Electing the Future: Participation of Civil Society and Youth in Georgian Party Politics | Event Report

Electing the Future

“Let’s bring the future back to democracy!”

Which instruments do civil society actors have to engage with parties in Georgia and Germany, and how can these mechanisms be enhanced? What is the role of young people in party politics, and how can their voices help to diversify political discourse in the country? We discussed these and other questions with experts in Berlin and Tbilisi in a Zoom panel – find the summary here!

On 3 September, Polis180 together with the Embassy of Georgia in Berlin has organised an online discussion on participation of civil society and youth in Georgian party politics, bringing together experts from Georgia and Germany to share their insights on mechanisms of interaction between civil society actors and political parties in these two countries and democracies more broadly. The event was organised in the context of the currently ongoing project GEOYOUTH2020 – Manifesto engaging youth in politics in Georgia.

Georgian Ambassador Prof. Dr. Leval Izoria in his welcoming remarks underlined the importance of youth as drivers for change and empathised the enormous potential youth presents to develop Georgia: “We should keep in mind that they are our future leaders”. He praised already existing formats of cooperation and exchange for youth across Europe,, with Germany being one of the most popular destinations for Georgian youth. Support to youth as part of the EU cooperation through the Eastern Partnership (EaP) continues to be an important pillar and should in his opinion be further strengthened. In view of the upcoming parliamentary elections, he encouraged decision makers to understand youth as part of civil society from an early age, including to encourage and strengthen discussion and debating skills as part of school curricula. Finally, he appealed to Georgian political parties to guarantee a fair environment for the elections and a fair competition.

Additional introductory remarks were given by Ambassador Hans-Jürgen Heimsoeth, Special Representative for the Eastern Partnership at the German Federal Foreign Office. He emphasised the role of youth as a decisive factor for resilience in the EaP countries, which in turn is important to support pluralism and participation of civil society – and not least to counter prevailing disinformation and propaganda. In his words, “A democracy needs young people with fresh ideas and new mindsets”. To work on the basis of party politics and create vibrant youth wings is crucial for vibrant democracies, which is also why GEOYOUTH2020 is an important German-Georgian endeavourTogether with 42 other currently ongoing bi- and multilateral projects with Georgia, it shows the significance the German government assigns to support civil society in the EaP and Russia. Not least current events in Belarus demonstrate that civil society is awake and carry the democratization – ultimately, it is the people themselves who decide their countries destinies. Georgia is a frontrunner in this effort, but many steps need yet to be taken. 2020, Ambassador Heimsoth concluded, will see key elections in Georgia – “it is in your hands.”

In the ensuing panel discussion, Anna Kiknadze (Polis180) discussed with Givi Silagadze (Georgian Institute of Politics), Khatia Kikalishvili (Center for Liberal Modernity), and Paulina Fröhlich (Das Progressive Zentrum). In his input, Givi Silagadze explained that trust in politicians in Georgia is low among all age groups, but youth are the most reluctant to get involved in political parties as they do not see their views represented. While political parties claim that they do engage with youth, this interaction is in his view little more than “smoke screening”, accepting youth as volunteers for mobilisation but not engaging them permanently in their structures. As a result, few politicians emerge from a party background but get recruited later in their professional careers outside of politics.

During the youth summits held as part of GEOYOUTH2020, young people from across Georgia discussed challenges to getting involved in politics, confirming these observations. What is more, his research with youth wings from several Georgian parties showed that their members often experience a lack of interest from media and civil society, and that they are not taken seriously within the political process. In conclusion, he suggested three ways to tackle the lack of youth participation: strengthening inter-party democracy by providing the opportunity to mobilize and influence party politics also to young people; changing the electoral system to a fully proportional system, which would benefit vertical nominations and thus promote promising young people; and for parties to keep in mind long-term goals instead of quick wins such as raising pensions, as this policy will on the long run keep alienating especially young voters.

Khatia Kikalishvili presented the Center for Liberal Modernity project Eastern Partnership 2.0, aimed at promoting the political debate of the three frontrunner countries among the EaP (Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) and at strengthening mutual relations and cooperation on various levels. This goal of this pilot project is ultimately to enable the countries’ representatives to speak with one voice vis à vis European politicians.

