Controversy: Christina Pushaw on the Elections

Exclusive Interview

Is she, as her critics claim, a lobbyist for ex-President Saakashvili? What’s her main motivation when it comes to Georgia? Why does she consider Zurabishvili the “biggest threat for Georgia since Putin”? Does she see Saakashvili returning and if so, what would that spell for the current government? Political consultant Christina Pushaw sat down with GEORGIA TODAY to share her insights on the elections.

It’s fair to say that your visit got quite a public reaction. So, why are you here?

I was surprised by the amount of attention my visit got, especially on social media. I’ve been in Georgia many, many times before and I actually lived here for two years. I came here to mark the establishment of the western platform initiative: it’s a platform that unites 16 NGOs that support Georgia’s western development and its democratic path.

You don’t hide your alignment with the previous government. Tell us about it.

It’s not formal. I’m not paid by anybody. I happen to share the vision of [ex-]President Saakashvili when it comes to Georgia’s democratic, western development. I think what he did is unprecedented in the whole post-Soviet space. But the platform isn’t connected to his party, if that’s what you’re asking.

You once said he was the Bolivar of Eastern Europe.

The reason I compared him to Simon Bolivar is because he has been politically active in two countries. I don't think you can compare anyone else among the Eastern European politicians of today to Saakashvili in this way, simply because he has deep connections with Ukraine, far beyond political: even his educational background, his compulsory military service and then his work in Georgia. What he did has even been recommended by our Congress in the Helsinki Commission as a model for reforms in Ukraine.

You can hardly say that Saakashvili’s Ukrainian adventure was successful.

That's your opinion, and it depends how you measure success. Of course, he wasn't successful in winning office, but there was already a lot of popular discontent and he acted as a lightning rod to consolidate this discontent; to give a voice to many people who were angry with the government, angry with the corruption in Ukraine. They didn't feel they had a person who was willing and ready to speak out and risk everything, risk prison, deportation, intimidation, everything, risk his reputation on the world stage but Saakashvili did it. It's not just about political ambitions or about holding office, it's about starting a movement.

Do you consider yourself a lobbyist of Saakashvili?

No. I'm very open about my support for him, not unlike many of the lobbyists who did not register with FARA and tried to conceal their affiliations and their payments; I am not getting paid and I'm not concealing who I support.

Is being paid a decisive factor?

No, and I know people who were lobbying for the current government without getting paid, though still registered with FARA as lobbyists, but the reason I’m a little bit different and not technically considered a lobbyist under this law is because I'm not working for anyone who's running for office in Georgia or who is holding office in Georgia or any foreign country.

What’s your take on the elections?

I support Vashadze based on the fact that I've talked to him. He's given me three specific points that I completely agree with in his platform, mostly with regards to foreign policy and relations with the West, because that is my primary concern when it comes to Georgia, being a foreigner myself: he is strongly supportive of Georgia's closer bilateral ties with the United States, particularly in the strategic military area. He generally supports Georgia's pro-western path, if we can call it that, the path towards closer ties with NATO and Europe, and this is something that I have always supported as it's in my country's interests as well. But like many people in this country, I'm more against Salome than I'm for anyone because I think Salome is one of the biggest threats to this country since Putin.

Why do you think that?

Because, although the President's Office by your constitution has pretty limited power, the President is still an important public face of Georgia in the rest of the world, so if you have somebody who is repeating the Russian state TVs official narrative about the conflict in Georgia in 2008, when you know Russian interests already pushed this narrative, Georgia must push its own side of the story because it was already being drowned out by the Russian lobby. If you have a Georgian agreeing with this, it is dangerous for your country's public standing in the world. You have court cases in international courts about this conflict and they will use her words against your country and against everyone in this country. Vashadze supports exactly the opposite and foreign policy than her and this is one big reason I'm on his side.

Vashadze’s opponents bring up controversies about his relations with Russia, that he was educated in Russia, he was a Russian citizen and maintained close relations even after the 2008 war.

I don't believe in this guilt by association, that because you went to university in Russia you must be a Russian agent, because that would eliminate most of the political class in the world. I don't like to speculate about the past when I know what their positions are today. In my understanding, Vashadze does not hate Russia or Russian people, he defends his country's own interests and he thought to defend Georgia's interests in part through cultural cooperation [NOTE: he wrote to the Kremlin one month after the August 2008 War to set up a Georgian concert].

Georgians who enjoy legendary status in Russia, for example singer Vakhtang Kikabidze, are still refusing to hold concerts in Russia. Patriotically disposed people applaud this, rejecting the concept of fostering cultural ties and people-to-people relations.

You need to look at what the Vashadze policy actually was and not speculate about what he wanted to do with Russia. After the war, when he was Foreign Minister, he formed and constantly pushed this pioneering anti-occupation policy, he visited Assad to ensure that Assad would not recognize the Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as separate countries. He was the one who was knocking on every door around the world to ensure that these occupations were not recognized.

Are you putting the blame at this government’s door for Assad’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

No, I blame Assad. But I do credit Vashadze for ensuring that even some of the most pro-Russian abhorrent leaders in the world would not cross this line.

