On October 8, Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili named most of the key nominees for the new cabinet he expects to head.
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson spoke with Lincoln Mitchell, an associate research scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute and head of the National Democratic Institute's Georgia office from 2002-04, about Ivanishvili's selections and about the prospects for improved relations between Tbilisi and Moscow.
In the recent parliamentary election campaign, Mitchell served as an adviser to the Georgian Dream coalition.
RFE/RL: Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili today named his cabinet nominees, including former UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania as defense minister and Georgian Dream spokeswoman Maia Panjikidze as foreign minister. What is your overall impression of what you've heard today?
Lincoln Mitchell: The style is different and that is -- just looking at these folks -- these are not saber-rattlers. These are people who are kind of calm and rational. And that seems to me to be the big difference...I know there has been this enormous narrative out there from the very beginning, from the moment that Ivanishvili got into politics that "Oh, he's a Russian stooge." And there have been some papers that reported this as a victory for Russia or a defeat of Georgia's Western [policy].
But frankly that's just kind of lazy journalism, that's allowing yourself to be spun by one side without bothering to talk to the other. Or, making very snap judgments -- "Misha [Saakashvili] speaks better English than Bidzina [Ivanishvili], therefore...." Or something like that. So, I don't see a dramatic change in that.
Where I do see a likely change is that this team will probably be more effective. I think this is a team that is not driven by ideology, not driven by a kind of manic need to stay in power and therefore to find Russian plots under every stone, which certainly characterized the last years of the Saakashvili regime and which was very destructive and did not help Georgia achieve any of its foreign-policy goals.
RFE/RL: You say the new government represents a change of style. Will there be a change of substance as well?
Mitchell: It's a little too early to tell, but Ivanishvili has said he wants to resume economic ties with Russia. Now, that's both a big deal and it's not a big deal. It is also one of those things where he probably speaks for a majority of the Georgian people, who believe that -- even though they are going to disagree with Russia on a lot of things -- there has to be some kind of normalization of relations between the two so that they are not constantly a hair trigger away from war.
So, in that regard, I think there will be some substantive differences. But anyone who is looking for Georgia to pull troops out of Afghanistan and stop trying to get into NATO and to become part of [Russia's sphere of influence] again or some kind of new Soviet Union has allowed themselves to be spun way too far.
RFE/RL: Do you see any room for progress or change on the question of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Mitchell: Not in the immediate future, no I don't. But I think there is room to reestablish those relations on a different footing. So, little things like, for example, the official policy of the Georgian government under Saakashvili was essentially that there are no people in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They are simply doing exactly what Russia says. That this is a conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow, and that was really fruitless. That's why eight years after [Saakashvili] coming to power, those regions are significantly further away from Georgia than they were when they started. Even after the war that remained true.
So one thing is that maybe you try to take into consideration what the folks there are thinking -- not treat them like some kind of independent state, but try to bring them in. Maybe you create some kinds of relationships based on civil society ties, linkages to the West, so that they are not so heavily dependent on Russia. And those linkages don't have to go through Tbilisi as much as they did. Those are things that we might see happen.
But I think it is too early to speak directly on what they are going to do because I haven't seen the details and I don't want to... I mean, these might be ideas of mine that aren't going to happen, so I don't want to project my ideas onto the new government.
RFE/RL: Ivanishvili's pick for foreign minister was Maia Panjikidze. What do we know about her?
Mitchell: Well, she served, as you know, as the communications director for the campaign. But she's an experienced and well-regarded diplomat. I think a lot of people expected maybe a higher-profile pick, but I think [Panjikidze] will be very good at that. Again, this is somebody who is smart, who understands diplomacy, who is a little bit more seasoned than some of the people that Saakashvili would throw into that position.
