Arnold Stepanian - The aim of acting against the “Multinational Georgia” is an attempt to discredit the largest pro-Western organization working on the issues of the ethnic minorities – this raises questions

Some of the working groups, created by the Parliament for implementation of the European Union’s recommendations, have finished their work. The others, including groups on de-oligarchization and reform of the judiciary will summarize their work in the next week which will be followed by submitting the draft laws.

InterPressNews spoke to Arnold Stepanian, the leader of one of the organizations involved in these groups, about the results of the working process.

According to the initiative and decision of the ruling party, working groups have been established in the Parliament for implementation of the European Commission’s 12-point recommendations. During the last 1.5 months we see almost on a daily basis that different working groups gather for discussing of different issues and hold meetings behind closed doors. “Multinational Georgia” is among those non-government organizations which were nominated to take part in the process by Eastern Partnership’s Civil Society Forum’s Georgian National Platform. How do you look at this cooperation and what are your expectations from the process?

I can say definitely that process of implementation of the recommendations, particularly in that part which concerns civil society’s involvement at every level of decision-making, is very important. We are glad that Eastern Partnership’s Civil Society Forum’s Georgian National Platform, which encompasses nearly 200 organizations where we are also co-founders and members, succeeded to find a common ground with the Parliament as part of cooperation format. As you are aware, non-government organizations take part in working groups for implementation of 12 recommendations through nomination by the platform. There is only one problematic group which works on revision of Electoral Code where four NGOs were nominated, although because one of them – ISFED – was banned from the working groups, none of us have attended the group meetings. However, three organizations, including the “Multinational Georgia” have sent to the Parliament our views in a written form about reforming the Electoral Code. Generally, I believe that hype around working groups is undue, since they only have a consultative role whereas real discussion of the issues will take place at committee hearings where anyone interested will be able to attend.

In your assessment to what extent will be the process steered at the right direction and what will be the chances to achieve a main goal as a result – How realistically does it look like that the country will be granted the EU membership candidate status in the upcoming months?

I am very skeptical about prospects of being granted the EU membership candidate status in the upcoming months. I do not believe that it will be possible to achieve this result in a few months. To obtain the status by implementation of 12 recommendations is itself a daunting task, since there is no consensus between the political actors on a number of issues. At the same time, I believe that being granted the candidate status also depends on global factors as well. However, if we do our homework meticulously, there is a very real chance of getting candidacy in the next year, provided, obviously, that geopolitical processes encourage this.

Which is the most problematic issue that you see in the process of implementation of the European Commission’s 12-point recommendations?

I would say that all 12 points have their own vulnerabilities which is logical. If there had been no challenges, no recommendations would have been issued. However, I believe that reform of the judiciary and depolarization are the most problematic topics. I am not going to say anything about deolirgarchization because this is a matter of political agreement.

Many in the opposition express distrust and boycott process in the parliament. As we know, “Lelo”, “United National Movement” and “Strategy Builder” carry out alternative working process. Basically, there is a situation when implementation of the European Union’s requirements has become a matter of even deeper confrontation. In your observation, who has the primary responsibility here – is this the government who has power or are those all political subjects together with their equal share of responsibility?

I would not agree that situation has become more tense, since polarization was already at its peak. Some in the opposition openly call for a change of government bypassing democratic processes whereas the government is unwilling to share power. Unfortunately, this has found its reflection in media and civil society as well. With respect to responsibility, certainly, we all have our own share of responsibility in this historical moment for the country but it is the government which is the main actor with the biggest responsibility for both success and failure of this process.

The “Georgian Dream” refused “ISFED” to take part in the working group which was set up for improvement of the election legislation. The “Georgian Dream” is not going to involve ISFED in the selection process for the new Public Defender, either. The ruling party emphasizes that during the June protests, ISFED joined the initiative to demand resignation of the Prime Minister and creation of technical government. This, according to the “Georgian Dream” members, proves that ISFED is a political side. How convincing is this claim for you personally and why do you think ISFED was picked out?

I would like to say at the very beginning that the position and argument of the authorities are absolutely incomprehensible and unacceptable. ISFED is indeed one of the most experienced NGOs when it comes to the issues of election. For at least the last 20 years, we have heard similar arguments against the NGOs not only from the incumbent or previous governments but from the opposition as well, because this or that NGO had a position critical of them. However, even if ISFED is really a political side, depolarization is one of the key components of the 12-point recommendations which means acceptance of different opinions and finding opportunities for dealing with each other. Therefore, if the authorities believe that ISFED is a political side and that is why they put obstacles, this already contradicts the spirit of the recommendations. All these look like a storm in a teacup and it could have been possible to prevent and avoid damaging the process.

