Georgia through a glass, darkly

Since the break-up of the USSR, the South Caucasus has trodden a chequered path, both political and economic. Is democracy really what the people want? Or just what Western donors and investors think they should have? Stephen F Jones reflects

‘For now we see through a glass, darkly,’ (1 Corinthians 13:12)

St. Paul was referring to man’s inability to perceive God clearly. But his image could just as easily be used as a metaphor for Westerners who see distorted images of the Caucasus. The way we interpret politics in that region tells us more about ourselves than it does about the reality as the people living there see it. The language we use to classify the Caucasus, the images we present, the questions we ask, all shape the policies we pursue in the region, and the solutions we propose. 

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Reading Western newspapers and academic papers, listening to US and European politicians, or reading IMF prescriptions for economic reform in the Caucasus, tells us about Western values and hopes, but not much about the political, social and economic conditions in the region as perceived by most of its citizens. Why do Western perceptions of reality in the Caucasus differ from the perceptions of the inhabitants themselves? What are the policy consequences of such Western perceptions? I will focus on Georgia, though many of the things I say are also applicable to Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Over 150 years ago, Russian social and literary critic Vissarion Belinsky put it this way: in the Caucasus, he wrote, ‘you will never look for anything quiet, funny or fun in a story: it usually begins with loud phrases, and ends with massacre, betrayal, patricide… (B)ut this is only one side of highlanders’ life:… It is, of course, spectacular, but one and only one thing – say what you may – becomes boring.’

Differing perceptions of reality

Georgia, over the last twenty years has appeared to Westerners as a Belinsky-like reincarnation. The primary themes of political scientists, international finance experts, and politicians, have focused on:

  1. Georgia as strategic object (oil, energy transit routes, geopolitics)
  2. Georgia as ethnic cauldron (nationalism, secessionism)
  3. Georgia as failed state (civil war, economic crash)
  4. Georgia as reforming state (shock therapy, democratization)
  5. Georgia as failing democracy (corrupt elections, presidential authoritarianism)


Tbilisi's "Bridge of Peace", which opened in 2010. Esconsed in a bubble of English-speaking NGOs, well-dressed pro-Western politicians, and expensive public works projects, many Westerners living and working in Tbilisi are blissfully unaware of the deprivation that begins once you reach the city's outskirts. Photo CC G Travels.

These assessments are interesting and they highlight the political drama of the country, but do they reflect the complexity of its politics? Western views are generally characterised by an excessive optimism or pessimism, with very little of the persistent normality in between. All three Georgian Presidents were initially treated as liberators (even the first president, ex-dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was seen as a defender of human rights at the beginning), and then as demons (Mikheil Saakashvili is the latest to fall into that pattern). Much less space has been devoted to the mundane and pragmatic complexities of what Tip O’Neill referred to as ‘local politics,’ characterised not by the catastrophes of war, revolution and ethnic conflict, but by the quotidian problems faced by Georgia’s citizenry – such as jobs, housing, health and education. In the provinces, where three-quarters of the Georgian population lives, largely ignored by Western experts, polls consistently place unemployment, bad roads and schools at the top of the bill.  

Our evaluation of Georgian reality is framed by our concerns over energy transit routes, political instability, illegal migration, market reform, Russian imperialism, and democratic values, which we define in our own particular way as regular elections, civil society, and legal rules. These are vital, but are they the primary concerns of most Georgians? There are more fundamental obstacles to personal liberty for Georgians than institutional or legal ones: lack of money, obstacles to social and physical mobility, poor health, and corruption. These obstacles have dramatic consequences for ‘democracy-living’ (something we do not experience as non-residents) as well as for ‘democracy-building.’ To many Georgians our separation of political and human rights from socio-economic rights seems strange; but can Georgia’s citizens, living in the urban wastes of Tbilisi’s 'construction projects' or in the impoverished regions of Samegrelo (in the west of the country) or Inner Kartli (central-eastern region), do the same? As Amartya Sen reminds us in his book Development as Freedom, poverty is not just about low income, it’s about what it creates: ‘social exclusion,’ and the loss of ‘self-reliance, self-confidence and psychological and physical health.’ These features weaken the quality of democracy we claim we are promoting in Georgia. Similarly, we emphasise liberties (such as freedom of religion, the press, private property), whereas ordinary Georgians point to, just as importantly, issues of justice (the right to health care, to work, to protection from powerful interests).

The more Western leaders support a Georgian President, the more disillusioned Georgians become.

Two interconnected questions follow: what are the sources of these differences and what impact do they have on Georgian political and economic development? Broadly (and it is hard to avoid some abstraction here), Western approaches to Georgia are framed by an emphasis on leaders. Georgians look for saviours who will bring stability and security; we look to leaders who will bring Western-type reform. The two may be contradictory. We measure success by the legislative and legal change brought about by political elites, even if it leads to intensified economic insecurity for the majority of the country’s citizens. The last two presidential regimes, in particular, have led to what we might call (à la Trotsky), a ‘scissors crisis.’ The more Western leaders support a Georgian President, the more disillusioned Georgians become. Western leaders will insist the President is good for Georgians’ eventual salvation, while Georgians will highlight the corrupt decline of the President and his regime. Western politicians and pundits, looking through the glass darkly, remain invested in leaders who have long lost – and with good reason - the support of their citizenry.


