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Georgian Ambassador to Step Down, Citing Unease with New Leadership
The Washington Diplomat / February 2013

By Larry Luxner

Temuri Yakobashvili’s shiny new aviator wing desk — a mini shrine to Georgian aircraft engineer Alexander Kartveli, who designed the P-47 Thunderbolt and other World War II-era bombers — is covered with aluminum patchwork and exposed steel screws that give it a uniquely retro feel.

Too bad the blunt, cigar-smoking diplomat will have to leave his beloved desk behind.

Effective March 1, Yakobashvili steps down as Georgia’s ambassador to the United States. The gregarious diplomat is quitting not because he wants to — but because he feels he can no longer do his job in Washington, in the wake of political confusion back home.

“America is our biggest and strongest partner, and for a country like Georgia, this is the most important diplomatic post you can imagine,” Yakobashvili, 45, told us in a recent interview. “And because it’s such a high-profile post, it requires that whoever represents the country should have direct links with the top leadership. All my predecessors had that, and that was the case with me as well. But now it’s different.”

What’s different is the country’s new prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

In last October’s widely watched parliamentary elections, the billionaire businessman’s Georgian Dream coalition — composed of six diverse political parties with sometimes competing agendas — won 54 percent of the vote, gaining 85 of 150 seats in Parliament. President Mikheil Saakashvili now heads the opposition during his last year in office, and the two adversaries will have to find a way to work together to guide Georgia on its still-rocky post-Soviet path.

Saakashvili rose to prominence in the Rose Revolution that ushered him to office in January 2004. The Western-oriented president quickly set about steering Georgia away from Russia, pushing for NATO membership and sending troops to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. He won plaudits for his “zero tolerance” approach to the country’s rampant crime and for embracing democratic and economic reforms.

But he was roundly criticized for misjudging Western support during a brief but bloody war with Russia in 2008, after which Georgia lost control over two disputed territories to Moscow. The Columbia-educated democratic icon was also criticized for some undemocratic tendencies, including the use of tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse antigovernment protesters in recent years.

That’s why tensions were high that the October vote might spark more clashes. But Saakashvili surprised and impressed many by promptly conceding defeat.

Yakobashvili says “losing elections is the price you pay for reform. Obviously, reforms are never popular. You’ve seen it in the Baltic countries. The unique thing is that it’s happening peacefully and within democratic norms.”

Indeed, the ambassador proudly notes that last year marked the first time in Georgian history that the people changed governments through democratic elections.

“All previous governments were changed through either revolutions or violence,” he told us. “According to international observers, it was the best election we ever had.”

That may be, but the election hardly ended the political uncertainty in a nation beset by a long history of bitter power struggles. As the New York Times noted, “Because of recent changes to the Constitution, Georgia will become a parliamentary republic in 2013, and many executive powers will be transferred to the prime minister. But many months of compromise stretch out before then — a danger in a political culture geared toward obliterating one’s opponent.”

And it didn’t take long for Ivanishvili, a reclusive philanthropist, to go on the warpath.

Ivanishvili rode to victory on a wave of dissatisfaction over poverty and unemployment. His fortunes were boosted by the last-minute release of a graphic video that showed prison guards sodomizing inmates. Though Saakashvili had earned praise for tackling crime, under his term the prison population quadrupled, and abuses were well documented. Though Ivanishvili has pledged to clean up the system and change his predecessor’s heavy-handed ways, his first three months in office have also not been very pretty.

In fact, within an hour of Saakashvili’s concession, Ivanishvili suggested that the president should just go ahead and resign now — quickly rescinding his comment amid widespread outrage.

Since then, however, Ivanishvili has set about prosecuting — some say persecuting — many of his political rivals, charging nearly two dozen former officials under the previous government with various crimes and alarming democratic observers who were hoping for a smooth transition.

“As we speak, harassment is still unfortunately taking place,” Yakobashvili told us. “There are no more arrests, but we still get some worrying news from different parts of Georgia,” said the departing envoy, adding that it’s obvious the recent arrests were politically motivated.

Giorgi Kandelaki, a media consultant for Georgia’s United National Movement, now in opposition after eight years in power, says Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) party has turned up the heat on local elected officials. Since the October 2012 elections, he says 43 heads of local self-government bodies have been forced to resign throughout Georgia, including 13 local council chiefs and 30 executives.

“Pressure includes physical and verbal assaults, threats on family and the storming of municipality buildings by GD representatives,” said Kandelaki, adding that police have been ordered not to intervene or prevent attacks on local government officials — and that any official who resists will be punished.