As we know, “Georgian National Platform” initially nominated GYLA and ISFED to the working group for revision of the Election Code and later nominated four other organizations, including the “Multinational Georgia” and “Public Defender”. How would you explain that?

You have described an incomplete picture. Initially, it was planned to nominate two organizations – ISFED and Multinational Georgia – although in the last moment the Eastern Partnership Platform replaced us with other, also experienced organization. Undoubtedly, this was frustrating, especially given the fact that we are the only organization which observes elections in those districts where 25% of voters are concentrated and are densely populated with the ethnic minorities. However, today, when our country’s fate is being decided, we prioritize result instead of form of participation in the process. This is why we did not protest this decision. Moreover, we have trust in experience of both ISFED and GYLA which were nominated initially.

Some of the NGOs may decide to distance from the process to express solidarity with ISFED. What you are going to do if not all interested NGOs are allowed to take part in the process of selection of the Public Defender?

Speaking on these issues is a waste of time. First, I would like to say that work in these groups is coming to an end. What has already happened will not change and remain as a fact with its negative consequences. I will only add one more thing: Although the Eastern Partnership Platform nominated us in the election group we have not attended a single meeting there. However, in order not to damage the essence of the process, similar with other organizations which also withdrew from the working groups, we submitted our recommendations in a written form.

I am confident that further escalation of situation will inflict damage to the entire process. Civil sector already faces myriad difficulties when trying to convince the government that it is necessary to take steps to implement reforms.

Former Deputy Head of the SSS, Soso Gogashvili, voiced a serious allegation against two NGOs, with the “Multinational Georgia” being one of them. In particular, Mr Gogashvili claims that in order to sabotage the European integration process, the Georgian Dream and SSS do not allow independent NGOs to get involved in the reform process and these NGOs are replaced with SSS-controlled organizations even in the “imitated working groups”. It was in this context that Mr Gogashvili mentioned the “Multinational Georgia” and said that your organization has a very good track record of cooperation with the SSS and gets funding from the black cashbox” of the “Georgian Dream”. What is your response to claims made by the former Deputy Head of the SSS? What are the connections between the “Multinational Georgia” with the “Russian SSS” and the “Georgian Dream”?

We are more concerned about attempted black PR, as well as identities and goals of those who are behind this process, rather than Mr Gogashvili’s allegation. We are not going to follow the plans of those who ordered this process and start to justify ourselves. With respect to Mr Gogashvili himself, we believe that there is no such thing, as former employees of the system, especially when it comes to people in high positions. I am confident that he still has ties with some groups operating in the SSS as well as with those connected to this process. In his so called allegation we are mentioned within the context of sabotaging the European integration process. This is not the first time when groups in the Georgian special services attack us and seek to tarnish our reputation. The wave of allegations against us, about having direct or indirect ties with Russia, started as early as in 2009, was resumed in 2012 and continues even today which is proved by the abovementioned statement. Deliberate attacks against our organization have been noted multiple times in the statements of diplomatic missions, US State Department Reports and was even a matter of discussion of the UN’s Human Right Committee. Therefore, we have built some sort of immunity. I believe that main objective is to tarnish all organizations nominated in the elections working group. It is another issue that whoever acts through Gogashvili against us, tries in this manner to discredit the largest pro-Western organization working on the issues of the ethnic minorities and this also raises some questions. Particularly, in light of Putin’s statement yesterday about protecting the interests of the Russian-speaking population.

With respect to question on having cooperation with the “Georgian Dream” and SSS, my answer would be: Had you asked whether we have cooperation with any opposition parties or let’s say the Ministry of Agriculture, I would have answered the same. We have cooperation with virtually every political party across different fields, including political participation of the ethnic minorities and as part of our functional mandate. In addition, we have cooperation with every relevant executive and legislative institution and agency, including the Parliament of Georgia, Ministry of Economy, Ministry of Finance, Office of the President, Office of the State Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, Central Election Commission, Public Defender, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Defense and State Security Service. In regard to the SSS in particular, one of the last contact points we had which were in the interest of both parties, was keeping stability in Georgia during the Second Karabakh War.

We have some ideas who might have “ordered” black PR against the “Multinational Georgia”. These ideas are based on prehistory, content and timing of Mr Gogashvili’s statement as well as analysis of wording and identification of those who have interest in the outcome.

We will send our opinions to all international partners of the organization. There is one thing I can say with certainty: Use of such “prisoners of consciousness” is like a boomerang and it is only a matter of time when it returns back to the thrower.

Natia Inauri

InterPressNews

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