A series of events in Georgia between late September and mid-November 2007 - political infighting, mass demonstrations, the declaration of a state of emergency, and the announcement of presidential elections on 5 January 2008 (a year in advance of schedule) - has convulsed the country and earned it the kind of global media attention most of its citizens regret. Is this crisis part of the pain of a still-evolving democratic transition, or evidence of something more serious? An outline of the main contours of this period of instability suggests that Georgia's problems are serious, but cannot be attributed only to short-term misjudgments or maladministration by government; they are also rooted in larger historical, institutional and geopolitical realities.
A tarnished rose
The most visible sign that a fresh crisis was underway in Georgia was the sequence of public rallies and marches on the main streets and squares of the capital, Tbilisi. These had been brewing at least since 25 September, when government's former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili made sensational allegations in a television interview against Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili (including plotting the murder of the the powerful business tycoon and political aspirant Badri Patarkatsishvili). Okruashvili was arrested two days later and subsequently retracted the main allegation (also on television), but the affair released a dynamic of protest that is yet unfinished.
The escalating row saw thousands of Georgian citizens - as many as 80,000 even by conservative estimates - demonstrate in the first big event on 2 November 2007. The political opposition, hitherto marginalised and fragmented, took the opportunity to move from the sidelines to centre-stage by delivering a package of ultimatums to the president.
Rondeli is president of the Georgian Foundation for
Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS)
Also by Alexander Rondeli openDemocracy:
"Georgia: a rough road from the rose revolution" (4 December 2003The second day's mass rally saw fewer people taking part, though enough to sustain the momentum; the opposition leaders raised the stakes by demanding the resignation of the president. In subsequent days, the crowds thinned further but the opposition's claims grew stronger and more radical. The stand-off on the streets and in the political arena continued, with neither side making any concessions. Then on 7 November, Tbilisi's main central thoroughfare of Rustaveli Avenue was the scene of confrontation, in two stages. First, security forces pushed back the dozens of hunger-strikers and a small group of other protestors camped out in front of the parliament building, under the pretext of reopening the avenue; second, after the opposition used its stronghold - Imedi television station - to call the public to come out and support it in its efforts, riot-police used tear-gas and baton-charges to assail the swelling crowds of demonstrators.
The violence in the streets brought the crisis to a new pitch, and as it threatened to get out of control the government announced an official state of emergency; under it, the Imedi and Kavkasia television companies were closed for alleged anti-governmental activity. The government's charges became personal, as it accused the powerful business tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili (the co-owner of Imedi) of acting against the authorities and bankrolling the opposition. He retaliated by calling the government "a fascist regime" and declared that he would "fight against it with my last penny" before officially declaring his presidential candidacy when the 5 January date was announced.
These still-unfolding events have damaged the world's image of a Georgia whose "rose revolution" of 2003-04 offered the promise of renewal and reconstruction. At home, they have tarnished Georgia's leadership and put a blemish on what has been invested with many hopes as a young, developing democracy. The mixture of force and concession by the government (in addition to the presidential poll, Saakashvili declared that a plebiscite would be held on opposition demands to hold parliamentary elections in spring 2008, a year ahead of schedule) may have calmed the situation; but the context in which the crisis has erupted shows that far more will be needed to address its deeper origins.
A state of tension
The post-Soviet space, of which Georgia is just one component, remains prone to unexpected, zig-zag developments rooted in its complex inheritance: in particular, the region's imperial legacy of institutional weakness, a still-fragile democratic transition, ethnic nationalism and a generally underdeveloped political-party culture.
There is another crucial flaw in this region as a whole (which only the Baltic states have so far managed to overcome): the absence of a stable political elite anchored to a modern and effective governmental system. Such an elite has started to take shape in Georgia only in recent times; its formation, still underway, has been a dynamic but also difficult process.
The former government of Eduard Shevardnadze contained a mixture of the old Soviet nomenklatura and new politicians who entered the political stage after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Georgia's "rose revolution" sparked in November 2003 by fraudulent elections brought to power a new generation of young politicians (of which Mikheil Saakashvili was the emblem) who had little experience in governance but whose energy and enthusiasm enabled them to achieve a significant number of reforms within a relatively short period of time. These included an increase in the collection of taxes (providing a five-fold increase in the state budget), success in fighting corruption, more privatisation, the creation of a new domestic infrastructure, and the rebuilding of the armed forces.
