Interview: Ex-UK Envoy Hall Hall on Recent Events in Georgia

Georgia has seen endless mass protests since June 2019. Ahead of crucial parliamentary polls of October 2020, the country experiences increasing political polarization, fueled by former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava’s recent verdict, that triggered collapse of electoral reform talks between ruling Georgian Dream and the opposition representatives. Recent polls suggest mood is somber in Georgia, trust towards national institutions are eroding and the public remains concerned with economic and social issues, that often get ignored by Georgia’s political elite.

Voice of America Georgian’s Ia Meurmishvili spoke to Alexandra Hall Hall, penultimate British Ambassador in Tbilisi (2013-2016) to discuss recent events unfolding in Georgia. Ambassador Hall Hall, now based in Washington DC, served as the UK’s lead envoy for Brexit in the U.S. capital until recently. She resigned in December 2019, citing her government’s “use of misleading or disingenuous arguments” about Brexit as the reason behind her decision.

Ia Meurmishvili: Ambassador Hall Hall, thank you very much for being with us today.  What do you think is happening in Georgia? How do you see the events unfolding in the recent weeks and months from here?

Alexandra Hall Hall: Well, first of all, thank you very much for inviting me on the show. I do want to make absolutely clear that I no longer work for the British government. So, anything I say in this interview is my personal view, out of my great affection for Georgia. I think what we’re seeing in Georgia is very worrying. What I suspect we may be seeing is a repeat of the mistakes of previous governments where the desire to stay in power becomes the overriding imperative of the government of the day, rather than addressing the concerns of ordinary voters.

Opinion polls regularly suggest that what voters are concerned about are economic issues — pocketbook issues, poverty, unemployment — and yet we have the political class in Georgia engaged in a very intensive fight.  And the government, I very much regret to say, is looking as if they’re using the institutions of the state to advantage themselves.

What do you make of it? We see this not only in Georgia, but also in other similar new democracies. Events unfold in cycles – governments come to power as the choice of the people, and then something happens. What causes that?

Well, I do not want to be too harsh on Georgia.  Georgia is a young democracy.  Next year, it will celebrate 30 years of independence. I think the overall trajectory that Georgia has been on has been really impressive and is still a beacon for the region. Successive governments have tried to tackle corruption very successfully, on the whole. They have liberalized their economy.  They’re trying to tackle the education system and they are slowly building the institutions of the state. In Georgia, though, by no means perfect, there has been a relatively free media and space for NGOs to operate as well. But that has not been without bumps along the road.

Democracy is a very tough institution. Of course, every government wants to stay in power. But, the core values of a democracy are checks and balances. The opposition serves a purpose.  It is legitimate to hold the government to account. It’s legitimate to question its policies. Civil society has an absolutely essential role to play, and it’s a patriotic thing to test your government and challenge it.  What I see is very disturbing and has been a pattern across the former Soviet Union. It’s something we actually see in Russia itself — trying to constrain that space for NGO or opposition activists who challenge the government and somehow implying that it is not loyal or patriotic, that you are somehow an enemy of the state if you dare to criticize the government.

You pointed out exactly the rights issue that Georgia is having currently. The attitudes from the opposition to the government, from the government towards the opposition, the NGOs, including foreign funded NGOs, American NGOs, civil society in general is rather harsh.  For instance, one of the high officials called NGOs fascists or another very high official threatened to destroy one of the opposition parties. How can that be fixed?

That kind of language is, of course, unacceptable.  And that kind of behavior has no place in a democratic society.  It is legitimate for a plurality of voices to be heard in the democratic space, because that’s the essence of democracy, and freedom of expression is the essence of democracy.

No government likes being criticized, and it’s the fate of the government of the day in every country around the world to be the focus of criticisms and questioning of their policies. That’s the unfortunate reality of democracy. But without that debate, you don’t get policies tested and the right policies implemented.

I think the way out for Georgia here and for the Georgian political leadership is to really make sure they’re focusing on the issues their citizens care about and not bickering with each other and spending their time trying to use the levers of state to stay in power.

That is fundamentally incompatible with democracy.  The opinion polls seem to suggest that there is a steady erosion of trust in Georgia’s democratic institutions as well.  The church and the army remains very well regarded, but the judiciary’s and parliament members’ trajectory is downhill.

