Georgian democracy: three rows and a lesson

A divisive period in Georgian politics has pitted a range of forces - the opposition, the Orthodox church, the media, and civil society - against Mikheil Saakashvili’s government. The disputes carry important messages for the future of democracy in the country, says Ghia Nodia.
Ghia Nodia
24 August 2011

The summer of 2011 in Georgia has been politically turbulent as the country’s leading institutions and agencies - government, judiciary, police, media, opposition parties and Orthodox church - deal with the aftermath of civil unrest that exploded in a city-centre demonstration in Tbilisi on 26 May. The three principal political rows, which have all brought Georgia mostly negative publicity in the international media, are varied in character; yet they suggest a common lesson as to Georgia’s possible political direction.

The first of the disputes that have dominated the agenda in this period took place immediately after midnight on 26 May, when the Georgian police broke up a small protest rally by opponents of the government intent on preventing the independence-day parade from taking place that morning (and, more widely, on forcing the government to resign). The protest had been organised under the banner of the “people’s assembly”, led by Nino Burjanadze (formerly both the speaker of Georgia’s parliament and an ally of the country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili).

Amid escalating turmoil and in the absence of the organisers (who had fled the area) the scene degenerated: two people (one a policeman) were run down and killed by protesters, while the police overplayed its hand by severely beating protesters. Several police officers were later dismissed, demoted and censured for an excessive use of force on this night of tragedy.

The second dispute reached a critical point on 5 July, when the national parliament in Tbilisi adopted amendments to the civil code allowing religious organisations to be registered as entities of public law rather than (as previously) only as private charities. Georgia’s influential Orthodox church and its supporters resisted this change, in part on the grounds that it entailed an increase in the rights of religious minorities that would in turn endanger the church’s status (defined through a constitutional agreement  of 2002). Eventually, the holy synod of the church issued a statement that criticised the parliamentary decision but called for calm. 

The third row involved the arrest on 7 July of four photographers on charges of spying for Russia  This, a month before the anniversary of the August 2008 war over South Ossetia, provoked a series of demonstrations by Georgian journalists who insisted the photographers were blameless. All those charged pleaded guilty and reached plea-bargains with the state, which led them to be freed by 22 July.

Each of these three episodes demonstrates that Georgian democracy faces substantive challenges. But what specifically do they say about the nature of these challenges?  

The revolution’s promise

The disagreement over the condition of Georgian democracy largely stems from different perceptions of the “rose revolution” of 2003, when popular protests against fraudulent elections propelled to office a team of young pro-western reformers headed by the fiery Mikheil Saakashvili. This dramatic expression of people’s power created a widespread expectation that Georgia would soon become a consolidated democracy.

This broad perception requires an important qualification, however. The ancien régime defeated in late 2003 was disgracefully corrupt and increasingly inept - though not particularly autocratic. It had been routinely described as a “failing state” rather than a dictatorship. The main slogan of the opposition that came to power in January 2004 was more “Georgia without corruption” than “Georgia without tyranny”.

Moreover, what was called “corruption” in Georgia - as in many failing states around the world - connoted something very different from what the term means in the west. It really stood for the failure of political modernisation: the inability to develop public institutions that can be controlled by the legitimate authorities, and provide services that citizens expect from them.

The creation of such institutions became the real agenda of Georgian reformers, and in this they have been spectacularly successful. Corruption as a method to manage and support public service has been eliminated; legitimate political control is consolidated on 80% of Georgia’s territory (the rest is occupied by Russia - though this occupation also covers genuine conflict between the Georgian state and its Abkhazian and South Ossetian minorities); and important public goods are produced (the crime rate has greatly fallen, investment climate improved dramatically, public infrastructure is being rebuilt).

In all this, the promise of the “rose revolution” has largely been met: for the first time in its history, Georgia has a functional modern state that serves its citizens. True, this is not yet sufficient to make the country a fully-fledged democracy. But reaching this stage is an essential step towards sustainable political modernisation.   

A democratic imbalance

When people speak of Georgia’s “democracy deficit”, they mean many different things. Among them is the fact that since the “rose revolution” there has been no change of power through elections; that trust towards electoral procedures is rather low; that the executive branch is much stronger than parliament, where the ruling party holds more than two-thirds of the seats; that most influential TV channels have become pro-government propaganda outlets; that local government is too weak; and that judicial independence is compromised by the tendency to follow the lead of the prosecution in almost all criminal cases.

At the same time, most people agree that Georgia’s legislative and constitutional framework mostly conform to democratic standards (at least since the constitutional amendments passed in November 2010 and due to come into force in 2013, which remove the concentration of power in the presidency); and that the new elites arriving in power in 2003 represented Georgia’s democratic prospect more than any other political group.

