Nate Schenkkan: Georgia, a Competition of Interests

Nate Schenkkan is the Project Director for ‘Nations in Transit,’ Freedom House’s annual survey of democratic governance from Central Europe to Eurasia. Considering the noise that NDI and IRI polls tend to bring out in Georgian society, the Georgian service of Voice of America decided to meet with Mr. Schenkkan to discuss the perceptions of Georgia that exist in the West.

Your latest report found that the biggest challenge to democracy in Europe is the spread of deeply illiberal politics. What is the biggest challenge for Georgian democracy?

In Georgia, I think the danger in the elections is alienation of the other sides, demonization of the other within the Georgian political system so that collaboration or constructive criticism becomes impossible. As we have seen in other parts of the region and other parts of Europe, this can create opportunities for other parties; for parties that are, in fact, illiberal, that denounce the system of democracy as a whole or question its values and question the idea of tolerance or the idea of accepting other views.

That is not the main danger in Georgia. I wouldn’t say that we’ll be seeing such illegal parties become dominant in Georgia, but they could increase their vote-share, they could become more influential. That’s something we’ll be watching closely.

What is the biggest danger, then?

In Georgia, the biggest danger might be the politicization of the judiciary system. We noted that there were positive reforms on-going in the judicial framework and in the practices of judiciary for the common man. A normal person might actually have a better interaction in the judiciary and in the penal system than they had several years ago. That was a positive improvement and we improved the score for that reason.

But in high profile cases – cases like Rustavi 2 and Mayor Ugulava’s case, you have very politicized decision-making and conflicts between different parts of the judiciary, one part of the judiciary rejecting the other part of the judiciary, in some cases the superior part of the judiciary’s reasoning. It seems hard to interpret that in any other way except that these were political judicial decisions. That’s very worrying. The biggest concern that we have is that this kind of politicized decision-making could get worse. We don’t think it necessarily will, but that’s what we would be the most afraid of.

Since Georgia became independent 25 years ago, this is the first time we have spoken about informal ruling. What implications does that have on Georgia’s western aspirations and its perception internationally?

It’s easier to speak about the perceptions, because the question of informal rule is very hard to prove by nature. It’s a very challenging one for a report and methodology that is trying to stick with what can be proven. So that degree of informal rule, the degree of informal influence from a billionaire behind the scenes, is hard to evaluate by nature.

The perception, however, is definitely damaging. The perception that Georgia’s politics can be subject to manipulation or can be subject to actors working outside the accountable system is dangerous.

We pay attention to the fact that there seems to be a quite a bit of influence from outside the system, and Ivanishvili is involved in that and we are attentive to this issue. How that gets solved is a hard question, as is what is the mechanism by which that informal influence can cease to exist.

Your report says frustration with both Georgian Dream and the United National Movement could produce gains for pro-Russian parties, despite overall support for Georgia’s long-standing policy orientation toward Europe and the US. How serious is the risk of seeing an increase of pro-Russian forces in Georgian politics?

Our understanding is that there’s no risk of them gaining so much as the former government, or becoming the leading party in the Coalition, but that they will gain enough to be in parliament and be well represented, and to be able to influence the discourse.

The general attitudes continue to be basically pro-European, but the frustration with the particular parties that hold those views could be leading people to consider voting for other parties that might not even represent them well, but out of frustration, out of protest.

Your report further states that the upcoming Parliamentary elections in 2016 will be a major test for Georgia. Will they be a test? What is at stake?

Is the system stable enough to continue very long-term difficult reforms that have been going on now for almost 10 years? Parliamentary elections are a moment when everything that has been worked on for 10 years gets put to the test by voters – do we want to move forward in the direction that we’ve been going or do we want to go in a different direction? It is a test of the process, as every election is – will ballots be counted? Will people be able to vote? In that sense it is always a test to democracy.

Unfortunately, right now, you can look at Georgia as what some political analysts call an “affectless pluralist model”. There is pluralism, there is competition between parties, but it is not necessarily a competition of ideas at all times. It is more a competition of interests and the results that it produces tend to be more rotations of who is in power rather than changes in policies or giving direction to state development.

For the full interview in Georgian, go to:

Nana Sajaia

15 April 2016 11:52