from its largest investors and strategic regional partners. In 2017, an Azeri journalist Afghan Mukhtarli was abducted in Tbilisi and reappeared in custody in Azerbaijan – the event was widely criticized by the international community and damaged Georgia’s reputation as a safe space for human rights defenders from South Caucasus. Similarly, on several occasions, the Turkish government requested to close Turkish education institutions in Georgia, due to alleged links with Fethullah Gulen network.

For one, growing economic cooperation might once again lead to economic dependency on Russia.

In addition, Georgia’s relations with Russia have undergone significant changes in the last decade. To date, Russia dominates Georgia’s foreign policy in terms of security, especially due to its coercive capacity and active disinformation campaign. The 2008 war, and the subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, diminished Russia’s political leverage over Georgia, while economic and trade embargo reduced the economic dependency.

The less confrontational, pragmatic approach adopted by the GD government since 2012 led to reopening the Russian market for Georgian products and re-establishing transport ties. However, it bears certain risks. For one, growing economic cooperation might once again lead to economic dependency on Russia, which has a strong record of using it for political purposes. In addition, the Six-Point Agreement facilitated by Nicolas Sarkozy has not been enforced to date, yet the unintended result of the so-called pragmatic GD’s approach was that the issue of Georgia’s conflicts has been fading from political agendas, both at home and internationally. 

The EU did not succeed in persuading Moscow that the Eastern Partnership is not an anti-Russian project. However, since Russian interference in the elections in France, Germany, the US, and Brexit vote, the European partners have begun to understand the challenge that Russia is posing to its neighbouring countries like Georgia.

 

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