She's well-respected, particularly among the core of people who will be working on foreign policy in the new government. So I think she's a good choice. She's not a heavyweight; it's not [former Ambassador to the United States] Tedo Japaridze, who I think a lot of people thought would get it -- with 30 years experience or maybe 20. But as journalists and as observers and scholars, we want to know as much about the new government as possible, for obvious reasons. But we also want to recognize that whenever you come from the opposition, especially in what at times was a nasty race, you are going to bring in a whole new team and some of these people are going to be less known and there's always this sense of doubt.
When Obama came in -- you know, Hillary Clinton had never held a cabinet position, never worked in the executive branch before. This is what happens when the opposition wins power. A lot of new people come in. I want to make it clear that to learn as much as we can about them is a good idea. To say they are new faces, they don't have experience, and therefore they aren't qualified, is wrong.
RFE/RL: What can you tell us about the nominee for interior minister, Irakli Garibashvili?
Mitchell: He was one of these people who has been close with Ivanishvili for a number of years through [Ivanishvili's] bank and then through his charitable work, Ivanishvili's charitable work. So, he...was brought in by Ivanishvili. In the campaign and in the last year or so, [Garibashvili] was really one of the most prominent people. He was a relative political newcomer, but he had long relationships with [Ivanishvili]. That's how he got where he is.
But also very clearly among those on that team, he's a competent, get-things-done administrator and he's very good at that, which is a large part of what the interior minister needs to be. His mandate is very clear there -- the Interior Ministry was a disaster, so we've got to clean it up. We've got to root out corruption. A lot of the work on strengthening democracy in Georgia will naturally fall to the Interior Ministry so this, I think, becomes a very important ministry because of that.
The problems of democracy in Georgia need to be addressed. Someone has got to talk about issues like how do we liberalize the media. Now, part of that is in parliament, but part of it is in the [Interior] Ministry, which in previous years had the cops and the watchers. So, how do we liberalize the media? How do we take the bugs out of all the places where they work? How do we depoliticize the police so that they are kind of serving the people and not serving the leadership? Those are a lot of things that will arrive on Garibashvili's plate.
I would also add that there is a tendency to view these kind of young, fast-talking, American-trained people around [Saakashvili as meaning that he] has...a monopoly on being pro-Western. But they were running against a party that probably had more French-speakers [and has] a very strong European angle on it.... And [Garibashvili] kind of captures that -- he speaks perfect English and I assume he speaks French although I've never spoken French with him. But he's not somebody who studied in the United States, for example. But he's spent a lot of time in the West, in Europe, and he gets it and he knows how it works, so that's a valuable perspective in a ministry like [the] interior, you know, where you really have to think about how to help turn the country into a real meaningful democracy.
I wouldn't describe what happened [on October 1] as a democratic breakthrough, but I would describe it as that it kept the opportunity [to keep] democracy in Georgia alive. And building that into a real breakthrough is the work that lies ahead.
RFE/RL: How do you think Moscow is viewing today's picks in Georgia?
Mitchell: I have no idea how they are talking about these choices in Moscow. I think that Moscow had a pretty realistic sense of what was going on in this election -- that there were two guys and neither of them was really going to be great for Moscow.
One of them might deescalate the rhetoric, but therefore might be more effective in pursuing Georgia's agenda. That's, I think, the paradox of Ivanishvili and also the paradox of Saakashvili. Saakashvili's Moscow policy boiled down to hard-line rhetoric and giving them everything they needed, turning everything they need over.
So, I don't know. Alasania, Panjikidze, these are people who are foreign-policy professionals and who are going to pursue Georgia's foreign policy, I would think, effectively. And, if you are in Moscow, I think you realize that, well, that means the chance of war is less likely because it is in kind of more rational hands.
But, you know, Moscow benefited from that possibility of war. That was valuable for Russian domestic politics. And that is gone now. So this will have an effect in Russia, I think a different kind than people think. I mean, look, we don't know. It is very, very early. So it is hard to say right now, but that is my first take on this.
* This article has been amended to clarify the title of Lincoln Mitchell.