Renewed Talks of National Accord: Are Things Different Now?

Georgian politicians gathered at a New Year’s reception in Tbilisi’s Orbeliani Palace on the evening of December 16. The event, hosted by President Salome Zurabishvili, marked the formal launch of the initiative to start an all-inclusive process of the national conversation to overcome polarization, one of the key perceived obstacles to the country’s forward movement.

But it is not the first time over the past months that the country heard such calls, to say nothing about the foreign-led mediation efforts that have flopped in the recent past. Can this time be different?

The President symbolically re-introduced the idea during her address at the Democracy Summit, a signature project of US President Joe Biden’s administration. Zurabishvili pledged to initiate a process in her country “to find the way to achieve a shared understanding of recent history, to help heal the pains, and move forward.”

The one to start, the one to end it

Zurabishvili had spoken about the harm the polarization does to her country many times before. Somewhat ironically, the toxic tone of recent confrontation became dominant during the tense campaign that got her elected as a President in 2018. She ran as an independent, though openly endorsed and backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party. But having underperformed against Grigol Vashadze from the United National Movement (UNM) in the first rounds, she was literally pulled down from the election posters in favor of the Georgian Dream leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili. So-called “blood-drenched posters” vilifying the UNM leaders also went up, and have been the fixture of campaigns since.

Since then, the country went into a downward spiral, with every new crisis, every new election further splitting the society – willingly or not – into irreconcilable GD vs UNM corners. The clandestine arrival and eventual arrest of exiled ex-President and UNM founder Mikheil Saakashvili on the eve of the 2021 municipal elections marked the culmination of this escalation. But perhaps pointing at the nadir of the escalation politics, Saakashvili – finding himself at an impasse – started to voice vague proposals in support of national reconciliation.

These calls were either perceived as Saakashvili’s self-serving attempts to lift himself out of trouble, and the triumphant GD leaders have scoffed at it. But some other groups of influence embraced the concept – it even led to a public split between the Georgian Orthodox Church bishops. The worms were out of the can and new discussions followed: GD leaders, such as Irakli Kobakhidze said the closure was not possible while UNM – liable for many crimes – still yearns for power. In the opposite camp, UNM supporters wondered, how could the ruling party promise reconciliation, when what they call justice looks more like revenge.

These discussions were soon overshadowed by the drama surrounding Saakashvili’s hunger strike and mistreatment in prison, which tested the nation’s emotional limits. But when it seemed there is no longer room for peace talks, something seems to have changed.

What changed?

This time around, things should be different: the worst of the crisis appeared to be over, and it was the incumbent President, more associated with the party in power than with the opposition, who initiated the conversation. Zurabishvili may not have deep roots in Georgian politics, but as a seasoned diplomat in the French service, she is keenly aware of the international context.

The initiative for reconciliation came after the round of her foreign visit and it is no surprise that it was voiced during the US-sponsored Democracy Summit. Zurabishvili knows the regional crisis is looming and she looks committed to keeping Georgia on the good side of the west. As the Georgian political tradition demands, she even asked for the blessing from the Patriarch Ilia II of the Orthodox Church and went on to meet the individual political leaders.

“The first stage should be listening,” Zurabishvili proposed. The process, as she has it in mind, needs to be transparent and all-inclusive with the participation of diverse social and political groups, taking the time it needs to achieve a common assessment of the past to finally turn those pages. Time would show the future steps.

While seemingly unstructured, the process without preconditions came as attractive to some. Zurab Tchiaberasvhili, former Tbilisi mayor under Saakashvili administration who served prison time when GD came to power, expressed skepticism towards the genuine willingness of the ruling party to seek compromise but said participation is important, “rejecting the idea of mutual destruction and agreeing about the mode of co-existence is a step towards civic peace.” He sees the Zurabishvili-initiated process as a chance for the opposition to submit its own vision of the future to the public and says this process in no way precludes – quite the contrary – public pressure on the government from the streets to right the wrongs.