Is that to Vashadze’s credit or to the credit of the circumstances? What leverage could Vashadze have had against Assad? What government in Georgia would have been able to prevent it?

My point was that I don't think it's fair to imply that Vashadze can be working in Russian interests when this was his legacy as Foreign Minister: constantly raising awareness, drawing international attention to the occupations and pushing for them not to be recognized.

His opponents say that if he were President, it would pave the way for Saakasvhili’s return.

That’s an oversimplification, but his ultimate mission, like Saakashvili’s, is to make Georgia independent from Russia to the extent possible, to bring it closer to NATO and to strengthen bilateral ties with the US. Saakashvili has always championed the same causes and so I think bringing Saakashvili back is not an end in itself: the end is Georgia's path to the West.

Do you see Saakashvili returning?

Yes. Nothing is inevitable, but I know how much he wants to return, and I know how much many people in this country want a change, and I do think after six years you learn who the really loyal people are, and I think he’s learned who he can trust and what mistakes he made. He has paid the price and had plenty of time to reflect. If he did come back, as I'm confident he will, then he would likely help usher in a new era for Georgia. His focus is to help Georgia because right now he sees Georgia is in a bad situation. I think many Georgians also see it's in a bad situation, particularly because of [Zurabishvili]. She's not the main reason, but her rhetoric is the catalyst for a lot of popular discontent.

We spoke of mistakes, and Saakashvili has been doing lots of “mea culpas” lately. Is it too little, too late?

That's for Georgian people to decide. In terms of my interest in Georgia, I see he has always been on the right path and I don't think he's wavered at all from his pro-Western course, seeking closer ties with any US administration. Any politician can make mistakes, any leader who has accomplished as much as he did must have made mistakes. Humility is good and necessary for any politician to stay relevant.

Is he ready to forgive if he comes back? Would he go on a revenge spree?

I don't speak for him, but I can tell you what Vashadze told me when I met with him on this trip, which is that Saakashvili is not interested in revenge, just the opposite: he is interested in moving forward as a country. Being focused on revenge means moving backward, and I think that was a mistake Georgian Dream made when they came to power in the first few years: focusing too much on punishing the previous ruling party and not delivering on the promises they made to the Georgian people.

I believe Misha is angry, but I don’t believe he's coming back for revenge: I believe he's coming back to prove that he can still contribute to the future of this country. I think his motivation is to prove wrong all the people who have smeared his name and reputation and to prove he will leave a good legacy in Georgia and will be remembered fondly by his own people and by the world; this is his motivation and this is a certain type of revenge which is the best revenge: living well, doing the right thing.

He claims Ivanishvili is a Kremlin-controlled oligarch who manipulated the elections. Would that not mean he’d expect there to be some kind of legal responsibility for Ivanishvili to face?

If it's proven that Ivanishvili was working as a foreign agent for Russia, then yes, but I don't know enough about how he came to power to say. I heard this recording with Naryshkin, and find the Georgian side making this negotiation really suspicious. Russia is still at war with Georgia, so what possible reason would there be for such a conversation regarding Georgian domestic politics? But I’m not personally going to say that Ivanishvili should be in jail or that he should be exiled; I don't think anyone can say that and I don't think Misha is going to be in an official position to put anyone in jail because he's not the government- I mean, he would return as a private citizen but, again, I'm not speaking for him directly; this is my analysis of the situation and I do think more investigation is needed into this conversation and into possible collaboration between the Russian government and Georgian Dream, because the Russian side has also talked about their role in the Georgian elections.

You think Saakashvili would return as a private citizen with no political aspirations?

I'm not saying “no political:” he's always going to be associated with politics and he's always going to be a political animal. This is what he was born to do, but he would not be in the government. I know he's interested in the well-being of Georgia, has many ideas for Georgia and would want to promote those ideas and the interests of Georgia. He would find ways to make those visions for this country a reality regardless of whether he was in the government or not, but I can't speak to his specific political ambitions because I'm not him.

What would the Western reaction be if Saakashvili came back?

It's actually impossible to speak of a “general West” because there are so many disagreements in the West internally, so let me speak from the American perspective. I think the American officials are being very careful not to take any particular sides at such a sensitive time in Georgia's history before the election; but they cannot support Zurabishvili. I think it will set off red flags if she wins, not only because it seems quite unlikely that she could win a free and fair election given the polling numbers right now but also because she has said things that are counter to our interests in this part of the world. So, to the extent that we are between a party which has nominated a candidate that speaks against our interests and somebody who has consistently supported our interests, it's clear who they would support. The narrative is not so cohesive when it comes to Georgia; people don't really know that much about Georgia or focus on the interests which people in the State Department, Pentagon, White House etc have always shared, and not only in the Trump administration but in the previous administrations too. Georgia is a crucial ally in a complicated and difficult part of the world: you have Russia, you have Iran, you have Turkey, with whom we don’t have the best relations right now- and this is making Georgia even more important to us. So, I would say the American Republican Party, Democratic Party they're not talking about Georgia and pushing a narrative on Georgia because we have other things to focus on, but decision-makers in all branches of government, regardless of their political affiliations, do agree Georgia is an important ally of America.

By Vazha Tavberidze

15 November 2018 17:02