Electing a pro-Western government could open the way for Georgia to secure EU candidate status, Nika Gvaramia, a Georgian pro-opposition journalist and television host, said during his recent visit to Lithuania.
“I think this is the most realistic scenario,” Gvaramia told BNS in an interview.
“For us, the most important thing is free and fair elections in 2024 and replacing the pro-Russian government with a real pro-Western government,” he said.
In May 2022, Gvaramia was found guilty of harming the financial interests of a television station he ran earlier and was sentenced to more than three years in prison. His imprisonment drew international criticism and raised concerns about media freedom in the country.
The journalist was pardoned by Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili in June 2023.
Gvaramia believes that without his release, Georgia would have “no chances at all” to join the EU.
The journalist does not expect his country to be granted EU candidate status this year, pointing to Georgia’s current government as the main obstacle.
“It’s very obvious now that the Georgian government bets on Russia. For example, in Russia’s war against Ukraine, they are betting on Russia; they are still thinking that Russia is almighty and Putin is almighty; still their preference is Russia,” he said.
In June this year, Georgia’s president pardoned you but did not explain her decision. What do you think were the reasons for your release?
I think, international pressure. I don’t think there was any other reason. There was pressure inside Georgia as well, (…) but that was international pressure, that was very visible. Especially (from) the international human rights organizations, almost all of major organizations and especially the defending journalism organizations.
So I think that was the main and crucial factor for her, and, actually, she did the right job for her country, not for me, but for Georgia as a country that declares – I wouldn’t say that the Georgian government declares – (…) an aspiration to be a member of the European Union and NATO (…).
She’s traveling around Europe and persuading European leaders that Georgian people deserve candidate status. Maybe it’s a good idea, but I think that what we deserve should be proven by different things, not just by sociology and numbers, but if she is ready to pardon the political prisoners whom we still have in Georgia, first of all Saakashvili and then others, she should do her own stuff and persuade others.
You say that you think that Georgia, but not the government, seeks to be part of the EU. Why do you think so?
That’s because it’s very obvious now that the Georgian government bets on Russia. For example, in Russia’s war against Ukraine, they are betting on Russia; they are still thinking that Russia is almighty and Putin is almighty; still their preference is Russia. (…)
It’s not a matter of bad governance. In Georgia, there is no bad governance; it’s a matter of Russian-style authoritarianism. Authoritarianism could not be defeated merely in a regular election or some issues about education, health care, social issues, pensions. A Russian-style oligarchy could only be defeated through a very tough issue; the one and only issue (…) in Georgia is (whether it is) Russia or the West. The people could be united around this issue. Recent developments have shown for the Georgian audience and for the whole world that the Georgian people’s main interest is their future in Europe.
We don’t like Russians, very mildly speaking. Yes, we have some kind of fears about war. That’s a fear of death, and the Georgian Dream ruling party is providing this kind of terror day by day. That pro-Russian and pro-governmental propaganda (…) is the main tool in the hands of our government how to terrorize Georgian people with this message of war and killings, including of Ukrainians.
Do you mean that they are creating some kind of narrative?
Absolutely. A narrative that Europeans and Americans, the Western people, – there are calling this the global party of war – want to engage in the Ukrainian war as a second front. That is the main message of theirs, because they don’t have any positive messages and positive agenda of what they are doing and what they will do, and they have a negative agenda and the West is part of that agenda.
Don’t you think that this is a bit contradictory, because at the same time, at least officially, Georgia is clearly declaring that it wants to become a member of the European Union?
Not the Georgian government, as I underlined. The government’s idea is to do things like (Ukraine’s former pro-Russian President Viktor) Yanukovych did, (…) and they are trying to (…) cause Europe’s refusal of Georgia, which is natural because what the Georgian government is doing now on the ground could not be perceived as European things. That’s a backsliding of democracy.
We have this kind of absolutely insane anti-West propaganda. Official statements, even of the prime minister of Georgia, are often absolutely anti-West, starting from the global war party and ending with saying that Europe is not about conservative values but that it’s against our traditional values, which is, of course, bullshit. (…) There are a lot of countries more Christian than Georgians are. Poland’s society, for example, is more traditional than Georgia’s and it is very European as well (…).
People (in Georgia) are frozen, because our national trauma is war, which took place 15 years ago and 25 years ago. We had two wars with Russia, and when people are frozen with fear, their cognitive processes are stopped and they are unable to make informed choices, which is mainly how the Georgian Dream is trying to win elections and manipulate people. (…)
However, the president of Georgia is travelling around Europe and talking about her country’s desire to join the EU. Do you think she is a strong enough leader to change the anti-Western narrative?
No, of course not. (…) In Georgia, there is only one decision maker and it’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.
Let’s get back to you. When you were released, you mentioned that you would not return to Mtavari TV. Do you plan to return to journalism? What are your future plans?
Journalism is possible. There are two things (…). First of all, for me a success story previously was that I, in 20 days, opened a new TV station after Rustavi 2 was taken over by the government, and this TV station now is the number one after Imedi TV which is the number one pro-governmental channel. (…) Probably, we are the most influential in a sense of news, influence of political processes, but my channel somehow managed to survive without me, that’s why I think for the manager and founder the most important thing is not how he is managing the company, but that the company can survive and (…) develop without him or her. This is the case of Mtavari and that’s why I have decided to let them go to free flow and to develop themselves without me. I can help them from different angles, but still they should improve themselves.
Secondly, since I was a political prisoner, there is the (…) perception that I will be not very balanced, that I will be against the government. That there will be even more problems than previously.
