Michael Totten

A Free Georgia Can Only Be Democratic

by Michael Cecire
Editor’s note: I recently returned from a trip to Georgia where my reporting was necessarily focused on the Russian invasion. Russia’s occupation and de-facto annexation of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, though, aren’t the only serious problems the country faces right now. The following guest column by Michael Cecire, whose knowledge of and experience in Georgia are much more extensive than mine, should fill in some of the rest of the story. — MJT
On September 15, speaking in a press conference in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, Secretary General of NATO Jaap de Hoop Scheffer voiced NATO’s support for Georgia, a recent victim of Russian militarism, while urging the nascent democracy to push forward with reforms. Scheffer’s suggestion could not have come at a better time. For while Georgia’s war wounds still fester, its government is rapidly approaching a crisis of legitimacy.
In November of 2007, large-scale opposition protests broke out in the streets. Demonstrators demanded President Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili’s resignation. The government responded by forcibly dispersing the protesters and shutting down the independent television station Imedi, effectively monopolizing state control over the country’s television media. Snap elections were called in January. The opposition, passionate but fractious and incoherent, lost to Saakashvili’s ruling National Movement. Although significant evidence exists that Saakashvili’s victory could be at least partially attributed to a blurring of state and party apparatuses, the election was eventually deemed reasonably free and fair.
Still, the November events stood in stark contrast to Saakashvili’s own meteoric rise through people-power protests against the corrupt administration of Eduard Shevardnadze, an old USSR party apparatchik. Despite gradual democratic and economic improvements since Saakashvili’s 2003 Rose Revolution, the November repressions marked a sharp reversal in Georgia’s upward trajectory. Freedom House revised down Georgia’s political rights and civil liberties scores a full point each.
Since then, there has been no evidence that Saakashvili’s government intends to make real amends for its mishandling of the November protests and subsequent restrictions it placed on the opposition and independent media. The courts and commissions continue to be packed with National Movement operatives, the political structure continues to favor enormous presidential power, and in a bizarre Putin-esque scheme, a landowner in Borjomi was jailed for refusing to transfer property to the government. Eerily reminiscent of Russia’s Yukos affair — an apparent harbinger of Russia’s slide into authoritarianism — the landowner was coerced into withdrawing claims on his land after his family was threatened and after suffering medical complications from rough, extrajudicial imprisonment.
Georgia is not Russia — not even close. Nor does the Saakashvili government’s democratic deficit absolve the West’s shame for inaction or Russia’s blame for the recent conflict, which was only the latest chapter in a long narrative of Russian aggression. Even so, discussions of Georgia’s security, Russian revanchism, and future U.S.-Georgian relations cannot be divorced from the quality of Georgia’s own democracy, often lovingly and cynically cited by Saakashvili himself. NATO’s Secretary General was right to remind Georgia that its accession into the Alliance will largely depend on successful and sustainable democratic reforms which are desperately needed to reverse the country’s seeming plunge down a path trail blazed by none other than Vladimir Putin.
Although the opposition message has been generally inchoate, frustrations are building and patience is thinning. Sozar Subari, a Parliament-appointed public defender and outspoken critic of Saakashvili, recently issued a powerful statement decrying the autocratic tendencies of the government and its role in the August War. “The government that is locked within it,” he said, “which listens only to itself and respects only its own judgment, has lost the capacity for proper decision-making. Russia took advantage of this and has executed its long plotted perfidious plan of conquering our territories.”
Even one-time Saakashvili ally Erosi Kitsmarishvili, who once co-owned Rustavi 2 — a private television station with extremely close ties to Saakashvili and his government — denounced the creeping absolutism in Georgia. Even if the opposition is far from ready to directly challenge the National Movement in the political marketplace, cracks are forming in Saakashvili’s political monopoly. But those weaknesses must be exposed before they can be exploited, which isn’t easy in the long shadow cast by critical questions of Georgian national security.
Last Wednesday, Saakashvili announced a slate of reforms for a ‘Second Rose Revolution’ in direct response to Scheffer’s statement. Eyebrow-raising branding aside, Western observers should be unimpressed. On the whole, the reforms appear cosmetic and fail to address many of the structural democratic deficits rigged by Saakashvili himself.
Georgia does not need another Rose Revolution. Just as the color revolutions have exposed the inherent frailty of authoritarianism, the limitations of revolutions has been exposed, no matter how peaceful or well-intentioned they may be. From the fraying coalition in Ukraine and the growing weight of the Georgian state to the short-lived 2004 ‘Arab Spring’ in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories, it is clear that democracy is rarely the product of revolution. It is more often conceived from political evolution.
Is Georgia capable of regaining its footing under Misha’s presidency? Possibly not. Ironically, it is Russian aggression that may well prove to have prolonged Saakashvili’s tenure. Still, American policymakers should demand Georgia live up to the stirring rhetoric Saakashvili so often employs. Pointing out Georgia’s obligations to its people is not uncourteous or poor form. Failing to do so would be a disservice to America’s commitment to democracy, the sacrifices of so many Georgians against authoritarianism, and those ‘certain inalienable rights’ that live within us all.
Michael Cecire is an economic development practitioner from Virginia working in the Philadelphia-South Jersey region. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia, he currently works in urban redevelopment and researches international public policy. He is a regular contributor to the Democracy Project Web log and has his own Web log. Michael has also published articles in the London Telegraph, TCS Daily, and Bacon’s Rebellion.