Salome Samadashvili, formerly one of UNM leaders and currently working closely with the business-friendly Lelo party, said upon exiting the meeting with President Zurabishvili that while the process will be “complex,” she feels “the president understands correctly the nature of challenges we are facing.”

Indeed, President’s statement during the reception broke ranks with the government’s self-congratulatory tone and focused on the grim social and economic situation in Georgia, with youth wanting to flee the country, and implying that burning foreign policy issues are, too, neglected. Striking the common tone with the opposition on these points, she offered to launch a slow and lengthy process of what she prefers to call “national accord” – with no strict deadlines, without any preconditions, but with some suggestions to start with.

Mikheil Saakashvili, from hospital cell, sounds supportive: he welcomed “the process of reconciliation,” as well as his party colleagues’ begrudged decision to join the process. He also thanked Giorgi Margvelashvili – Georgia’s fourth president, who was elected on GD ticket but bitterly fell out with the party – for agreeing to act as a go-between between the third (Saakashvili) and the fifth (Zurabishvili). Margvelashvili already met the President in her office and asked the penitentiary for permission to visit Saakashvili in detention.

And what’s left unchanged

Kornely Kakachia, Head of Georgian Institute of Politics, told that though welcoming Zurabishvili’s initiative as an “essential process,” he still remains skeptical: so far, he fails to see a “political goodwill” from key parties who stick to ultimatums and also questions the true ability of the President to influence the parties after even mediation efforts by European Council President Charles Michel had turned out futile this year.

Indeed, when Zurabishvili first mentioned the initiative and the issue started dominating media discussions, ruling party Chair Irakli Kobakhidze said that to achieve the reconciliation, one has to “get the UNM to change its rhetoric, attitudes, confess to its crimes, and leave politics.” UNM Chair Nika Melia, on the other hand, said that such discussions make no sense “as long as Mikheil Saakashvili remains in captivity.”

Neither of the two parties, though sympathizing with President’s initiative, changed much of their rhetoric even after President warned against setting any preconditions in advance. Yet, as both are kindly and repeatedly reminded of the new rules, including by media, are they more likely to let their guards down?

Tamar Chergolaishvili, the founding editor at Tabula media and public figure associated with the European Georgia party, says in her social media post that Zurabishvili, with her reconciliation rhetoric, does not represent the ruling force, while the more aggressive executive leaders of GD – do. “I understand very well the desire of disoriented political class to become parts of the process and thus gain relevance,” she states but argues such behavior would “sacrifice Georgia’s national interest to self-interest” by empowering GD’s patron, Bidzina Ivanishvili, further.

Who’s in

A lack of a specific plan is another concern for Kakachia, who wants to know whether President will go it alone or engage various civil society, media, academic and business circles, or other actors in the process. While sharing Zurabishvili’s spirits about the need for Georgians to take matters into their own hands to solve homegrown problems, the pundit – knowing the polarization levels of Georgian political parties – would still like to see some sort of foreign engagement at least at a later stage.

The President did promise the process would be inclusive and transparent, but without specifying what social groups would be invited. In a later statement, Zurabishvili’s administration said that at the start of the “national accord process, the President listens to everybody, holds meetings and is interested in views, initiatives, and positions of various social groups.” Representatives from the NGOs working on “issues of the victims” are also in the process, the statement added.

“The broader such engagement, the better for the outcomes,” Kakachia says, arguing that political parties realizing they are dealing with wide national participation and interest can help push the process forward.

Political elites have shown somewhat civilized behavior over the past weeks, including holding a meeting to discuss the fate of controversial constitutional amendments to define future elections. But things got far more complicated as the United National Movement announced a mass hunger strike on December 21, demanding Saakashvili’s release. Also, court proceedings in the shady money-laundering case against opposition leaders Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze near the end, with a verdict expected in January. A criminal sentence in charges seen by the opposition as politically motivated may strike the newborn process a final blow.

Till then, after years of political, economic, and public health turmoil, elites could give their people a small Christmas gift by at least pretending they are interested and committed.