Georgia Teeters on the Edge

Being an opposition party leader in a country where the media doesn’t pay attention to the opposition is frustrating. So when Georgia’s former Foreign Minister Salomé Zourabichvili had the chance to speak at her alma mater, Columbia University, in New York, her searing criticism of the Georgian government came as no surprise. Zourabichvili’s political adversary, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, also attended Columbia, but that is where the similarities between the two end. As the leader of the political party, The Way of Georgia, Zourabichvili is fighting to stop what she believes to be the demise of the Georgian state under Saakashvili’s hand.

Zourabichvili says her efforts to bring attention to the mounting problems in Tbilisi have not been easy. “Nobody wants to hear. There is a Georgia fatigue in general,” she said. She recognizes that Georgia has lost any bargaining power it may have once had and sees a need to work from within to stabilize the country. In her talk, Zourabichvili discussed in detail many of the same issues facing Georgia that she outlined in a New York Times op-ed piece in April: Georgia’s turn toward authoritarianism, a disregard for the constitution, and the lack of legitimate state institutions (e.g., the army, the police, the entire judiciary branch).

In a conversation laden with skepticism, Zourabichvili did offer some constructive suggestions that might allow Georgia to reverse its current course.

First, private property protections. Currently there are none: The government can seize what it wants, when it wants, making it impossible for business, both foreign and domestic, to thrive. By comparison, she pointed to neighboring Azerbaijan’s role as the financial hub of the Caucasus, due to an atmosphere designed to foster business. (Azerbaijan was rated one of the top 10 reformers in the World Bank’s “Doing Business 2009”; Georgia was not even close to making the cut.)

Second, in areas such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, negotiations must proceed. But to avoid scaring separatists away from constructive talks, Zourabichvili believes Georgia should avoid “reintegration” rhetoric. Having championed efforts in the early 1990s to remove a Russian base from Georgia, Zourabichvili said, “I think anything can be negotiated.”

Lastly, development in conflict zones. In order to stabilize Georgia’s problem areas, generate business, and develop legitimate government institutions, Zourabichvili says that building up weaker areas of the country will make them less susceptible to outside influence.

The one great hope for Georgia, Zourabichvili says, is the media. She strongly believes that the Georgian people are more democratic than their leadership. If given the right tools, such as free media, they could make informed decisions on where to go from here. (By contrast, the European Journalism Center blames Georgia’s media problems on the lack of a clear opposition than on direct censorship.)

Local elections planned for May are almost certainly doomed without a media that covers both sides, Zourabichvili says. And if the elections fail, that could be the last straw for an intact Georgia. “I’m not sure that the Georgian state will survive until 2013,” she said.