The government claims that the former officials – in this particular case, former mayor of Tbilisi Gigi Ugulava – embezzled millions from the budget. The court convicted him on this charge. Now the Supreme Court again sentenced him for very similar allegations. The government says that if a crime is committed, it  does not matter who you are, you go to prison. What do you think about the government’s argument that Georgia is a rule of law society and certain people are prosecuted because they committed a crime, not because they are opposition leaders.

Of course, nobody is above the rule of law and crimes should be investigated. I think the issue is selective justice – who is being investigated under what circumstances, in which context and [whether] all the processes around that investigation [are] clear and transparent. What I see is that a number of questions and concerns have been raised about the most recent sentencing of Gigi Ugulava. First of all, this is over issues that have been investigated before for which he’s previously served jail time. Secondly,  I believe there are questions about the members of the Supreme Court who passed that sentence and their particular role in the history of the case. Thirdly, the act that, as I understand it, he himself was not able to be present in court and there was not an open hearing for the arguments to be tested in court.  So, there are a number of issues around the process.  And then, there are also questions about the timing, because it is very clear the government is under some pressure over its inability to get the reform to introduce proportional election system for 2020. There is evidence that there is quite a lot of popular disquiet about that and the opposition is testing them on that. There has been a political dialogue to try and find a way through. The arrest of Ugulava has resulted in the suspension of that dialogue. Ironically, I think it’s very counterproductive. What it also seems to have done is [that it] united the opposition, who is very fractured. So, not only does it look politically unwise, but I would argue it’s a bit counterproductive as well if the government’s motives are to silence the opposition.

You said no one is above the law and that’s how it should be in a democratic society. But, do you think it’s necessary to do it in the election year?

Well, I genuinely think, people who have committed crimes should be investigated and you should not calculate on timing it’s an election year or not. I don’t buy the argument that you can’t investigate someone because it’s an election year. All judicial decisions should be free of any political calculations whatsoever. So, perhaps sometimes you are investigating someone in an election year, perhaps sometimes you are making controversial arrest, but it has to be based on the merits of the case. And what seems to be the reaction to this particular decision is serious questioning about the context and the timing of this particular decision. This isn’t just me saying. There’s been a chorus of reactions both locally and internationally. We have had Senators and Members of Congress question it, we have had European officials questioning it, and, we have had some very respectable people from within Georgia questioning this as well.

You live in Washington now – what do you think about the perception of Georgia here in Washington DC? What do people think of my Georgia right now?

Georgia is very lucky. There is such a depth of warmth, and affection, and admiration for Georgia in Washington. It is bipartisan and it has been sustained over many years. There is genuine admiration for the fact that Georgia has achieved so much despite 20 percent of its land being occupied by Russia and the constant tests and pressure it has had from that dimension.  That is still there. There is a legacy and a residue of goodwill towards Georgia. But what I’ve really noticed in the last year is a rising drumbeat of anxiety about where Georgia is headed. It’s been small individual instances here and there.

Now, I think this is reaching a crescendo of concern across the political spectrum that Georgia would be really foolish to ignore. That goodwill towards Georgia cannot be taken for granted.

I noticed in the letter from two senators recently, Senator Risch and Senator Shaheen, that they refer to that goodwill towards Georgia and that desire of the U.S. to continue to support Georgia. But they do raise that question, but that requires Georgia to be a democratic partner in return.

You said that Georgia should take this support and goodwill seriously and not for granted. What do you think could happen if Georgia does not pay attention to that?

It is a very competitive world out there. There is a lot going on in the rest of the world. I would argue that Georgia has actually benefited disproportionately in terms of goodwill. It has clearly made a good effort over almost 30 years of its independence. But there are many other countries also making reforms, including in the region. There are many other demands on the time and attention of Congress and this administration.  I think if people lose faith in Georgia or feel that it is no longer committed to the path that it has been following for the last 20 years you will begin to see more skepticism creeping in, possibly less willingness to continue to offer that very solid support.

Georgia has tremendous challenges both inside and outside. Russia is occupying 20 percent of its territory, economy is not doing too well, the mood in the country is not very positive. What would you think is a way out of this situation?

It would be very easy for the government to want to dismiss the voices that are making concerns right now. I think that would be a great mistake. I know it is uncomfortable for Georgia, but these really are voices of concern coming from Georgia’s friends. The government needs to listen very carefully to those voices.  I think it needs to engage with those voices of concern. There are a steady number of Georgian officials who visit Washington and I believe the Speaker and the Foreign Minister were here last week. They are very respected and they were listened to very carefully.  But, I think it would be good if there were more direct political interaction with MPs from both sides interacting with each other. I think Georgia needs to take a good hard look at the accountability and transparency of its government. I don’t think I’m saying anything that is controversial to highlight the fact that, of course, there are some very prominent individuals in Georgia, particularly Bidzina Ivanishvili, who plays an outsized role in Georgia’s development, but who does not hold any formal elected role. That is not a sustainable position either. There is not that accountability and transparency.