Western discourses on Georgia betray a naive and dogmatic belief in the power of "reform" - that institutionalisation and the market will lead (in the end) to democratisation and social progress. Photo CC Guntram Egenolf Arbogast.

Misperceptions

What else explains Westerners’ misreading of Georgian politics? Western politicians have a Whiggish belief in the power of reform, regardless of the outcome. Despite evidence of failure, the grand design of the last twenty years remains intact: institutionalisation and the market will lead (in the end) to democratisation and social progress. The application of such reform, given its ‘universality,’ becomes a technical problem that is directed from above and based on something that is measurable (GDP growth, for example). Such an approach comes close to what Karl Popper condemned as harmful ‘social engineering.’ Genuine reform is incremental, open to argument and change. Most importantly, it is shaped by the needs of, and pressure from, the citizenry.

Outside Tbilisi, there is an alternative reality that Western officials may encounter on a road trip, but rarely have to endure.

Allied to the problems of faith (in reform) and method (working with elites), there is a logistical matter. Many Westerners living and working in Tbilisi are blissfully unaware of Georgians living in the concrete desolation of the Didi Dighomi district on the outskirts of the city, or in the bleak provincial towns of Akhalkalaki, Borchalo and Lanchkhuti. All revolutions, especially capitalist ones, are characterised by uneven development, and a visit to Zugdidi, the regional ‘capital’ of Samegrelo, would persuade most observers that the revolution never reached it. Democratisation, foreign-built hotels, and young faces in town halls have not changed the nature of provincial rule, dominated by Gogolian inspector generals and cowering clerks. Outside Tbilisi, there is an alternative reality that Western officials may encounter on a road trip, but rarely have to endure. If they did, they might have quite a different view of the country’s needs.

Finally, Western observers create, however subconsciously, a false dichotomy between ‘the West’ and Georgia. It may be reflected in a sense of exoticism, touched upon by Belinsky, or in a new line of separation which, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, moved eastward to the old Soviet border (excepting the Baltic states). Located firmly on the ‘other side,’ Georgia remains a land of unpredictable passions, dangerous conflicts, and deep memories. This, of course, is what Europe has been about for most of its history, and events over the last two decades in the heart of Europe, from riots over immigration to separatist movements (Italy, Belgium), and the rise of neo-fascist parties (Marine Le Pen, Jörg Haider, Geert Wilders), suggest it is not over. Yet, we persist in exploring themes we believe separate us (supported by funding agencies, doctoral supervisors, and sensational reporting), such as ethnic conflict, national identity, democratic deficits and restrictions on human rights.


In the provinces, where three-quarters of the Georgian population live, polls consistently place unemployment, bad roads and schools as the most important issues facing the population. Fifty five percent of the Georgian labour force is involved in (often subsistance) agricultural. Photo CC Marco Feiber. 

What we see in the Caucasian mirror is what we want to, the reflection of a self-interested projection of ourselves as better governed and more rational.

Reflections in the mirror and their consequences

François Hartog in his book The Mirror of Herodotus: the Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, reminds us that descriptions of other peoples are really about how we view ourselves. For European observers, Georgia represents what we used to be and what we escaped. What we see in the Caucasian mirror is what we want to, the reflection of a self-interested projection of ourselves as better governed and more rational. This is why, perhaps, we over-interpret the mistakes of Georgian politicians, which we often construe as a threat to democracy or reform. The imprisonment of former Saakashvili government members is a recent example. This is because we base our democratic evaluations on ideals we have constructed for ourselves, but in reality rarely keep. We idealise ourselves, and set Georgia up for failure.

This could all remain a pleasant discussion – so what that we see Georgia through a Western prism? But it has policy consequences. Perceptions determine the problem and how we think about solutions. It is particularly important in the Georgian-Western relationship because Western states are powerful shapers of Georgia’s future. 

Let’s take two brief examples. First, President Mikheil Saakashvili, as a young pro-Western reformer, received strong Western support (as did President Eduard Shevardnadze before him). This went on long past the point at which it became obvious to Georgian citizens that the regime had become an abusive one-party system, which controlled most of the media. Western governments prolonged the life of this pro-Western, but increasingly undemocratic, regime. Second, we have a very particular view of Georgian civil society, one that is populated by English-speaking NGOs that reflect our own preferences and speak our own language. It is an exclusive view of civil society that depends on comfortable Western interpretations, and does not include, for example, trade unions, which are vital to the defence of employees’ civil rights, or the expressed needs of Georgian citizens themselves. We would come up with different solutions if we investigated more of the realities Georgians face in their daily working lives, in places where English is not the language of communication.

Western governments have strategic interests in Georgia, and it is quite normal to pursue those interests. But it may be that our misreadings are reinforcing policies and decisions that undermine the desired result of an effective market-based citizen democracy. Adam Przeworski, among others, has shown that statistically greater income equality leads to stable and sustainable democracies. That may be a reason to start looking through the glass differently and thinking about policies that are closer to the hopes and aspirations of Georgians themselves.   

About the author

Stephen Jones is a Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts.He writes frequently on current events in the Caucasus.

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