A Brit & His Georgian Dream


Brit-turned Georgian, Joseph Alexander Smith won a very respectable 14.04% of votes in the Saburtalo district in the recent municipal elections. GEORGIA TODAY went to ask him how he did it.

What would you say were the strengths and weaknesses of your campaign?

I think that my strengths were that I was a new face and independent candidate, who used media very much to his advantage. I got a lot of feedback from individuals who had a lack of trust towards the main parties, who felt that an independent person would better represent them. Of course, in Saburtalo, they already had the experience of being represented by another independent candidate, Aleko Elisashvili, in the city council after the 2014 elections. Being British was also handy, as people generally associate Britishness with competency, so that helped. Furthermore, a lot of the campaign itself was very much focused on people, as I spent a lot of my time doing door-to-door campaigning, which allowed me to actually meet the potential voters, and directly listen to and talk about their issues and concerns. For many of them, this was the first time that they had actually had a politician come to their door, which enabled me to gain their trust and have a much more honest and down-to-earth conversation with them. The fact that because of this I developed a very close relationship with voters was definitely a strength, which showed in the results: in the districts where I campaigned most vigorously, I got more votes than the second established party, the United National Movement.

In terms of weaknesses, I went into the campaign a bit unprepared due to various legal issues, trying to work out whether I’d even be able to run. I also didn’t have enough money to do the things that I would have liked to have done, as a lot of the campaign was self-funded. Indeed, I didn’t have a lot of time to get things together in that sense, because I was both the candidate and campaign manager, so I had a very intensive interview schedule, amongst a host of other responsibilities, that I had to take care of myself. Had I had more people to help me, I could have maybe worked more on the fundraising side. Not having a bigger team to help share the responsibilities of running a campaign was definitely another weakness.

How does being a foreigner, coming from a different culture, upbringing and background help with your mindset and approach to problem-solving compared to your rivals?

I personally don’t believe that there is a huge difference between how I think about things versus how Georgians do. I think that if there is such a thing as a “Georgian mentality”, it’s very much based on how an individual has experienced this country politically, economically, and socially over the last 25 years, which is a very different set of circumstances. So yes, Georgians might view things differently to me very often due to their different experiences, but that does not necessarily mean that they are incapable of viewing things the same way that I do.

In terms of problem-solving, I think that there are things that work very often in electoral politics, in campaigning, in proposing solutions to problems, and they work everywhere. Sometimes Georgian politicians think “Oh no, I’m not going to do that because Georgian reality is different”. I don’t always agree with them on that. You need to think big and think global, using experience from other places, especially those countries that have been through transitional phases like the one that Georgia is going through right now. So, in some ways, yes, I do have a different viewpoint than certain Georgian politicians, but I think that my view of Georgian politics is different as well.

Of course, there are indeed many issues that need to be addressed, questions answered, especially in my district where there were several violations. However, the day after the results, I was more focused on the positives that I could draw from my performance, rather than falling into this miserable, childish, and pathetic cycle of whining; something that a lot of the smaller parties were guilty of. For me, although huge amounts of people voted for my rival, and I only came in third place, I think it would be very unwise of me to start complaining about the elections, that votes were bought, etc., when those are votes that I want in the future. So I’m not about to start insulting people for their democratic choices. I try to stay above the dominant cultures in opposition politics and do things my own way: focus on the positives and move from strength to strength slowly. That’s what I’m going to do now.

You mentioned “those votes that you want in the future.” What’s next on the agenda?

The elections have given me a lot to think about, and I’ve received a lot of advice since then. Firstly, though I focused a lot on urban issues, the fact that so many people could be mobilized in the way that they were shows the extent to which money influences the outcomes of elections, even if you’re not buying or forging votes. Especially on a background of huge social and economic inequality in Georgia, you cannot really ignore that anymore. I’d like to change the way we advertise for elections, with a possible banning of putting up posters all over town. We won’t have truly democratic elections until we’re able to deal with that fundamental economic inequality: I want to deal with this problem in the future.

