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Georgia’s democratic stalemate

Jonathan Wheatley
14 April 2008

The so-called "rose revolution" in Georgia, when peaceful street protests against falsified parliamentary elections sparked in November 2003 eventually forced out the incumbent president, Eduard Shevardnadze, created optimism that the country would move towards full democracy. More recent events suggest that the path remains elusive.

Jonathan Wheatley is research fellow at the AARAU Centre for Democracy in Switzerland. He is the author of Georgia from National Awakening to Rose Revolution: Delayed Transition in the Former Soviet Union (Ashgate, 2005)

The state of emergency imposed for nine days in November 2007, when opposition television channels were closed and opposition activists arrested, vividly illustrated the lack of progress from post-Soviet authoritarianism to European democracy. True, many of the decisions taken during the state of emergency were later revoked, but the conduct of the presidential elections held on 5 January 2008 undercut hopes for a clean process. Administrative resources (such as the distribution of healthcare vouchers to pensioners and other vulnerable groups) were used throughout the pre-election period to cajole or even intimidate voters into electing Mikheil Saakashvili as president, and the OSCE described 23% of the vote counts it observed as "bad" or "very bad".

This assessment represents an improvement on the "high watermark" of vote-falsification observed under the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze in the 2000 presidential elections, and the November 2003 parliamentary elections that precipitated the rose revolution - but it remains considerably worse than the parliamentary and presidential elections held in 2004 (which confirmed Saakashvili in power). The narrow margin of Saakashvili's first-round victory (he was declared to have won 53% of the votes cast, just above the 50% needed to avoid a second-round run-off) leaves it unclear whether or not the irregularities observed during the vote count had a decisive influence in the outcome.

A blocked transition

Since the end of communism, Georgia appears to have remained trapped as what is known as a "hybrid regime", incapable of either consolidating hard authoritarianism or democracy. This appears to contradict the "transition paradigm" that has hitherto defined how post-communism is viewed. This paradigm portrays transition as a uni-directional process, with post-communist regimes transforming themselves from Soviet-style totalitarianism (or post-totalitarianism into democracies. Recent developments in Georgia and other former Soviet republics show that post-communist reality may be somewhat more complex as regimes appear to "get stuck" halfway between authoritarianism and democracy (as in the case of Georgia and Moldova) or even slip backwards into authoritarianism after limited democratisation (as in Russia and Belarus).

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Georgian politics:

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia: progress, interrupted" (16 November 2007)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)

There are four main reasons why Georgia and other former Soviet republics have proved unable to complete a democratic transition and most of these can be traced back to the Soviet legacy. First, the presidency appears to have taken over many of the functions of the old Communist Party. Both during Shevardnadze's administration and during Saakashvili's, it has been proximity to the president - whether formally through membership of the presidential administration, or informally through close personal connections - that determines the political influence of an individual bureaucrat. The presidential networks (again both formal and informal) have more influence than either parliament or even the cabinet of ministers, undermining any checks and balances that can be brought to bear on the presidency.

Second, in Georgia, as in most other successor states of the USSR (with the exception of the Baltic republics, Ukraine and Belarus), a more formalised "party of power" has been established that also mirrors the old Communist Party to some extent. From 1993 until its demise in 2001, this party was the Citizens' Union of Georgia. In November 2004, a new "party of power" called the United National Movement (UNM) was formed from a merger of then prime minister Zurab Zhvania's United Democrats and Saakashvili's National Movement. Under Saakashvili, as under Shevardnadze, it was not ideology that defined the "party of power", but proximity to the authorities. The rapid collapse of the Citizens' Union following Shevardnadze's decision to resign as chairman of the party in September 2001 demonstrated that a "party of power" cannot survive without the patronage of the president.

Opposition parties are also mainly non-ideological. Most are charisma-based and highly dependent on their leaders. Typically they are established by former members of the political elite after an acrimonious break with the president and his entourage. This was the case with Saakashvili's National Movement, established at the end of 2001, shortly after Saakashvili's break with Shevardnadze and his resignation as justice minister. Today, amongst the leaders of the eight-party "national council" of opposition parties are Saakashvili's former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili, his ex-foreign minister Salome Zourabishvili, his former state minister for conflict resolution Gogi Khaindrava, and his former close ally Koba Davitashvili (who occupied the number-one slot in the party list of the National Movement in the November 2003 parliamentary elections).

Third, the lack of an institutionalised party system in Georgia and other former Soviet republics makes elections a zero-sum game and therefore prone to falsification. "Parties of power" will not survive a period of opposition and the bureaucrats that manage elections at local level depend on the president and the ruling party for their positions. There is therefore a very strong incentive for these bureaucrats to "deliver the correct result" in elections. The weakness of the rule of law and the tendency of power-holders to act arbitrarily mean that defeated power-holders even risk prosecution (as occurred with some of Shevardnadze's acolytes in the aftermath of the rose revolution), further discouraging them from countenancing electoral defeat.

Fourth, a consolidated democracy requires the agreement of most if not all political players on the fundamental rules of the game: in other words the constitution and electoral laws. However, the Georgian government amended the constitution five times between 2004 and 2007, mostly without consultation with either the opposition or the public at large. Some of these amendments involved fundamental institutional change, such as granting the president the right to dissolve parliament under certain circumstances (in the case of the February 2004 amendments).

