Cristian Urse has served as the head of the CoE Office in Georgia for 5 years. In his words, during these years, he has been involved in a number of important political processes, including the recent negotiations between the government and the opposition along with other moderators. In his assessment, the political environment in Georgia is too polarized. What he considers to be other main challenges the country is facing and what he would advise to political players right before upcoming elections? Cristian Urse spoke to “InterPressNews” about these and other important issues on July 16.
First of all, I would like to ask you to evaluate your work in Georgia. What do you consider to be your achievements and a kind of legacy?
First of all, thank you very much for this opportunity to share a couple of thoughts at the end of my mission in Georgia. I think legacy is too big of a word. But it has been a very rich and rewarding five years as far as I am concerned. I have seen many things in Georgia and was able to extend the Council of Europe’s Office cooperation with a quite number of institutions. There has been, during this period, an implementation of a full Council of Europe Action Plan for Georgia between 2016 - December 2019. The current Action Plan has just been started at the beginning of this year. It has been officially launched by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe in November 2019. What I can say is that we have managed to have very good cooperation with all the institutions. We are really glad and proud of that. And we see very good perspectives to continue in that direction. Now when it comes to specific topics or accomplishments, of course I can never avoid referring to the recent political dialogue to which the Council of Europe and I were part of, among the international facilitators – the peak of my mandate I can say. But there where so many other things of which I am equally proud that we were able to work on, to promote and eventually to finalize. Just to give a couple of examples, last December the Parliament of Georgia has adopted the so called “Fourth wave of judicial reforms,” a legislative package, very important one, that addresses matters related to the independence of the judiciary, selection and appointment of judges, promotion of judges, disciplinary action against judges, rules of functioning of the High Council of Justice, the functioning of the High School of Justice; all these have to do with a better and independent judiciary. And that was more than two years efforts to which we were a direct party as an international stakeholder and that has successfully finalized in December.
Another good part of all this process was that all interested stakeholders were involved in the dialogue and in the end agreed that the draft law that was produced was a good outcome, and by stakeholders I mean the Parliament, the judges, the Government, but also the Public Defender and the NGO community. Notwithstanding their differences on a number of issues, they agreed that the outcome of their work was good, substantial and important for the parliament to adopt.
And there were other aspects: incidentally, today [16 July] we had an event to which all the judicial branches participated; the Chief Justice of Georgia, the Prosecutor General, and the Chairman of the Georgian Bar Association signed a memorandum that creates the “Justice Coordination Council,” or the so called Bench and Bar platform; this is a discussion platform that will allow them to address, in a defined framework, all matters of general interest that concern functioning of the judiciary. We worked really well in the past with Prosecutor’s Office. Also with the Bar Association, I have seen personally this institution growing in the last five years and I am very happy that the Council of Europe has contributed alongside other international organisations to that process.
We worked extensively on the situation in penitentiaries and the Police Detention Isolators. We have seen improvements over the years in that regard as well. We worked with key institutions that are involved in organisation of elections, with the Central Election Commission and the State Audit Office. We did capacity building for institutions that work in the field of combatting domestic violence and violence against women following Georgia’s accession to the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe. We started and we are carrying out right now a very promising public awareness campaign “I Choose Equality,” dealing with combatting discrimination and hate crime. We contributed to establish Georgia’s first national Internet Governance Forum; that was an initiative started five years ago and we have seen that instrument growing and being consolidated from year to year. That is something that has gained a lot of strength. All these topics make me happy because they show the strength of the Georgian institution, the readiness to continue to cooperate with us.
I’m sure that you have been actively monitoring the current developments in Georgia, including the political ones, what do you consider to be the most important challenge the country is facing and how do you assess the effectiveness of the government's actions in solving these challenges?
I think everyone today speaks about the COVID crisis and all related topics. It is not only the sanitary crisis, although this is very serious, and in this regard the Government managed to do a very good job, and Georgia is among those countries that have a really low incidence of cases, but there are many other things that are affected by COVID. Just to think about the upcoming elections, how they will be organised and what additional measures should be put in the place to make sure that everything goes smoothly, and in the end Georgia will have fair and transparent elections.