In May 2021, a new strategy for the Eastern Partnership will be published by the European Commission, based on a communiqué naming five priorities, among them civil society and youth empowerment. Working with civil society has become a vital instrument in the rapprochement process and the European Union continues to increase their efforts in this field and puts it to the forefront through increased mobility and cooperation. In response to Ambassador Heimsoeth’s remarks, she concluded that while resilience is important, so are the rule of law and security issues which should not be neglected in the forthcoming strategy.

Paulina Fröhlich began her input by praising civil society as “one of greatest resources a democracy can have in terms of creative ideas, constructive criticism but also practice of solidarity”. She reported that the approach of civil society to political parties has changed over the years, from a direct involvement to a more distanced evaluation. In her view, it is therefore crucial for parties to find new ways to work with civil society and especially new and emerging groups. What is more, parties find it increasingly difficult to engage young and diverse new members. Therefore, she advised to have a closer look at the relations (and possible new forms) of cooperation between them, such as short term engagements and digital formats.

She added four observations to be kept in mind when engaging in this dialogue: civil society organisations today focus more closely on the relation to the state and administration whereas parties focus on citizens. Civil society however is not the same as citizens. Organised civil society steadily becomes more diverse and political. And finally, from her observation, young people need less education in debating culture and information as they tend to be much more literal, and many young people know exactly how to interact politically but lack respectful (older) counterparts. These observations lead her to the question of whether parties should not move away from approaches of how they can give something to the youth and ask what they can gain from them – and whether the older generations have the right ear to hear what youth has to say, given the impressive engagement of young people across the globe every single day.

In the ensuing discussion, Paulina Fröhlich testified that while the will for engagement is high among young people, there are not enough channels to engage them. She advised to use digital channels, make engagement more flexible and less centralised, and to ask volunteers themselves what they need to get – and stay – engaged. A first step is to lower the bar to get started, especially for those people who do not find themselves represented yet but who are indispensable to help increase a pluralism of voices. She suggested that against common understanding we are not in a crisis of democracy – but of representation. And this is true for political parties especially, who continue to represent the societies they are meant to serve extremely disproportionately. To start a dialogue, one should seek to engage on a level of communality and then slowly work towards more polarising topics.

Givi Silagadze pointed out that the distrust in parties is further fuelled by the impermeability of party structures and the continuity of party leadership. Young people are very aware of this and as a consequence prefer to pursue their careers outside of politics and join at a later stage. One resulting problem is that they then often do not do so because they share the party’s values and find themselves represented but for opportunistic reasons. This is a problem in itself, and as his research has shown, a worrying effect is that there is little criticism inside party structures for them to evolve. To change this, politicians should use the potential of youth and give them real opportunities to get involved and have an impact which will also help the parties in the long run.

When it comes to the role of the EU, Khatia Kikalishvili made it clear that neither they nor the EaP framework can solve this particular problem for parties in Georgia and elsewhere. However, the population has great trust in European institutions, which gives them great leverage. So far, economic resilience has been the focus, but other topics have been neglected, especially disinformation leading to distrust and polarisation often fuelled by Russia, which further inhibit trust in institutions and political integration of EaP countries. She therefore concluded that the EaP needs an upgrade to support democratic forces in all partner countries: the EU should strengthen civil society, education and training cooperations. In addition, she hopes for a stronger stance of EU officials in the future since they have the power to push ruling elites for reforms – and this is in their direct interest.

In the speakers’ final remarks, Givi Silagadze answered to a wide-spread perception of politics in Georgia: “Politics will be dirty as long as we allow it to be dirty – so get engaged and make a change!” Paulina Fröhlich demanded: “Let’s bring the future back to democracy!” She underlined that there are many initiatives out there one can join – we all have the power to join forces and bring about change. Khatia Kikalishvili additionally suggested to use the opportunities given by the EU and other institutions in the form of mobility and scholarship programmes, funding opportunities and more. Through such programs, young people can take the opportunity to share their values with their counterparts across Europe and the world. In the direction of Georgian youth, she added: “And don’t give up on the European Union – our time will come and we will be ready!

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