CSO web portal offers an interview with journalist Zviad Koridze. What is a difference between the civil society and the society, why a strong civil society is needed in the country, what is the role of civil society organizations in all of this – these are the key issues of the interview.
Interviewed by Lali Shalvashvili
Let's start with the term "civil society". In Georgia it is often equated with the civil, i.e. non-governmental sector, but sometimes it has a broader meaning... How do you interpret civil society?
Zviad Koridze – Civil society covers a wide audience – citizens, and especially active citizens who can engage in various movements, and express their views and opinions on various topics or issues. As for non-governmental organizations, i.e. civil society organizations – this is a structured form of these movements. There are quite many non-governmental organizations – they are set up by various specific features. Part of a civil society can be a part of a non-governmental sector. I believe the civil society is a system of values and not only structured organizations. Civil society is a unity of citizens, and a citizen is realized when s/he pursues liberal values and development of the state is built on him/her. Active citizen can be involved in a political movement, religious organization, etc., but this is not a classic understanding of citizenship. I think "citizenship” is a system of values built on civil values. What is a civil value? This is the idea of equality, idea of competition, innovative approaches towards everything, rule of law principle. Idea of equality is much more than a fight for human rights. If all of this is acceptable for an individual, then s/he is a citizen. Otherwise, of course s/he will be a state citizen, but will not be a "citizen” in terms of what I mean by it. We were Soviet citizens, but there were extremely few citizens in the Soviet Union. Today there are more citizens in Georgia in terms of the above meaning than in the Soviet Georgia, but not many enough for the civil society to be strong in Georgia.
For instance, if you set up a CSO to say "No To Marijuana” and have an approach that this is a crime and a bad habit, this doesn’t need setting up a CSO. The state does this anyway and your position coincides with the state’s position, which always carries repressive mechanisms. It always has difficulties in observing the balance between a free society and the state and it always tends towards the state. Rarely you could see the state that is the society’s partner, and in our era South Africa and Czech Republic have witnessed it. Even in democratic states the government sometimes demonstrates repressive hands. But there the civil society is strong and the government cannot oppose it. Whereas in countries where the civil society is weak, the government is strong and applies repressive mechanisms. In this case, setting up a CSO just to reinforce the government’s position is ridiculous. In the 1990s we would often say that the parish is the most structured non-governmental organization, but it has nothing to do with civil values and the civil society. A civil society, especially during the transformation period, is small and confronted by everyone. It’s extremely important to empower it. In this respect, the following matters: firstly, how big is the basis of civil awareness; secondly, how big is the civil society’s historic heritage in the country; and thirdly, how strong are individual representatives of the civil society, who can trigger projection and let’s say bring to its place 10,100 citizens pursuing the same values.
What's your assessment of the civil society in Georgia?
Zviad Koridze – Let’s start with transformation of the Soviet Union. Given that no system of values existed in the Soviet Union, obviously some could argue about this issue, but I believe that the product that emerged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union couldn’t have had some civil backbone. There were very few things that could have originated civil awareness. Firstly, this was our historic basis, for example, a liberal heritage available in this country, could have been read and comprehended correctly. I mean Sulkhan-Saba, Vakhtang VI, Guramishvili, Baratashvili, Ilia Chavchavadze, Vazha Pshavela, Davit Kldiashvili and the works of others. This is a huge, enormous liberal basis, which could have freely originated a civil society movement and created a good basis for a modern, already 21st Century citizen. I think those who created the history of civil awareness did not become the center of public interest, i.e. the society was not rightly informed, their heritage was not critically analyzed, and the names of these people turned in fact into the clichés. Canonization of Ilia Chavchavadze in 1987 is a classic example of this, by which Ilia Chavchavadze, who is a model liberal-democrat not only for his contemporaries but today as well, in fact became sacral. Ilia Chavchavadze’s page was turned over, because he can no longer be read as an individual with civil values, he’s a saint.
So you believe that critical approach and analysis of Ilia's works is unacceptable?