There was also a new orientation in Georgian foreign policy. The new government made concerted attempts to improve the relationship with Russia, though these foundered on the rocks of diametrically opposing ambitions (Georgia seeking integration in Euro-Atlantic and European structures, Russia favouring the retention and restoration of Czarist- as well as Soviet-era imperial structures which included Georgia within their orbit of influence).
The tension between the neighbours escalated as Russia imposed a succession of stringent measures: an economic blockade, the closure of borders, a ban on the import of Georgian products, pressure on Georgian nationals living in Russia to liquidate their businesses, and even mass deportations. Moreover, Russia has continued actively to support the separatist regimes of Georgia's breakaway regions - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - and used its control there repeatedly to violate Georgian airspace (the most recent incident of this kind was in August 2007 when a Russian bomber made a failed attempt to destroy a Georgian radar station).
Among openDemocracy's many articles on
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)The outcome of this friction is a relationship between Georgia and Russia which is at an all-time low in which mutual accusation and aggressive rhetoric prevail. The Russian leadership condemns Georgia and accuses it of conducting an anti-Russian policy, while the Georgian government believes that Russia is working consistently to subvert the Saakashvili regime in favour of a pro-Russian government (see Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions", 24 August 2007).
The tensions have an impact on Georgian domestic politics in ways apparent in the current political crisis. For example, Georgia's main television stations have transmitted video footage hinting at the collaboration of some of the opposition leaders with Tbilisi-based Russian diplomats, underlining the authorities' accusations that Russia is directly involved in a conspiracy against Georgia.
Meanwhile, the Tbilisi government's economic reforms and an impressive 10%-plus annual growth-rate have not led to improvement in the social situation of most Georgians, among whom poverty, deprivation and social exclusion are widespread. It is true that Georgia's leadership has been attempting to transform the country in the direction of a market economy and a functioning democracy, but its liberal economic policy has not been accompanied by effective measures to guarantee social safety, create jobs or reduce unemployment.
In the legal and security arena, an unreformed judiciary remains a big problem and the government has been criticised by the opposition - even before the recent protest wave - for human-rights abuses. This combination of economic, social and political factors helps explain the discontent and protest manifested in Georgia in these weeks - the severe response to which has allowed even Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials (as ridiculous as it sounds) to express their concern over the "rough and widespread violations of democratic freedoms."
At a deeper level, the political culture of Georgian society itself - an unstable fusion of Marxist and democratic visions and clichés concerning the state and its role, and socio-economic development - remains an issue. The task of building a modern state and effective, impartial, transparent governing institutions is far from solved. President Saakashvili's team has done a great deal in state-building but the approach has often tended towards the authoritarian; this tendency is reinforced by the sense that concentration of power is necessary during a difficult period of transformation and in the context of heavy pressure from its neo-imperial northern neighbour.
That said, it is also necessary to keep in mind that political parties in Georgia are insufficiently developed; they frequently lack fundamental concepts or strategic visions about the country's development whilst relying upon populist slogans and criticisms of authorities. The country's political opposition has been weak and is not well represented in the parliament; this in turn means that it cannot influence the decision-making process, which ends up being dominated by the ruling United National Movement with less attention to opposition views.
In this sense, Georgia's political problem is also the failure of its opposition. Among the results is that popular discontent has had no effective channels. The protest-wave suggests that this might be starting to change, but there is a long way to go before the country's political and ideological currents find proper institutional focus.
It gets harder
What happens next? In the seven weeks until the presidential election on 5 January 2008, it is important that as normal as possible a political process is encouraged to ensure a clean, transparent and fair outcome that all Georgia's citizens can recognise. The political leadership could help facilitate this by lifting the state of emergency and the ban on the Imedi and Kavkasia television stations (the first of these measures was announced on 14 November by the parliamentary speaker, Nino Burdzhanadze, to come into effect two days later). The main opposition coalition too, which on 12 November nominated the businessman Levan Gachechiladze as its candidate, can play its part.
These steps would be evidence of real political progress which would help make the events of the last weeks a bitter, but isolated, episode in Georgia's path towards a fully-fledged democracy. It's probable that Georgia will indeed pull back from the brink in the short term, and overcome this crisis. But to take a qualitative democratic forward-leap from this point may prove to be the most difficult task the country has faced since it regained independence.