If I venture to put my finger on a challenge which may be still persistent, we have seen it during this political dialogue too, I would say there appears to be a constant challenge of polarisation of the public debate. First, there is a natural and objective part of polarisation. Certain political dispute is normal, healthy, and competition should be there in any democratic country. There is also a perception that there is some unnecessary amount of polarisation that in general the public would do better without.
You mentioned polarization. I would like to ask, how do you assess the attitude of the opponents towards the government and the somewhat unethical expressions used against them?
It’s certainly not for me to comment who says what. I would not say something about a statement issued either by the Government or by the opposition. Polarisation is shared among all the political stakeholders and actors. Again, part of it is a political debate and certainly not my mandate to comment.
What I would add in that regard, and this probably has to do with the unhealthy part of the polarisation, is that sometimes we see independent institutions, which have a clearly distinct mandate that does not have to do with politics, that they sometimes risk to get dragged into some political disputes. That is something which in my view should not happen. Just to give an example – the Public Defender’s Institution in Georgia, I think it is a well-established institution for many years now, and enjoys a very high reputation thanks to all people who held that position over the years; this is a kind of institution that should not be dragged into the political debate no matter by whom, either by political parties in power or by the opposition. I think everyone, all political stakeholders should respect the mandate of such institution and should take always the constructive part of the Public Defender’s reports whenever they are issued. There are certainly other examples, other independent institutions that do their job well and they should continue to do their job without hindrance.
From this point, how would you assess the quality of Georgian democracy?
When you speak about the quality of democracy you certainly take a long-term perspective. From that perspective and from the Council of Europe’s perspective, I think it is undeniable that Georgia has progressed a lot during the past 30 years, if you speak about Georgia’s independence, and along the past 20 years since Georgia has been a member of the Council of Europe as of April 1999. Also I think it was a very good moment when Georgia has completed recently its first Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which has displayed the progress that the Georgian institutions have made in the last 20 years. And there are many reasons for which Georgian institutions should be proud. I mentioned earlier our work and the progress that has been made as far as the penitentiaries in Georgia are concerned. That has been acknowledge not only by the Council of Europe, but other international organisations as well. I mentioned the Public Defender which is again an institution that enjoys very high reputation but there are other examples in Georgia, , and I think quite a number of institutions starting with the Parliament, the Government and continuing with the Prosecutor General’s office and other institutions, they have evolved very well in the past 20 years. And it’s undeniable, they are now modern institutions which continue to seek their strength and their efficiency but are on the right path of the reform and are achieving very good results.
However, would you say that there are still a lot of things to be done on the way to democracy?
“It is a lot to be done” is a kind of cliché, it is a lot to be done in many countries. Again if you look at certain topics, I gave the example earlier of the functioning of the judiciary and the adoption of the fourth wave of judicial reforms; that legislation is important but it is important because it will allow progress over the next several years. In my view it will have lasting effects for Georgia, it will not produce changes over night but in five years from now one will be able to assess quite a number of changes have come from that legislation. And there are other areas where legislative reforms have been adopted and we will witness their implementation. From this point of view of course every single institution has work to do. The good thing is that Georgia has a good track record.
There is an example that came in other context, if you look at the post-soviet republics, although I know from the point of view of its European path Georgia does not necessarily like to be reminded all the time about the soviet legacy which is certainly the right approach: Georgia has joined the Council of Europe in 1999,and it was among the last Soviet republics [to do so]. Today, from the point of view of the assessment we see from the European Union, and the implementation of the Eastern Partnership and the Association Agenda, Georgia is many times called on the best performer, which means that Georgia has gone very well trough this phases and has progressed in some areas probably better than others.
Do you think that the March 8 agreement has been fully implemented? If you think that the agreement has not been fully implemented, who do you consider responsible for it?