The government needs to listen to the concerns of ordinary voters, spend less time worrying about what the opposition is doing and more time focusing on governing the country.

Mr. Ivanishvili, as you pointed out, plays an outsized role in Georgia and every aspect of the country’s life. I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Ivanishvili does not want the best for the country. But the way he is going about it seems like he knows better than anybody else.  What can be done about this?

It is the trap of all successful leaders eventually to assume that they are infallible and they always know better than everyone. That has happened in my country.  Margaret Thatcher, arguably, some would say stayed on in power a little bit too long and hence, the famous saying all political careers end in failure. Having the grace to know when to step down and step back is a very difficult thing for all political leaders. I am certainly not going to question Mr. Ivanishvili’s motives. I don’t know him well enough. I believe that Georgia is full of patriots who want the best for their country. But, when you come to a position where you assume the best for your country is you and your party staying in power forever, you are that you have actually lost sight of why you came to power in the first place. And, why Georgian Dream came to power in the first place was to pick up the legacy from Saakashvili, avoid the mistakes that he made and continue Georgia’s development.

What I see is that they are now in danger of making the same mistakes that were made in the final years of Saakashvili’s presidency.

Do you think this is lapse in steady progress on a democratic path on Georgia’s NATO membership? The concern is that those skeptics who hesitated supporting Georgia’s NATO membership before would now have a reason to procrastinate even further.

Of course that is right.  It would be ludicrous to give ammunition to your skeptics. A condition for NATO and EU membership is absolute adherence to democratic values when there is a perception that institutions of the state like the judiciary, are being used selectively in a politically motivated way, of course that is going to undercut commitment to those principles. I’ve always been a very honest person, so I am not going to pretend that right now the path to either EU or NATO accession is straightforward or easy or imminent. That might perhaps persuade some people in Georgia to think we can get away with this, because let us be honest, the NATO and EU path is looking quite tricky right now. But, NATO and the EU have not said no to Georgia.  That door is still open. Sure, the strategic context right now is very difficult. It is not easy for Georgia that is being required to be patient even as it makes great efforts.

But it [Georgia] cannot make any mistakes. It cannot backslide. That is the worry. If it backslides that door becomes even harder to open.

There is a view in Georgia that every time there is a letter sent from the U.S. or every time somebody criticizes the government for missteps or unfortunate decisions, there is an opinion that the U.S. is intervening in Georgia’s domestic affairs. What do you think about that view? Is it interfering?

I absolutely don’t think it’s interfering. Who is interfering is Russia – to be absolutely crystal clear which country interferes in Georgia, which country would be delighted to see Georgia slide back, takes comfort from internal division in Georgia and society and any perception that the relationship between Georgia and the West is fragmenting. There is only one country who benefits. What the U.S. is doing and countries like my own are supporting the aspirations of the Georgian people themselves that are reflected in opinion polls steadily commitment to democracy, economic development and closer affiliation to the EU and NATO.

If you were to suggest a few constructive steps both to the government and to the opposition, what would those be?

People who know me from Georgia know I always get rather personal when it comes to Georgia, and I have always been really clear in my engagement when I was in Georgia that I was never taking sides. I never was pro one faction or the other.

What I think needs to happen in Georgia – and that is a somewhat personal take – it is a psychological mindset shift, accepting that there are good people in government and there are good people in the opposition and being willing to work with each other.

When I was in Georgia, I regularly interacted with people both in the opposition and in government and then there were a whole host of people who were neither in government or in the opposition who were somewhat disillusioned with both. There was some really good people there. When I used to say to them why don’t you join the government or why don’t you listen and engage with that person from the opposition?  They reacted in a visceral way — I cannot, that person is from UNM [the United National Movement – Georgia’s ruling party between 2004-2012] or that person is Georgian Dream [current ruling party]. And yet, sometimes what they were advocating was not totally dissimilar. Stop competing for the spoils of power and start competing for the votes of Georgian voters. Stop fighting with each other and listen, get out into the countryside and listen to what the Georgian people have to say — unemployment, poverty, economic development, education, health. That is what they need to be tackling.

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