The electoral code has also been amended on a number of occasions, most notably in December 2005, when amendments were passed envisaging the replacement of single-member constituencies by multi-mandate "super constituencies" in which the party winning the greatest number of votes would win all seats in any given constituency. This was clearly designed to benefit the "party of power", as at the time the law was passed the United National Movement seemed to be poised for an overwhelming victory. However, on 12 March 2008, parliament passed a new constitutional amendment - with the support of the UNM and without consultation with the opposition - which returned to the status quo ante by preserving the seventy-five single-mandate constituencies and instead reducing the number of MPs elected proportionally to seventy-five (compared with 150 in previous elections). This was because the UNM is no longer confident of winning the proportional vote and hopes to lure local power-brokers into standing in single-mandate constituencies under the UNM party banner.

The rules of the game

The rose revolution does not, therefore, represent a break from the Soviet style of politics in which arbitrary decisions by power holders prevail over negotiated procedures and the rule of law. As no universally trusted institutions of conflict management (such as free and fair elections, guaranteed property rights or an impartial and independent judiciary) yet exist, political conflicts tend to be played out on the streets. It is a disturbing truth in Georgia that governments are replaced by activities in the street, rather than by elections.

The Communist Party may have been formally defeated by Zviad Gamsakhurdia's Round Table movement in parliamentary elections in October 1990, but Gamsakhurdia gained his political momentum through street protests. Both the first president of post-Soviet independent Georgia (Gamsakhurdia) and the second (Shevardnadze) were forced from office (violently in the first case) by action on the streets. It is received wisdom in Georgia that once the opposition is able to bring a "critical mass" of demonstrators into Rustaveli Avenue, the current authorities' days are numbered. It was this received wisdom that the state of emergency imposed in November 2007 sought to defy. Nevertheless, it will be hard to break the cycle in the long term in the absence of agreement amongst all the political forces on the basic rules of the game in sharing political power.

The election risk

As parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2008 approach, there is no sign of compromise between the authorities and the opposition. Opposition protests seem to have lost some of the momentum they gathered in the autumn and in the immediate aftermath of the January presidential elections; a turnout of just several thousand has been recorded in recent demonstrations. The opposition's divisions have also widened: the liberal-leaning Republican Party has split from the more radical National Council and has stated that it will run on its own in the elections, although it will still cooperate with the National Council in endeavouring to prevent electoral fraud.

The government had appeared ready for compromise in February on such matters as the election law and control over the Central Election Committee, but in March 2008 - possibly as a result of the perceived loss of opposition momentum - returned to making unilateral decisions. Meanwhile, the opposition still refuses to recognise Saakashvili as the legitimate president as a result of the perceived electoral violations. Thus, as before in Georgia, with no sign of compromise on either side it would appear that the elections will be won or lost as much on the streets as in the ballot-box.

This is not to say that the May parliamentary elections are doomed to failure. There is still a narrow window of opportunity for the authorities and the opposition to achieve a compromise and agree on the rules according to which the elections will be held. Some progress has already been made in appointing a nine-member board for the public television channel, for example. With elections now only six weeks away, however, the window of opportunity is closing.

International pressure on the authorities may be crucial in ensuring reasonably free and fair elections; while western powers seemed prepared to overlook a few irregularities in the presidential elections in order to give the benefit of the doubt to their favoured candidate, indications are that they will be more demanding in their assessment of the parliamentary elections. The rejection by many of European members of Nato of the Georgian government's desperate wish to move closer to membership of the organisation (at its summit in Romania on 2-4 April), even against the United States's strong support of Tbilisi, reflects this firmer stance by parts of the international community. Yet the internal political conundrum persists: without some accommodation between government and opposition, the latter may not accept an unfavourable result even if the elections are conducted reasonably well. Once again the risk is that the final act of the election drama will be played out on the streets of Tbilisi.

Confrontation or consent?

The rose revolution has achieved much in terms of rebuilding state power in Georgia. The electricity crisis has been more or less solved, major steps have been taken to rehabilitate the transport system, and corruption (at least at the day-to-day level) has been reduced. The education system has been overhauled, with qualifications, rather than bribes, now representing the main means of advancement. Most importantly, despite reducing the number and levels of taxes, the government has managed to collect nearly twice as much tax revenue in GDP terms than the previous administration.

The state therefore now resembles a state, rather than the private cartel of organised crime that it resembled during the Eduard Shevardnadze era. These changes have been brought about by a dynamic young leadership which has, at times, been prepared to use "hard power" to achieve its goals. However, the biggest failure of Saakashvili's administration has been that it has not endeavoured to institutionalise the new way of doing things, preferring instead to impose change by decree in time-honoured Soviet style. Through its tendency to act unilaterally, without the consent of other political forces, it has failed to put in place institutions for dealing with political conflict.

The result is that there is no space in which to challenge the government's failures through intelligent debate, and conflict between government and opposition consists of insults and name-calling and is played out on the streets rather than in parliament. This could jeopardise the very real progress that the government has made in building a viable Georgian state. Georgia does not need another revolution - it needs consensus and compromise.

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