Therefore, I will probably be back in journalism, but there are other options. Maybe I will engage in politics more deeply in Georgia. I have no intention of leaving Georgia. Definitely, I will fight for Georgia’s victory, because my father is a dissident and in 1969 he was in prison for being a dissident. As it turned out, more than 50 years after the Soviet Union and in independent Georgia, I was imprisoned for being a dissident as well, and I don’t want my son, sometime in the future, to somehow find himself in a prison cell for being a dissident. So I will fight for Georgia’s victory, for a European Georgia. (…)
Let’s talk about your release. Do you think that your release can be seen as a shift toward an improving media situation in Georgia? Or would you consider it more of an exceptional case?
That’s an exceptional case, but despite it being exceptional, that’s clearly a step forward. But there are still huge problems (…), and my release is just one sporadic episode. The whole situation with the media, with the freedom of speech, is disastrous, and when you have authoritarianism, one exceptional case does not count. (…)
Do you think that journalists in Georgia generally are free to criticize the government, write about Russia, LGBT and religion?
We criticize a lot. In 2021, on July 5-6, there was a LGBT rally. The Georgian media were there to cover this, and 50 journalists were beaten by the mob organized by the government. Fifty journalists were severely beaten and one died. Georgia’s critical media is probably the best ally of Georgia’s civil society, opposition parties and pro-Western society, I would say, and we are working very hard and our work has an effect, but, unfortunately, Western foundations provide almost nothing to finance Georgia’s critical media and we have very serious problems. We are suffering from a lack of resources, because the Georgian government is ruining our advertisement market, which is the only financial blood for us. For the pro-government media, it’s not a big deal, because they have the money they need, and we do not.
The media is free of government. There are different party affiliations, but it’s part of the freedom of the media; it’s up to our political taste. That’s why I think there are free media in Georgia, but it’s a matter of time before the media are shut down by the government or financial problems.
Are there any signs that the media can be shut down in Georgia?
Of course, we are suffering from the financial problems because the government is pressing some businesses to not provide money for us, to not invest money in us. They are ruining the media market, which is mostly an advertisement market, and the Western foundations and financial institutions have a very strange policy of financing only NGOs which make brochures or give lectures, or do some data collecting and analyzing.
That’s very important, but the most important thing is who is implementing this stuff and delivering these messages to the population, to people, and not just via news and political talk shows but via so called infotainment, because Georgians don’t like to be taught or lectured, they like entertainment. Propaganda could be defeated by the same vehicle who works for propaganda. I do not mean content – the same lies and disinformation, misinformation – but the vehicle should be same. They are working via infotainment; we should work through infotainment too. (…)
What do you think is the main obstacle to Georgia achieving EU candidate status?
The Georgian government. There is no other obstacle, because even the most Eurosceptic country Germany, via its Chancellor Scholz, made a great historical, I would say, statement that the European Union is from Lisbon to Tbilisi. I would even expand to Yerevan, especially after the recent developments in Armenia. Armenia is way ahead now in democracy than Georgia; it is even more anti-Russian than Georgia. This statement of Scholz means that a new geopolitical formula of the EU has been crystalized. That means that Georgia will be an EU member, but we need some relevant government on the ground, a pro-European government.
Georgia’s president has said that she is confident that Brussels will grant her country EU candidate status by the end of this year. Do you think this is realistic?
I don’t think so. It is possible; it could be a geopolitical decision. It is just up to Europe, of course, but from the point of view of what the Georgian government is doing and how it is fulfilling the 12 criteria set by the European Union, it’s not realistic. (…)
Do you think it is more likely that the status will be granted next year after elections?
That could be a decision. I mean a decision about postponing this decision until 2024. I think that is the most realistic scenario. It was Albania’s scenario, when in 2012, Albania was told that it should hold free and fair elections and we will reconsider your situation, and they did it; there was a peaceful transfer of power and they were successful. (…)
For us, the most important thing is free and fair elections in 2024 and replacing the pro-Russian government with a real pro-Western government.
Do you think that your release from prison can contribute to Georgia’s EU candidate status?
I have no idea; I don’t want to speculate. Let’s say that without my release, there would be no chances at all. It maybe enhancing these chances, but I think that huge problems are still present. (…)
Do you think that society in Georgia is sufficiently pro-Western and dissatisfied with the current government to vote differently in the elections?
Georgian society is pro-Western enough, Georgian society is wise enough and Georgian society needs a free and fair framework of elections. (…) Now we need a different approach, a tough approach, and we need a close monitoring of these elections not just in the last month or on the last day of the elections, but a long-term one.
We were talking a lot about the EU, but what about Georgia’s aspiration to become part of NATO?
NATO is completely abandoned by Georgia. (…) Georgia has not participated, for a few years now, in joint training. (…) That’s all about Russia and how it works on pro-Russian Georgia. There is no EU possibility without NATO; these are parallel processes. That’s one more argument why Georgia keeps the anti-Western path, because without NATO, there is no possibility to be safe and secure.
Do you think that if Georgia is granted EU status, discussions about Georgia’s perspective in NATO will start again?
Talks are actually continuing, but the prime minister of Georgia has said that the war started in Ukraine because they wanted to be part of NATO, and we don’t war, so what follows from this statement? We don’t war, that’s why we don’t want to be in NATO. They are trying to persuade and convince people that it’s risky to engage in this kind of operations because the global party of war wants Georgia to be engaged in a global war.
Thank you for your time.
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