Zviad Koridze – Criticism was unacceptable. Clerical forces have won gradually and they left from Ilia Chavchavadze only an icon, which taken alone gives nothing apart from the three words that emerged everywhere – language, motherland, faith. Language, motherland, faith – are the very civil values but in the context that Ilia Chavchavadze had meant, but separately and without context, these three words written on every single building refer to anti-civil awareness, are pseudo-patriotic and often even fascist. Such slogans were abundant at the end of 1980s and the lack of rethinking civil awareness has emerged. Merab Mamardashvili was very active at the end of the 1980s, who has precisely brought along the dimension of civil awareness: no patriotism, but citizenship, no religious fanaticism but approximation to truth. For this very reason the political class and the society could not, and moreover did not understand Merab Mamardashvili's explanation of truth – as to why is truth more than a motherland. Public groups were divided back then. Strong clerical, pseudo-patriotic groups have emerged then. Back then the Georgian political agenda was entirely driven by the pseudo-patriotic, often fascist content. By the way, this is still happening. There is a lack of liberal political forces today in Georgia and we have the so-called patriotic forces, which easily manage to nobble the society, a patriotic slogan does not require thinking, and it goes rather well with rallies. Merab Mamardashvili has once said – a rally is not bad because a lot of people gather, but because no act of thinking takes place – you do whatever everyone else does. At a rally, co-thinkers gather or you look for co-thinkers, but in our case this didn't take place, thus eroding all segments of society from civil values and today the words "civil thought", "civil awareness", "liberalism" are the curse words in Georgia. Individuals and institutions interested in preventing the civil society from development in Georgia, have done their best to destroy the "background" of civil awareness in Georgia. The society of such "background" should not have come to a civil war.
Let's clarify – do you refer to developments of early 1990s?
Zviad Koridze – Yes. If we look at large or small countries across the globe, all of them have witnessed civil wars, but the civil wars were occurring for the very values. Let's take the civil war in the United States of America – the society then was polarized and the dividing question was – whether the slavery should have remained in effect. One part of the society favored the slavery, and the other part was contradicting it. President Lincoln has understood the confrontation between the North and South very correctly and issued the very act, which, he knew exactly would lead to a civil war in the country and his assassination. He made this step. The civil war has taken place, following which the United States of America has rejected slavery, and the country has gained a new stimulus because it gave advantage to a civil value. What did we fight in 1991-1992 for? What was a civil value worth a war? Nothing. It turned out that changing a political context was essential – one political force has replaced another.
When one communicates with the society with slogans, is governance easy? And where is the civil society at this point?
Zviad Koridze – It's easy when you talk to the society, but when you talk to the civil society that has values – it's difficult. Expansionist, aggressive policy towards the Ossetians and other ethnic minorities was unacceptable for the civil society elements, and Eduard Shevardnadze's Abkhazian policy that was destructive was unacceptable, and Saakashvili's aggressive policies were unacceptable. As an observation, all three presidents have fought a war, and all three of them were defeated in these wars. Questions arise – have these presidents fought because they had failed to elevate their own political culture to a higher level or because they were paying a tribute to attitude of the public and not the civil society? I think they were making constituency-based calculations. Of course, a war based on fascist, pseudo-patriotic rhetoric will always bring more voters to the polls. Zviad Gamsakhurdia has organized the presidential election in 1991 against a war background, Eduard Shevardnadze has held parliamentary election in 1992 with pomp along with the war, and Mikheil Saakashvili has found the only way of legalizing sham election of 2008 through a war. A war was one of the key weapons of the Georgian political elite. Civil society does not accept this.
Notwithstanding the fact that death penalty was banned in Georgia, over the 25-year history I cannot recall any serious public movement in this respect. We did this, because it was one of the demands of the Council of Europe, as a result of which the norm was amended. That is why general public often say today that this punishment should be reinstated but do not say that all these crimes is a problem of the society. I always refer to the Breivik problem. Indeed, a tragedy of unbelievable scales has occurred and the whole Europe was shocked. It was shocking for me that the Norwegian Prime Minister has stated in his first public statement the same evening: we should confront with all of this with more democracy. This is how a civil society differs from the society. I often ask students if they know what Ilia Chavchavadze had talked about in 1906 for the first time when he was elected to the Duma, and what discussion had he originated in the Russian Duma? It was the abolition of a death penalty in the Empire. Ilia was a liberal, and he knew exactly what this means. When you acknowledge and share all of this, zero tolerance becomes unacceptable for you, just like a police anarchy, because when the civil society is strong, it self-regulates a lot and imposes more control on the government.