“These actions constitute part of a nationwide campaign launched against the local government by the GD, aimed at revising results of the 2010 local elections,” Kandelaki says, referring to municipal elections that overwhelmingly endorsed Saakashvili’s party. “The widespread nature of these illegal actions threatens to undermine the very constitutional order of Georgia and defy the democratic choice of people expressed in the 2010 local government elections.”

To that end, Yakobashvili says his nation of 4.7 million people needs to escape its take-no-prisoners mentality of governing.

“It’s not backsliding toward authoritarianism, but toward ‘winner takes all,’” he explained. “The winners have to understand that they won only parliamentary elections, not presidential or local elections. There’s not only been intimidation of former government officials, but very clear attacks on the institution of the presidency. We had multiple cases of mobs attacking local governments, hindering their ability to function and pushing local governors and council members to resign. That raises alarms.”

The ambassador said lawmakers on Capitol Hill raised the issue with Georgia’s new foreign minister, Maia Panjikidze, during her recent visit to Washington.

“Congress was very worried about the intimidation. I think their message mostly got through,” he said. “But it’s one thing to get the message out. Whether people comprehend the message is another.”

Both sides, though, have engaged in a sort of messaging war when it comes to winning over Washington. Tbilisi-based business journalist Nicholas Clayton told The Diplomat that the previous government developed a significant amount of “soft power” on Capitol Hill, and Saakashvili is still widely viewed there as a heroic democratizing figure.

“So far, Ivanishvili has gathered few champions and has had to fight the perception, largely spread by Saakashvili supporters, that he is a pro-Russian plutocrat bent on returning the country to endemic corruption and subservience to Moscow.

“During the election campaign, GD accused the country’s ambassadors — and the previous government — of smearing the coalition with their counterparts and fear-mongering about the prospect of a GD victory,” added Clayton, a correspondent for the Financial Times Group’s Mergermarket. “It appears the new leadership remains distrustful of its own diplomats and has therefore largely used its hired lobbyists in Brussels and Washington to carry many of its messages and arrange meetings — and this has led to a lot of clumsiness.”

Saakashvili’s administration also hired its own fair share of lobbyists and sent the charismatic, tough-talking Yakobashvili to head the embassy in D.C. (also see “Georgia’s ‘Force of Nature’ Blows Into Washington” in the August 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

But now Yakobashvili — an art-collecting, jazz-loving former activist who during Soviet times was arrested for staging a pro-Israel rally in Tbilisi — is stepping back from the political fray. He feels he should “vacate this job for somebody else that would have better relations with the new leadership and more trust from them,” said the envoy. “I was not asked to leave. It’s my decision, and the president has accepted it.”

He added: “Obviously, the new government wants to have their people representing its policies. Ambassadors can be appointed and recalled only by the president. So we have a situation where we have a new prime minister, but without the president he cannot recall or appoint ambassadors.”

Nevertheless, in early January, Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs nominated Archil Gegeshidze to replace Yakobashvili. Gegeshidze, an academic, now has the tough task of convincing Washington that his boss — an enigmatic, some say eccentric billionaire who earned a fortune in Russia — won’t abandon the West in his quest to normalize relations with Moscow.

Janusz Bugajski, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), for one, remains unconvinced.

“Despite its official statements, the new Georgian government seems to be moving backwards in its commitments to NATO membership and maintaining a close relationship with the United States,” said Bugajski, who’s written 18 books on Europe, Russia and transatlantic relations.

“Politically motivated arrests, an atmosphere of political vendetta, a less ambitious regional policy and a naïve approach toward Russia’s ambitions in the Caucasus are creating increasing uncertainty about Georgia’s stability, security and future international integration,” Bugajski added.

It’s the new prime minister’s attitudes toward Moscow that Yakobashvili, who saw firsthand the ravages of Georgia’s bruising war with Russia in 2008, finds particularly objectionable.

“It became routine that every new government tries to fix relations with Russia. I don’t think one should be criticized for the will to do that,” he said. “That’s what Saakashvili tried to do. I don’t know any Georgian who’s against normalization. I just believe that his assessments are unrealistic. Specifically, he stated that he’s going to convince Russians by talking to them that Georgia’s membership in NATO and the EU is not bad for Russia. I understand he’s new in politics, but my fear is that these kinds of naïve statements are not bringing results, and can potentially cause harm.”

