Expat SOAS grad in Tbilisi is making a historic run for office

Alumnus Joseph Alexander Smith running for election in Tbilisi, Georgia
Joseph on the campaign trail in Tbilisi

A Development Studies graduate is making serious waves in Georgian political seas as the first ever expat turned Georgian citizen to run for political office in the country’s history.

Joseph Alexander Smith, who studied MSc Violence, Conflict and Development, has worked as a freelance journalist in Georgia’s capital since 2012 – the same year he graduated from SOAS.

His policies could be conveniently packaged up as being ‘Green’ – an environmental activist who loves his cycling, Smith seeks to gain office to deal with chronic traffic jams and unchecked urban expansion that have blighted many districts of Tbilisi.

Alumnus Joseph Alexander Smith running for election in Tbilisi, Georgia

Connecting with the electorate

Whilst his candidacy has been met with widespread support, both within his district and from friends back in the UK – there are those who are suspicious of his potential election. Certain tabloid sections of the Press even went so far as to state it was an attempt by Her Majesty’s Government to sneak a spy into the heart of Georgian politics.

What did you make of the rumours that you were a spy?

I think it’s pretty funny to be honest. People must have a very odd idea of what our secret services do if they honestly believe the British Government needs an agent in the municipal government of a friendly nation’s capital city.  I put this to a friend of mine, but he just said ‘well it’s classic MI6 – if you want to hide something put it in plain view’. After that, I don’t think there’s anything else I can say on the matter!

When is the election taking place and how is the campaign going so far?

The Election is taking place on 21 October – elections are to the Sakrebulo (City Assembly) and also for the City Mayor of cities that have them. Half of the 50 deputies in Sakrebulo are elected according to district (so-called majoritarians) and the other half by a proportional system. I’m standing as a majoritarian candidate for one part of Saburtalo, a quickly-developing part of the city developed largely during Soviet times, and home to the city’s main hospitals and medical university.

The campaign is going well, although due to a lack of funds I’m not managing to do as much as I’d like to in terms of large events. I’m really running on a shoe string budget, but on the other hand, interest in my candidacy is high and I wasn’t an entirely unknown face in Georgia when I started out. I’m doing a lot of door-to-doors, which is probably the most effective way to use the resources I have, and it’s interesting to get to know the district better.

“Well it’s classic MI6 – if you want to hide something put it in plain view”

What impact did your studies at SOAS have on your future career?

Actually I can thank SOAS for the fact that I’m in Georgia. When I was working as subject librarian for Middle East and Central Asia ( maternity cover, in 2010-2011 for the current subject librarian), it was there that I started to take an interest in the Caucasus region – until then I’d been an Arabic-language specialist at the British Library, but when books started arriving on my desk from the Caucasus, I realised I’d better at least familiarise myself with the basics of the region’s languages and cultures.

On my first day on the job, I received a copy of Thomas Goltz’s Azerbaijan Diaries, an account of his work as a journalist during the tumultuous aftermath of the collapse of Soviet Rule. This book absolutely fascinated me, and I knew I had to get myself to Azerbaijan sooner or later. I formed a plan to escape from London life and libraries and planned an internship in Azerbaijan with Conciliation Resources, a peace-building NGO in 2011. I loved Azerbaijan, but I knew Baku wouldn’t be the city I’d escape to from London. By chance I decided to check out Georgia on the way back home, and spent three days in the country which changed my life. I immediately resolved to settle in Georgia in 2012, which I did, arriving during the pre-election period of the dramatic parliamentary elections of that year which saw the end of Saakashvili’s party’s time in government.

“By chance I decided to check out Georgia on the way back home, and spent three days in the country which changed my life.”

As for the academic side, I’d already decided to move to Georgia when I started my Masters, so that year was an interesting time of preparation. The best resource for me during my time studying at SOAS was the library, and having access to materials on the countries of the Caucasus which helped me to apply knowledge garnered during lectures to a new set of case studies. Another big resource was the backgrounds of the other students on the course – many of them had come to the MSc programme with a pretty firm idea about which regions or countries they wanted to work in, and many of them were passionate about particular case studies or approaches to development. Contact with these other students, both in and out of lectures, really broadened my experience. And learning about things like China’s expanding role on ‘development’ activities in countries around the world really helped me when I started to work as a journalist here in Georgia.

Visit Joseph’s Facebook page to show support for his campaign.

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