David Kramer is Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. Before that, he served for four years as President of Freedom House. Prior to that, he was a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Mr. Kramer served eight years in the U.S. Department of State, including as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. Ia Meurmishvili of the Voice of America, Georgian Service interview Mr. Kramer regarding the Rustavi2 controversy and its implications on Georgia’s image in the West.
- What is your view on the processes around Rustavi2? What do you make of the legal process about the ownership dispute of the company?
- The whole cases I think is problematic going back to when the founder and one of the owners was found dead year ago; to the court decision in August to freeze Rustavi2’s assets and now the station is facing real financial hardship; and now with the expected verdict on the 26th. This has been a case where a former part owner of the station has come out of the woodwork. He had a stake a good decade ago. He seems inclined to the Georgia Dream party. He has talked about how Rustavi2 takes orders from Saakashvili and UNM. So, the whole case really does kind of stink of political games that are being played here.
Rustavi2 is an independent station that may lean towards the UNM, but frankly, if it’s an independent station it can pretty much say whatever it wants. That’s freedom of the press. There are growing concerns including from the OSCE’s special envoy for press freedom and from other governments, that there is growing pressure from the Georgian government on independent TV, on independent media, specifically Rustavi2. That’s why we’re seeing these protests and that’s why we are seeing a lot of controversy.
- The Prime Minister said that he is saddened by the fact that the issue of a private legal dispute has become so politicized. How constructive do you think the government has been throughout this process?
- The Prime Minister’s comments most recently have been incredibly unhelpful.In fact, they are stirring up the controversy, if anything. He slammed the UNM for being a criminal organization and said maybe it shouldn’t be allowed to participate.He has said other things that are really inflammatory and not helping the situation. He issued pretty clear warnings about cracking down if there’s any violence. No one wants to see violence, clearly. The Prime Minister’s comments have only been adding fuel to the fire.
The Present by contrast, I think in his statement on Thursday evening, was more constructive – urging everyone to calm down, urging the courts to factor in some of the outside issues that are at stake. I was struck frankly that the Georgian embassy here in Washington issued an email that reflected statements only from the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice and nothing for the President.That’s not helpful either. This is a situation where we need all parties to exercise calm and judgment, but also to understand that what the court has already done and what it may do is generating a lot of negative backlash and the government needs to be more sensitive.
- That can the government do?
- The government could weigh in. I don’t know if Georgia allows so called “friend of court briefs” that are allows in the United States. [The government could] weigh in and say that it wants to protect and preserve the independence of Rustavi2. I think, a clear government statement, reaffirming support for media freedom, independence of the press, and specifically in the case of Rustavi2. There’s been too much in the way of attacks against Rustavi2 as being a mouthpiece for UNM. That frankly just isn’t helpful. Tt’s not what an official should be doing.I’m sure Obama administration officials don’t like what FOXNews says, but they don’t call it a criminal organization, or the Republican Party a criminal organization. So, there needs to be more calm from the government officials. To be clear, the protesters need to act in a peaceful way. But there is a level of frustration that I think is causing a lot of concern. That’s why political leaders need to be particularly sensitive about what they say.
- The government officials are calling the court for a calm and transparent process, for a just decision, but at the same time, as you mentioned, there have been some inflammatory statements towards a major political group. How do you view this approach from the outside?
- You have to add to the mix that the director of Rustavi2 [Nika Gvaramia] the other day came out and said that he had been approached by a middleman of the government threatening that they would release the videos of his private life.I don’t know if those allegations are true or not, but the timing of them adds to the controversy. There is no question. The government needs to come out and condemn any efforts to intimidate the staff, the management of Rustavi2. It needs to reaffirm its support for the free press, for independent media. It needs to reaffirm support for the existence of Rustavi2. Rustavi2 should be the one to decide what it puts on the air and what kind of reporting it does.
I think for observers, most of the reaction, particularly from DunjaMijatovićand others has been very outspoken, very critical of the way the government has handled this. I think the criticism is warranted. There was a release of the former Tbilisi mayor one day and 24 hours later he was rearrested on different charges.
You can’t just view this through the prism of what’s happening to Rustavi2. It is a part of a larger picture. As we talked about before, there has been a concern in the past – that has quieted down – about the scale and scope of investigations and arrests of opposition figures. That quite down because they essentially ran out of people to go after. Against all this, of course there are parliamentary elections next year. Therefore, the concern is that the efforts against Rustavi2 by this former business owner – who seems to be linked to Georgian Dream and has made critical comments about Rustavi2 and UNM – is in preparation for the election. The polls have shown that the Georgian Dreams numbers are declining, the UNM numbers may be going up, other parties’ are going up. So, it poses even greater burden on the government officials and those from the ruling party to ensure that they do not abuse power, try to use the courts or any other means to try to take advantage of the political situation.
The government officials claim that the Rustavi2 court case is a business dispute and the independents court will resolve the issue. The critics of this process are saying that it is a government-orchestrated effort to limit the media independence. What do you think it is? Does this particular court case threaten media independence in Georgia?
It has to be seen in a larger context. We have to go back to about a year when a previous owner was found dead in his car – apparently with a gunshot wound to the head. So, it’s not just about this specific court case. Rustavi2 has come under pressure before, even independent of this court case. Why this Khalvashi has come out of the woodwork now and is pursuing this case, why the court issues a freeze on Rustavi2’s assets in August and has not really take the matter up until now? These raise all sorts of questions about whether the courts are under pressure, or being used by political forces that support the Georgian Dream. Everyone wants the independent court systems, but the government I think has extra burden on its shortlist to demonstrate support for both independent courts and independent media. I think there are too many questions concerning the court case, the businessman who is pursuing it, comments that are being made by him and now by the Prime Minister. All these have to be seen as a packagewhere it’s not reflecting well on Georgia. I say this as someone who wants to see Georgia succeed, I’m a firm believer in Georgia. I’ve been there twice this year and I think it’s a terrific country with wonderful people. I want Georgia to become a successful democratic nation that is firmly rooted in Euro-Atlantic institutions, but what’s happening in Georgia right now is making that cause much more difficult to make.
- If someone like you is saying this I can only imagine what the opponents of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic Integration would say.
- This is playing into their hands, absolutely! They will say ‘well Georgia certainly not ready for NATO,’ ‘how could we defend a country that is engaged in such political infighting.’ This would also damage the relationship with the European Union. Even though the DCFTA and Association Agreement have been signed, there still many more steps to take. The more Georgia resembles other countries that have had this endless feuding that could lead to a blowup, the more support they are going to lose in the West. That’s not in anyone’s interest, except one player’s and that is Mr. Putin.