Former US Ambassador to Georgia William Courtney says the arrest of Nika Melia goes beyond the legal framework and is a political issue that could have dire consequences for the country. Courtney also believes that the return of Irakli Gharibashvili as Prime Minister is an indicator of the weakness of the Georgian Dream and the continuing influence of Bidzina Ivanishvili. The former ambassador has an initiative for Georgia to end the crisis. Ia Meurmishvili, a journalist for VOA’s William Courtney, spoke.
Mr. Bill, thank you so much for the interview. How do you assess the recent developments in Georgia in general?
It seems that polarization continues. What is happening in Georgia worries us a lot in the West.
What exactly causes this concern in you?
This has been going on for some time. Gharibashvili was first appointed Prime Minister in 2013. His greatest merit then was Ivanishvili’s personal assistance. We then saw that several more prime ministers had been replaced. Kvirikashvili had a kind of trust. But suddenly it also went away. Then there were demonstrations related to Gavrilov’s visit, the use of force against them, not holding the Ministry of Internal Affairs accountable. Last year’s election was flawed, which has been the subject of criticism from the international community. This year, the opposition refuses to enter parliament. And now the decision to arrest opposition leader Melia. All this is a sign that instead of the situation calming down, it is getting worse. Both the United States and the European Union are calling for political de-escalation. Some kind of dialogue must take place in order for de-escalation to take place.
You were the US Ambassador to Georgia in the 1990s. There were estimates today that Georgia is going backwards and going back to a period similar to that tense period. Do you see similarities?
Yes I see. One parallel is that after Gamsakhurdia’s time, Georgian politics remained under the influence of political messiahs. First there was Gamsakhurdia, then Shevardnadze, then Saakashvili and then Ivanishvili. This hindered the development of political parties according to their areas of interest and not according to their personalities. The example of the United States clearly shows how harmful personal political parties can be. In Georgia, parties have not been able to develop according to political interests.
What solution do you see? You mentioned dialogue, but dialogue between whom? Who is responsible for bringing the country out of this mess?
Georgians must do it themselves. The West can find help. The US and EU ambassadors are trying to help, but this is something Georgians need to do. In my opinion, the return of Gharibashvili as Prime Minister means that the more reputable leaders in the Georgian Dream are less willing to follow Ivanishvili’s orders. Gharibashvili’s return is a manifestation of the weakness of the “Georgian Dream”. This means that there is a crisis in the party.
But there is also a crisis on the other side. Saakashvili is trying to maintain his influence over the opposition, which greatly hurts the opposition and Georgian politics in general. Dialogue must take place between the Georgians themselves. He may find, so to speak, a “group of wise men” who will come to a decision acceptable to all. The West can not make these decisions, it must be made by Georgia’s political leaders.
The country’s political spectrum is at a standstill. Neither the government nor the opposition is making concessions. How can you get out of this frozen situation? You say they should be able to negotiate. But the situation is such that the parties seem to speak different languages, especially after the recent events.
It’s hard to say. But there may be Georgians who are beyond the political spectrum. One can find such people who will sit down and reach a bipartisan solution that will be acceptable to all parties. This has happened in American history. These people gathered, discussed and then wrote a declaration of independence. They were not all political ideologues. Georgia has many extraordinary people, many of them apolitical. The West can only help them.
Now that the new administration in the United States has taken office, what impact do you think these developments could have on US-Georgia relations?
The most positive aspect on which Georgia can maintain its support for the West is democratic development. It is very important that this development continues. If it is stopped, or derailed in any way, support for Georgia may be reduced, or it may be removed from the strategic context. Domestic policies are so tightly divided that it is necessary to somehow improve this situation in order for development to continue.
What do you think about the decision to arrest Melia?
Melia’s arrest could have so many political subtexts that it could not be a mere legal issue. Continued attempts by the Georgian government to arrest him will exacerbate the situation. The West will be dissatisfied with the Georgian government because of this. Melia’s arrest, the quality of the elections, the return of people like Gharibashvili as prime minister – who probably learned a lot but did not have a successful prime minister for the first time – are all political elements. That is why it is necessary to find the political process and lead it by people who have confidence in the society.
Mr Ivanishvili said he had left politics. Do you think he remains an influential factor in Georgian politics?
The nomination of Gharibashvili as Prime Minister is a sign that Ivanishvili is still in power. This is detrimental to Georgian politics. It is as harmful as Saakashvili staying in the process. Political parties should develop on the basis of political interests and not around the people who control everything.