What is the civil society like today? Throughout its independent history, when was it strong?
Zviad Koridze – From the outset, our civil society’s problem was its seclusion, i.e. it was kind of self-satisfied from respecting these values, talking through these values and afterwards from gaining certain monopoly over them. I believe if the civil society representatives are more open and if they meet with other public groups more often, and if they don’t avoid debating, arguments and dialogue, the number of individuals with the civil society values will increase further. This is extremely important. In mid 1990s representatives of the civil society have started structuring in the form of non-governmental organizations. They possessed more information, and followed the same values. Although there were few of them, they have managed to establish non-governmental organizations built on values. There was no negative attitude towards non-governmental organizations back then, which emerged in the 2000s because the rest of the public have perceived them as a group confronted to them.
So the conflict of values has changed attitude towards non-governmental organizations? Was this the only reason or there are other factors as well?
Zviad Koridze – This is a main one, because the society didn’t have the integrity of values, and identity with these groups. This is a key problem. CSOs used to talk about many popular or unpopular topics and the rest of the society had difficulties in understanding their approaches, in sharing and consenting. This confrontation led to CSOs being considered as grant-eaters and Sorosites. Soros was the first in supporting the establishment of a philanthropic foundation in Georgia in order to develop civil awareness. George Soros became one of the serious enemies of the Georgian society with pre-feudal values, because he has helped individuals with visions different from the general public.
Let's discuss civil society, i.e. non-governmental organizations. What is their role in the introduction of civil values... Although there are lots of organizations of various types and it is difficult to evaluate them, you had an opportunity to be an outside observer as well as work in the non-governmental sector... What have they achieved or failed to achieve?
Zviad Koridze – Today civil sector is extremely broad and multi-layer, now everyone can set up a CSO and their number already exceeds thousands. Today it’s simple, you can even not register and operate a non-registered organization. But individuals not interested in empowering the civil society have confronted a certain tactics against this simplicity.
What kind of tactics?
Zviad Koridze – On one hand, there is an approach that one should use a CSO against another CSO. On the other hand, a CSO is a great form for raising funds. As long as they receive a grant and do whatever they please, it doesn’t matter that George Soros is a bad man in their eyes. Yet, we forget the most important thing – any European or American foundation is interested not only in providing grants to CSOs, but empowering the civil society as well.
Although the scale of George Soros’ capital turnover is greater than that of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the latter has more money across Georgia. At a glance, Bidzina Ivanishvili has spent over a billion during 15 years, and George Soros has not spent billion Dollars. Then why wasn’t a billion spent by Bidzina Ivanishvili effective? In terms of the constituency, it was profitable. Individuals who had received money have supported Bidzina Ivanishvili during critical times and returned to him political dividends. This has not reinforced civil society in the country. Maybe a concrete artist, writer or director found himself/herself in a materially carefree environment, but this form of providing the money has not increased their labor capacity, and to the contrary, has even weakened and slowed it down. Hence, with this money Bidzina Ivanishvili was doing a charitable rather than philanthropic work. This is why he’s different from Soros.
Robert Bosch’s activities are one of the great examples of philanthropy. He is one of the most serious entrepreneurs in the world, whose products are very well used by the Georgian customers as well. He invests 90 percent of his profits in philanthropy – education, science, civil sector development, ecology. He invests money in order to empower civil society, because if the civil society is strong and dominant over entire public, then the public will be strong. A strong society is a wealthy, demanding and doer society. Accordingly, such a society will itself produce and utilize Bosch’s goods. This means he’s looking at the issue globally. If we take a look at philanthropists in Europe and the United States – they are businessmen. They are not expecting specific profits today, but think that their businesses and lives are not over at the same time. Their children and grandchildren continue doing business and this is a public wealth. Hence, individuals in the civil domain reinforce public wealth. That’s why they invest money. Take a look at Ilia Chavchavadze’s business models – he was the very philanthropist. Ilia Chavchavadze did not give money to the poor, he was creating philanthropic ideas and that’s why he was great.