Yakobashvili said fellow diplomats from other former Soviet republics in Washington are closely monitoring what happens in Georgia.

“All these countries — Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan — hope everything will go smoothly because they have a huge stake in our success.”

But for many average Georgians, success is not so much defined by how closely aligned the country is with Russia or the West, but rather by bread-and-butter issues like jobs and quality of life.

Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, said that as the country’s undergoes its first experience with “cohabitation” — in which the president and prime minister share power — elected leaders face the challenge of responding to those issues that citizens care about most. An NDI public opinion poll conducted last November confirmed that Georgians cite jobs and affordable health care as their top national priorities.

“Despite a polarized political environment,” Wollack told The Diplomat by email, “there seems to be growing consensus in Georgia on fundamental issues related to European integration and economic and political reform.”

But this most recent bout of political upheaval has already taken its toll on foreign investment. “Before the elections, our economic growth was 8 percent. Now it’s down to 2.5 percent,” Yakobashvili said. “Investors are obviously in expectation mode. It’s not helping the economy.”

And although he praises his country for holding free and fair elections, the ambassador criticized Ivanishvili for influencing the outcome with his vast personal wealth.

“There were not only attempts to buy the electorate, but promises as well,” he claims. “When the richest man in the country tells you, ‘I will cut your utility bills in half, and if there’s not enough money in the state budget, I will add my own,’ obviously, it plays into the results.”

According to Forbes magazine, the 56-year-old Ivanishvili has a net worth of $6.4 billion — equivalent to nearly half the country’s GDP of $14 billion. Yet CSIS’s Bugajski says the tycoon better be careful the Georgian people don’t become dependent on his personal piggy bank.

“Poorer social sectors may welcome his funding, in view of Ivanishvili’s previous large-scale subsidies to various constituencies, including his native district of Sachkhere and the Georgian Orthodox Church,” he wrote in a November 2012 policy brief. “However, such policies do not improve economic efficiency and competitiveness, and may increase unrealistic expectations for further state subsidies.”

Pledges to root out corruption and impunity may also fall victim to unrealistic expectations.

Ella Asoyan, a Georgia specialist at Washington-based Freedom House, says that while the country has certainly advanced in its electoral practices, its rule of law institutions remain nascent and weak.

“Jury trials have only recently been attempted in a select number of cases, yet the scale and scope of retributive justice for which the Ivanishvili government is calling will require that strengthened judicial practices be instituted quite quickly,” Asoyan told us. Of course, Ivanishvili’s pledge to deliver swift justice to tainted members of the former government is seen as a political witch hunt by his critics. “The outcomes of these cases, and dozens of others, must be reached by adhering to commitments on the right to a fair trial with transparency, fairness and due application of Georgian law,” Asoyan said.

A commitment to the rule of law has been sorely lacking in the nation for years, and at the end of the day, neither Ivanishvili nor Saakashvili are exactly shining beacons of justice. And the political mudslinging and legal battles have only just begun, with both sides accusing the other of corruption and abuses.

Asoyan warns that Saakashvili’s efforts to dissolve the newly elected Parliament could “throw the country backwards” — though a petition drive to remove Saakashvili from office before his term ends “would likely be seen as gratuitous and a sign that the new government is taking cues from those bent on revenge.”

Yakobashvili agrees, saying some Georgians are out collecting signatures, trying to mobilize a constitutional majority in Parliament to impeach the president or amend the constitution.

“I think it’s a very bad idea,” he told us. “The president should complete his term, and whoever wins will win.”

As for Yakobashvili, the departing ambassador said he already has consulting and other job offers from five European countries and two Asian ones he prefers not to name just yet. His goal: to use his knowledge and experience “to do something bigger than bilateral relations” — either regional or global.

“I am not distancing myself from Georgia,” he said. “I just think the best I can do now is not get into internal Georgian politics, but to labor for Georgia on an international level. In my life, I’ve done many things. I worked as a diplomat, and before becoming ambassador I worked 11 years in the Foreign Ministry. I was a minister, created my own think tank, and was an activist and fundraiser. What I enjoy most is to develop an idea and then help implement that idea, so I don’t want to be only a manager.”

In the meantime, Yakobashvili says the “Ukrainization” of Georgia must be prevented at all costs.

“That’s why the successful transfer of power is vitally important not only for Georgia,” he said. “We may have had a democratic election, but we have to avoid sliding back. We should prove that democracy is a good thing and that it works. If Georgia fails in that task, it will set an extremely negative example for all our neighbors.”

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