Georgia Does Have a Governance Problem, and it’s a Fact not an Opinion

MP Sergi Kapanadze argues shielding Bidzina Ivanishvili from criticism has become the single most important priority of the Georgian foreign policy.

By MP Sergi Kapanadze, European Georgia

“Georgia does not have a poor governance problem” argues my colleague Sophie Katsarava in Politico, but many in Georgia and beyond are skeptical. True, ruling party lawmakers are always defending the governments they represent and the opposition is always critical – so what’s special about that, one may ask. But a closer look at Georgia’s democratic trajectory shall leave anyone who wishes the country well, worried. Or very worried.

At the heart of this disturbing trend – and of the Georgian Dream government – stands Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire-turned-politician who earned his fortune in Russia and who is running his party, the Georgian Dream – and indeed the country – to his personal whim. In fact, shielding Mr. Ivanishvili from criticism, rather than pursuing ambitious goals, has become the single most important priority of the Georgian foreign policy, and for that matter – the very purpose of MP Katsarava’s op-ed.

Let’s put the facts straight: Georgia is formally a Parliamentary system in which legislature elects Prime Minister who in turn heads Government. Yet, two former Prime Ministers, quit upon Ivanishvili’s personal decision. Not only did they step down, they simply disappeared from public life, with one of them even disabling his official Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Even those, who were optimistic about Georgian Dream government, now agree that informal governance haunts Georgia. An unelected, reclusive businessman, whose fortune is twice larger than the country’s state budget, free of any accountability, is the puppet-master of the government, which he runs as he desires, thus ruining the country’s past democratic achievements and hindering its further progress.

Georgia’s most reputable CSOs – those, whom our Parliament’s speaker has come to describe as “fascists” – first voiced their concerns over informal governance already in 2014. Fast forward five years and the diagnosis is crystal clear. According to Freedom House, “informal governance remains one of the key impediments to Georgia’s democratic functioning,” and “the billionaire former prime minister and GD founder Bidzina Ivanishvili exerts informal influence on decision-making processes inside the government.” Transparency International HQ in Berlin has put it more bluntly – “state capture.”

Mr. Ivanishvili has personally driven two recent developments causing a lot of headache for Georgia and for its friends – the controversial judicial appointments and the attack on TBC bank and the Anaklia deep-sea port project.

It is Mr. Ivanishvili who is personally pushing the life-time appointment of the so called Murusidze-Chinchaladze clan to the Supreme Court of Georgia. This group – a classical organized clan – have secured Ivanishvili’s blessing for complete and unhindered control over the judiciary in return for their loyalty in sensitive cases, ranging from Rustavi 2 to jailing  of the political opponents, such as former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili (never mind that he has won an Article 18 case in the European Court of Human Rights), or when Mr. Ivanishvili and his allies want to squeeze large international businesses, as it happened in the court case of Philip Morris.

Transparency International warned in 2018 that “serious lack of judicial independence hinders forward progress across the country,” while the US State Department noted that “there remained indications of interference in judicial independence and impartiality.” These warnings come from our friends and instead of playing them down, it would be more rational to listen to them.

While there can be legitimate questions concerning the 17 million USD transaction that TBC Bank made 11 years ago, but this transaction is anything but the ‘money laundering’, the label that Prosecution wants to stick to the bank’s founders, who are also involved in the Anaklia deep sea port construction.

I wanted to ask these questions to the TBC Bank founders and the National Bank President at the economic committee hearing last Tuesday, but GD MPs, who, as media reported, consulted with Mr. Ivanishvili the night before, barred us from asking the questions, insisting it would damage the bank which they and the Prosecutor’s Office keep attacking.

Such an attack from the Prosecution is unprecedented, since the investigation is still ongoing, no charges are brought, and even a casual look into the case makes it clear that there are no questions on the origin, or the destination of funds, which is essential for advancing the money laundering charges. It is no coincidence that National Bank of Georgia has never referred to money laundering, but instead decided to focus on a more neutral “conflict of interests.”

But such audacity from the Prosecution did not come as a big surprise as the incumbent Chief Prosecutor, another of Mr. Ivanishvili’s former private lawyers, is subordinated to him – through the clan of former chief prosecutors, Mr. Partskhaladze and Mr. Shotadze – rather than any democratically accountable institution.

This subordination became quite obvious in the Khorava street murder case, which the Parliamentary commission under my chairmanship reviewed in detail. Despite the strong evidence of meddling from one of the prosecutors, no steps have been taken to implement the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commission and to bring to justice those in the prosecution system, who covered up the teenagers’ murder.

As Georgia continues to slowly but steadily backslide, only Putin wins. Just last week Sweden arrested a Russian spy. Another was arrested in Estonia not too long ago. That Georgia has not detained a single individual for covert activities in Russia’s favor is one but, alas, not the only example of how Moscow is slowly regaining its grip within Georgia.

Martin Luther King said that in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Georgia has reached the critical juncture when silence on the governance problems could be disastrous for our future. For that reason, I would encourage MP Katsarava and her friends in the Georgian Dream to speak out against these problems and not to hush them up, even if it angers the Oligarch.

MP Sophie Katsarava’s op-ed can be found here.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)