In your opinion, certain CSOs are set up sort of artificially and you've discussed their influence. What is the impact of other organizations on the society and the authorities?
Zviad Koridze – Civil society has impact on the government just like on the general public, because it possesses the most crucial leverage – civil values that develop the country. Civil society should be especially strong when the civil position of the authorities is weak. When the government is focused more on receiving more votes at the elections and is ready for the frequent use of pseudo-patriotic slogans, civil society must be activating at this point. For instance, civil society was very weak when the anti-discrimination law was examined. It was weak because it failed to correctly explain the nature and essence of this law to the society. Others – CSOs with non-civil values – have explained it in their own way. This resulted in a vague type of declaration and we have a law that does not work and cannot work due to the absence of an enforcement mechanism. Another example – civil society was extremely weak when it failed to explain to the society the essence of electronic identification documents and biometric registration, why is it good, what the state needs it for and why it develops the society. And whoever has explained – they did it badly. This resulted in people thinking that should one get an ID card, 666 will be depicted and a photo with horns will be printed – this is what one part of the society thinks including the Minister of Justice, who says that a special program was generated so that three 6s do not end up along each other as an identifying number. When the government starts thinking this way, the civil society must be sharp. In this case, civil society was absolutely inert. It was equally inert when the Government and Parliament of Georgia imposed a moratorium over selling the land to foreign citizens. Civil society could not even welcome the overturn of moratorium by the Constitutional Court, and today we are witnessing the Parliament’s intension to adopt the law. Who is more powerful in these processes? CSOs with no civil values.
Why does it happen this way and why does this very part of CSOs prevail?
Zviad Koridze – Observe the Government’s rhetoric – they claim they are listening to representatives of a non-governmental sector, but they are not saying they are listening to civil values. Conditionally, today this CSO can be the Eurasia Institute, tomorrow – the Union of Orthodox Parents, day after tomorrow – some other, etc.
Is this the only reason?
Zviad Koridze – Definitely. In above-described examples the Government becomes an associate of these groups, because it calculates the number of votes all of this will bring in six months, percentage that the ratings will grow by in a year and benefits received at elections in two years' time. It thinks in a simple manner, and therefore I believe our current government is not capable of carrying out required but unpopular reforms and thus forming a high quality civil state. We had the same government 5, 10 and 20 years ago. That is why the civil values become decrepit and the role of non-civil institutions increases in parallel. I mean the church. Church is not a civil institution, it has its own place in the secular society. In any secular society, where the civil society is not in conflict with it, the church does not confront civil society either. Because they agree that the very equality, progress, competition are values having originated from the Christian foundations. Civil values come from the Christian foundations – this is what the Europe and the United States of America have conceptualized, while this isn't a case in Georgia yet.
Then where is the value-based civil society, what are they doing?
Zviad Koridze – Whoever has these values, their proportion is gradually diminishing. An anti-discrimination law is a very interesting example – it was a really good draft law, then it was confronted by the political class, various CSOs with no value-based approaches at all, the church and the public – part of citizens was greatly confused. There were few people supporting this draft law. As an ordinary citizen, I'm happy that such groups exist in the country, that there are individuals fighting, but unfortunately these individuals are being marginalized. While media should be propagating civil values, to the contrary it tries to marginalize these people; while the political class should be modern and focused on civil values, they also try to marginalize them.
CSOs are criticized rather actively recently, what do you think is the reason?
Zviad Koridze – Very often when CSOs are being criticized, they never mean for instance the Eurasian Institute or the Union of Orthodox Parents, etc. Reproached mainly are the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, Charter of Journalistic Ethics, Transparency International - Georgia, etc. I often hear a question about the sources of their grants. General public is aware of foundations that issue grants – "Open Society – Georgia" Foundation, Adenauer, Ebert, Eurasia Partnership Foundation, as well as the inter-state foundations, the EU, US Agency for International Development, IREX, etc. Their reports are public. But what is the funding source of organizations that have money, periodically organize rallies, and have high-quality print editions?