Which leads me to my second epiphany. Despite running as an independent candidate, I have come to realize that independent candidates don’t have much of a political future. While political parties are increasingly unpopular in Georgia, I still think they are key to politics. In the future, though I don’t want to start one myself, I believe that I should be a member of a party. That said, none of the existing parties fit my ideological vision, nor do I think they have an answer to that question of how to deal with the huge social and economic inequality in the country. In the future, I will be looking at which party emerges; I have certain people in mind who, due to their morals, political positions and philosophies, I can see as potential future partners in a political party. Although we have a lot of work to do before then to revive the idea of political parties, because there have been so many new parties coming out, breaking off from the two “big beasts”, as it were, that have just failed. To me, that’s because they are not doing it properly, but that doesn’t mean political parties per se are bad. A broad-based party with a strong ideological identity, with a new outlook on how to do opposition politics would be a good thing.

You’ve been involved in bringing attention to and solving urban issues like road-safety, and environmentally friendly sustainable development of the city

I came to this whole thing as an activist dealing with a range of issues, so I don’t really have just the one issue that I concentrate on: I work on urban issues as a whole. In terms of road safety, it was part of my work when I volunteered at Iare Pekhit, a civil society organization, which originally focused just on pedestrian rights, but is now trying to become an organization that deals with defending public spaces and diversifying transport as well. I didn’t have a comprehensive program like “this is how we solve XYZ” because I wasn’t a mayoral candidate. So even if I’d gotten into the City Council I wouldn’t have had the resources to start implementing a pre-election program: I kept my campaign very much about principles, not promises. I listed my principles regarding these issues, and outlined what I considered to be red lines. For example, everybody has the right to free and safe movement, and when we plan public transport, we should be planning for the most vulnerable citizens in the city. So that’s a principle from which I can work, judging the value of every new initiative whether or not it lives up to it. That was what my campaign was about.

With regards to what I’m going to do next, it’s really difficult because there are a lot of things that I’d like to do, but I also need to make money to survive, especially as the election campaign proved to be a big drain on the coffers. What I want to do is continue my work with the citizens that I met; helping to solve their problems. I’ll be finding ways to do that. Organizing groups of citizens is very important, and it is something that is often quite difficult to do here in Georgia, to help citizens help themselves. I’d like to help them move away from purely protesting to properly organizing and fighting for community initiatives. I’ll be initially doing that through the media. There is definitely plenty I want to do. Many parties lack somebody who has a strong urban profile, and I can bring that to them. I’m starting to see the logic of a new political force coalesce in my mind, but there’s still a long way to go before I can come to party politics.

The fact that you won 14.04% shows that people of Tbilisi are receptive to your message. However, the reality remains that you will always be a foreigner in the eyes of many, so were there any ethical reservations on your side about entering these elections, what were your motivations for doing so, and how would you respond to accusations that what you are doing is a stereotypical manifestation of the “white savior complex”?

I really do not feel like it’s a “white savior complex”. It was really interesting when I had a few people accuse me of being a “colonialist,” as they had no idea what a left-wing, well-read-in-the-subject (of post-colonialism) person they were dealing with. So don’t come to me with these Frantz Fannon-esque accusations; they are simply not true. I find it very interesting that people perceive that in me because it’s really not what motivates me. Like I said, I never came into this campaign saying things like “I know this better than you because I am British,” I just negated your suggestion that Georgians might have a radically different mentality from mine, and that I can offer a more “proper Western” political strategy. Anything I can bring to the table is personally me, Joseph, not a representation of British culture. Obviously, I speak Georgian, I made the effort to speak to the people in their own language and on their own terms. I guess it’s unusual, but I feel very much integrated as part of this society. I don’t feel disconnected from Georgia, and when people accuse me of things like this “white savior complex”, it’s ridiculous. These are my streets too, the ones that I have been walking on for the last five years, this is the air I have been breathing for the last five years. OK, nobody is forcing me to be here, but this is my city, I’m a citizen of this country, and this is what motivates me to go out and help it. It’s the same thing that should be motivating you: to go out and make a difference to the country that’s yours, which is also now mine.

So, to sum up, I have no moral issues with a “white savior complex” because I don’t think it applies to me at all. I find it extremely strange when people compute it into my motives. Thankfully, for the most part, there was a very positive reaction to my candidacy, and if they suggested that “oh he’s British, that must mean he is more professional,” I never implied or said that myself. Moreover, I have a friend back in Britain, originally from Azerbaijan, who moved to the UK as a teenager and is now a counselor at Westminster. So, when people say things like “what if I went to Britain and stood in the local elections,” there you go! By all means, go and do it, I wish you all the success. I feel like I’m very much part of Georgian culture and I feel very at home here in the country: I feel much closer to Tbilisi than I ever did to London.


By Mate Foldi

09 November 2017 17:46