First of all, the 8 March agreement was in our view a big achievement because I believe it did two things: on one hand it managed to amend the electoral system for October 2020 which is a big step forward because it is a big topic raised for many years now. Whenever a political party was in opposition, it said we need proportional elections, a better system and so on. But that thing did not happen as quick as it should have. So it happened this year in March and it is good for Georgia’s democracy, it will certainly allow a more pluralistic parliament after the elections. It also showed that compromise is possible despite this polarisation and perceptions that political parties in Georgia – majority and opposition – would never be able to agree on big issues; this moment showed that this was possible and this is certainly to be credited to all political stakeholders who took part in this negotiations.
As we all know, the agreement itself had two parts, and one part of it had to do with constitutional amendments; they were adopted and we congratulated at that moment all those who participated in the vote and ensured its adoption, that was very important and the Parliament of Georgia had the main role in it.
The second part was essentially a commitment by the political actors to avoid perceptions of politicisations of some processes in the judiciary, and also electoral processes, the preparation of elections. And I believe it is an equally important statement, because it is about how in general elections should be prepared and electoral campaigns should take place. That is in my view a living commitment, because it was taken in view of the upcoming elections and we hope and continue to encourage political stakeholders – it is [a commitment] taken by everyone – to live up to that commitment in view of the elections. And one will be able to assess that statement probably after elections, to see to what extent the political stakeholders have lived up to that commitment. I personally would hope that the spirit of that commitment lives on well after the elections, because I think it is normal that anytime, not only before elections, political parties should be aware that they should not make gestures and take actions that might be perceived as politicising this or that process. I hope for the best of Georgia’s political life that everyone will keep that commitment in mind after these elections as well.
Georgia will soon have parliamentary elections, which are also eagerly awaited by the representatives of the international community. What will be your advice to the political players, who do you think has the biggest responsibility for holding these elections in accordance with international standards?
I believe in general that all political stakeholders have an interest to have transparent elections and everyone should work in that direction. Furthermore, I believe that just to go back to example of the March agreement, this agreement has taken off one issue that was always disputed, which was the electoral system used until now. Opposition parties were saying the mixed electoral system is unfair, it produces this type of outcome, and we should change it. That is not a topic of debate anymore. We have a system upon which everybody has agreed. So, one less topic of not very useful debate, which gives political actors the opportunity to focus on current issues and to go in front of the voters and explain why their votes are wanted. And in the same vein I believe go the recent amendments to the electoral code that were adopted just after the constitutional amendments. Those amendments have sought to improve the electoral regulations and environment in preparation of elections in light of OSCE/ODHIR recommendations, in light of our Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) recommendations and other international observers. So, I hope that at least some of the topics which were disputed and debated for a long period will now be put aside and political parties will focus on concrete issues that are of direct interest for voters.
Of course, you know that in this case, the ruling party is one of the main players. How justified do you think it is for the same force to maintain power for three terms and what is the international experience in this direction?
I believe it is up to the voters who they want in power and there is no limit in that regard to political mandates. It depends on which political party manages to convince the voters.
But there is certainly an aspect to discuss here and to reflect upon. Because naturally, the more one political party stays in power, the bigger the temptations probably are. And I believe that parties who manage to stay in power for longer periods should use more and more self-restraint, they should not only ask themselves if what they do is a good thing, they should listen more carefully to independent institutions. They should listen carefully to the NGO community and in general to experts when it comes to every single aspect that has to do with governance. Listening to experts and listening in the end to criticism, should be the guideline for the party that stays in power, to make sure that they control impulses that may lead things in the wrong direction.
And the last question, as you know, the Georgian government has received several critical letters in recent months, but the government says that this was an assessment by certain individuals and not by the state. According to them, these people are friends of the "National Movement". How justified do you think it is for the government to take a similar position in the response to criticism from its partners?
I am not an expert on the United States certainly and I would not comment on a political party that you mentioned, or someone else would mention.
What I have seen, a good thing I believe is the openness and readiness to discuss and explain whatever matter of concern could be there. And I believe in general we have seen this openness from the authorities, on various technical matters on which Council of Europe bodies worked in the past years.
In general, I think the recipe to address concerns is dialogue. The more you engage in dialogue and you are ready to explain a situation, the more successful you are to reduce concerns that may or may not be grounded.