Where their funding comes from?
Zviad Koridze – I think from Russia and their goal is to destroy civil values, civil culture in the country. For instance, initiating a campaign against Zurab Karumidze, who has dared to write a novel that I believe is one of the best examples of Georgian literature; dedicating public platforms to this campaign, following which the Government of Georgia decides not to appoint Karumidze as an Ambassador, while two weeks ago it had made this decision. What does all of this mean? Civil society should tell the Government that by such action it has encouraged censorship on free thought, that its political decisions are not consistent and that moreover, it is thus destroying a civil body. We have such challenges in the country. Today we have the lack of democracy. If somebody thinks that democracy is a rule of the majority over the minority, they are wrong. Furthermore, in the democracy the majority is not an unconditional leader – it is taking into account the opinions of the minority. Civil society is a minority in all areas. I remember a total fight announced by the European, and especially French intellectual circles when Yeltsin had sent troops to Chechnya. They were a minority, and they were talking, writing and going to streets for the very civil values. Back then the Mitterrand Government could not change anything, but this is France's dignity, it empowers France, creates the signs of statehood, because otherwise governments come and go.
How should the civil society become dominant in the country?
Zviad Koridze – This is a long-term process. Civil values cannot become dominant by ordinance. They are formed through education and rethinking of historical memory that one comes with.
What is your impression, has this process started...
Zviad Koridze – It's going very poorly. For example, 2 years ago, in 2012 there was an anniversary of the first edition of "A Knight in the Panther's Skin". Georgia has not celebrated this date. Saakashvili was in power then, and at the end of the year Ivanishvili's government came to the helm. None of them have celebrated. It's an issue of values here as well, we make a fetish of "A Knight in the Panther's Skin", whereas it is a monument of freedom. Whenever one wants to discuss or stage "A Knight in the Panther's Skin", one is told not to do this or touch it. It must be "dead" – there must be 300 "A Knight in the Panther's Skins" at home and none of them must be opened up. By its nature, "A Knight in the Panther's Skin" is an anti-clerical monument, and the very clerical forces do not want to celebrate its anniversary. This is a problem. Once again, when Ilia Chavchavadze is made so sacral, it's a problem; when at the Georgian language and literature lessons teachers do not assign pupils of 10th, 11th and 12th classes to read and think about the letters of Ilia, Vazha, Niko Nikoladze, and Davit Kldiashvili – it's a problem. Individual priests from the church go and deliver lessons and the school is being subjected to clericalism. Such a school cannot give us a civil society product or a free citizen. Discussions must be launched in this context, it is crucial.
You mentioned that the civil society is weak, compared to what?
Zviad Koridze – Civil society is very weak and it needs reinforcement. It was much stronger in 2002 than in 2012. If we take a look at media in 2002-2003, we would see that a political force coming to power at the time was achieving this through the very civil values. "10 Steps to Freedom" – was the title of a document that the National Movement was waving around. It was an extremely important document, but should you have look at this document in 2012 – nothing from there was fulfilled because this party itself has gone far from the civil values while being in power. On one hand, it gained the image of a fighter against cleric forces, but on the other hand, they used to spend huge funds for these forces and they were cooperating very well. This was a problematic issue.
Civil society was weaker in 2012 than in 2002, but it is even weaker today. Both in 2002 and 2012, when the political settings changed, people had expectations that the environment had changed and the new rulers would have taken care of problems. I've overheard in 2002-2003 that Misha would not turn a blind eye to his promises, as well as in 2013 that individuals had hopes in Bidzina. Civil values cannot hope for Bidzina Ivanishvili only. Maybe he has a feeling that he is a citizen adhering to civil values, i.e. he is a modern citizen and not just an ID card holder, but then he should look for the citizens in the country himself and the civil society should be empowering together. It is a disaster if he has a feeling that he's the only individual with civil values.
I may not be drawing an optimistic picture, but I'm optimistic that tomorrow and day after this will change and youngsters of 15-25 years of age will change this picture substantially. There is a larger portion of individuals aspiring to civil values among them than among the older generation.