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Joseph Alexander Smith, member of movement Lelo, talks on current challenges facing Georgia

By Nika Gamtsemlidze
Thursday, December 19
Joseph Alexander Smith, from the UK, has been living in Georgia for several years now. After running as an independent candidate for office in the Tbilisi City Assembly in 2017 local elections, he continued his political career and recently became a member of the newly-established Movement, Lelo. In an interview with The Messenger, Mr. Smith discussed challenges facing Georgia, the upcoming 2020 elections and future plans of Lelo.

Why was not the parliament able to pass the electoral amendments? Do you think this was something the ruling party intended from the beginning?

I always try to keep an open mind when it comes to specific versions. Some people will tell you this is Bidzina Ivanishvili's plan, this is how it worked out, he bought these MPs, the majoritarian MPs, and problem in Georgian politics, from my experience over the last 10 years, is that conspiracy-theory-like versions are often the truest. So, I don't know, it's difficult to say.

As you said, these are people who haven't been very active and don't seem to have a very good idea about the separation between for example the functions of the majoritarian MP and functions of local self-government in Georgia, so itís very suspicious. I'm particularly annoyed on the personal level by the statements of one of the majoritarian MPís, I think it was Khundadze, he was talking about the electoral system in the UK. I mean, we have a number of other checks and balances and the idea of just introducing a completely majoritarian system, the system which has grown and evolved over many, many years, to just adopt the wholesale in another country like Georgia, is just as ridiculous as copying and pasting bits of legislation.

There's also a huge discussion about whether or not to change the electoral system in the UK so itís not like itís not a problematic thing. Especially after this general election in the UK, people are talking about changing the electoral system as well, so whether it will happen or not, I don't know, but we had that kind of initiative and it was rejected in a referendum.

The main thing for Lelo definitely is that we're preparing to fight under whatever system as soon as possible, so we've moved to some kind of pre-election mode, so we're already preparing how to structure ourselves in regions and how to maximally try to utilize our resources and thinking of what strategies are going to be successful. We're already completely in election mode and we're not even officially a party yet so whatever happens, we'll be ready to fight, no matter what the electoral system is. But we still believe principally that this promise was very important.

What do you think is a bigger problem, the fact that the electoral amendments did not pass or the fact that the government was not able to fulfill their promise?

The real problem is when the ruling party makes a promise and then they go back on it. So, they need to expect to be punished for that in the next elections. The mixed system, and the majoritarian system, would give them less chance to feel the full effect of that punishment. Iíd be very happy to see a proportional system to come under the terms it was promised. I feel like in this day of age there is a move towards something which reflects the proportional distribution to votes.

I think the proportional system would allow parties to eventually emerge maybe more based on their ideology and for all of them to have a say and a platform. So, if you have a small party, even if they got two MPís it would be a platform for them to use to have a connection with a broader audience.

What do you expect from the 2020 elections, both for Georgia and for Lelo?

Well, I hope for Lelo it means that we win, and we become the governing party, thatís hope. But if not, we will definitely make use of every opportunity that we get from having MPs in Parliament. We are working on plans on how to govern the country and how to communicate with people.

For Georgia, to be honest, I can imagine that Georgian Dream could be really difficult to displace through the elections in 2020, I think it could be deeply, deeply unpopular in society. I think their biggest achievement has been turning people away from the political process. You have people saying, ĎI donít want to take part in the elections. I donít like any of them, I hate them all, I donít trust politicians, etc.í And I think that is the biggest danger, they, the Georgian Dream party, have been very good at creating this situation.

We as a party, as Lelo, need to make sure that we have new faces, new approaches. Iím looking forward to when I go to my first door-to-door campaigns, which I will probably be doing way before elections. Iím looking forward to all of the hate that the people have towards the politicians coming out to us, we need to stand there, we need to take that because that helps us see what people really think and feel about politics in Georgia. Our responsibility is to accept those negative comments, to accept that criticism and learn from them.

I think itís going to be really difficult in 2020.

How did you become a member of Lelo?

In 2017 I ran for Saburtalo representative in Sakrebulo, and that was probably the best experience of my life. I really enjoyed pretty much everything, working on being calm, working on my Georgian, working on interviews, etc.

In 2019 I was very skeptical about Georgia politics, I even had some concerns about Lelo in the beginning, I mean, I thought, do we need another banker in Georgian politics? But as I watched the movement develop, I could see that this was a really important opening for people like me. Although my ideological views may be more to the left than some people in the party, I saw that Lelo was offering something Georgia needed. Internal democracy was also very important to me.

Anti-discrimination law was passed a few years ago but we still see harsh human rights violations, what could the government do about this?

We think about adopting laws, copying laws, etc. we pass these laws, and we donít think about how they can be implemented, we donít know what people really think about them. In this case, there is not enough public information on how to make use of that. In any case, you need a strong implementation mechanism. We need to have more public information on the mechanisms that we have, but in most cases, we donít.

More than a month ago, Georgian doctor, Vazha Gaprindashvili was detained for crossing the so-called border. What more can be done to get him free?

This is a huge problem. This is the reality of Russian occupation, that it goes to very close to our society. Itís not just villages or towns taken away by fences and with the de facto government. The point of occupation is really to strike very close to society and to bring people to their knees.

As for what can be done, you need to exhaust every avenue, you have to make use of any mechanism that you have. At the same time, these protests, and donít get me wrong, Iím a huge supporter of protests, we need to rethink what we do, we should not say Ďeverybody to the occupation line now,í and things like that. Itís extremely delicate.

Do you think Erekle Kukhianidze should leave office after his statements about Gaprindashvili?

I donít look at elective positions as just jobs, these people are elected by a certain group of people and what right do I have, for example, to say that they should leave their mandate? I feel uncomfortable to demand them to leave, but we should put pressure on the Chairman to propose some kinds of sanctions on them.

If 2020 elections were to be held proportionally and Lelo had to get into a coalition with one of the other parties, who do you think Lelo would choose to cooperate with?

That is incredibly difficult to say and our position on this is that we are not announcing or naming parties we would form coalitions with after entering parliament. Itís difficult to say, thereís still time for new political forces to emerge. We already have a coordination with two other parties, the New Rights and Usupashviliís Development Movement. We coordinate with them in benefit from their political experience. Itís very difficult to say for now.

Mamuka Khazaradze presented the public movement Lelo in early September on the Anaklia coast. Lelo, the name selected for the movement, is a reference to the traditional Georgian team game Lelo Burti, which is similar to rugby and also means to score in the game.