In any event, the deepest problem for Georgia’s democracy may be that there are no societal forces and institutions powerful enough to effectively balance the government, especially while it is reasonably successful and enjoys strong enough support. A correction of this imbalance would allow the kind of shift that has contributed to democratic development elsewhere.

In western Europe, for example, democracy grew out of a series of conflicts over several centuries: between monarchs and parliaments, emerging nation-states and the transnational Catholic church, entrepreneurs and trade unions. In east-central Europe following the collapse of communism, the alternation of power between anti-communists and reformed communists that accepted democratic rules helped democracy to consolidate. In Turkey today, the hope of consolidation of democracy lies in finding a settled modus vivendi between moderate Islamists and Kemalist secularists. If Ukraine becomes genuinely democratic, it will be because its (broadly) pro-European west and pro-Russian east agree on proper rules to compete for power.

In Georgia, no such divisions exist. The lack of societal pluralism expresses itself in the weakness of political parties, media and civil society. Parties represent bickering personalities and cliques, not competing agendas. A polarised media serves not the public but different political factions. Civil-society organisations are elite groups that follow the vagaries of international funding. This situation cannot be blamed on any particular government, because the trend has outlived different ones.

As a result, the government is balanced not by a pluralism of interests and institutions, but by the spectre of an angry populace (or sections thereof) ready to take to the streets and seek by force of numbers to chase the government from office. The opposition parties wait and hope for a suitable moment when people are aroused enough to mobilise and be led to attempt another revolution. The cycle this implies is a vicious one: populist turmoil replaced by periods of autocratic consolidation.

How to find an exit? The solution lies in a relatively gradual process of maturing of the so-called intermediary institutions (political parties, media, civil society), in turn facilitated by government encouragement and assurance of the milieu that makes such a development possible. It may be that Georgia today is experiencing an evolution of this kind.

Perhaps a hypothesis can lead to a clearer perspective on the issue: that Georgia is indeed in the phase of slow and painful maturing of key democratic institutions.

Government and opposition

The protest rallies of the so-called people’s assembly can be seen as representing a sign of desperation from a radical opposition waiting for the revolutionary moment. It had sought to block the official independence-day parade in Tbilisi, but it proved unable to attract enough people to the streets and thus faced a loss of credibility. This presented the option of seeking to provoke the security forces into using excessive force and thus (this branch of the opposition hoped) to rouse public outrage.

In part, Burjanadze and her allies arguable achieved this objective: the Georgian government was indeed widely criticised (inside and outside the country) for “police brutality”. However, even the government’s fiercest critics distanced themselves from the radicals: now, almost no one wants to be associated with them anymore.

At present and in the near future at least, the prospects of revolutionary politics in Georgia look bleak. More moderate opposition parties that consider elections to be the best way to get power and bring change are in a position to benefit from that: how well will they use their chance is another matter.

Moreover, the government at least partly accepted criticism for its methods used during the dispersal of the rally. For the first time, policemen were actually punished for an excessive use of force. All this is not enough to be too optimistic - but may signify a positive trend.  

State and church

A stable democracy requires, apart from political opposition, civil-society institutions that can counterbalance the power of the state. The three disputes in mid-2011 pitted two of the most important - the church and the media - against the government.

The Georgian Orthodox church is among the country’s most powerful and popular institutions, and one of the few capable of challenging the state. The government has generously subsidised the church and demonstrated due reverence towards it - as well as, until recently, shared with other political players a reluctance to challenge the church’s moral authority. The relationship is now less easy, however. The church is alarmed by what it sees as Georgia’s cultural westernisation under the current leadership, and expresses this concern in an increasingly explicit way. Many opposition parties hope to take advantage of disagreements between the church and the government.

A tension between cultural conservatism and secularising modernisation forms the backbone of political pluralism in many democracies. In containing and resolving the tension, it is important that each current accepts the basic principles of democracy (such as equality before the law). In this episode, the church appeared to be defending its special privileges against the equal rights of religious minorities. Yet the final statement of the holy synod specifically highlighted that all religious groups were equal in Georgia.

The row demonstrated that there is space for a strong opposition movement in Georgia based on a message of cultural traditionalism. However, it is still to be defined whether this conservative option is and will continue to be committed to democratic rules.

Media and civil society

The “photographers’ case” gave rise to an unprecedented display of solidarity of most of the media against the government’s alleged infringement of its rights. The forceful two-week-long campaign demonstrated that the media in Georgia has a capacity to defend itself - which is good news by itself. Journalists raised a fully legitimate demand: that the society should have been fully informed about the photographers’ case. The media in any democratic society has a right to be expect that and a duty to strive for it.

However, the media campaign was also based on a highly problematic assumption: that the photographers were unfairly framed, and that the government was motivated by a wish to intimidate journalists. It had no conclusive evidence for this allegation. And while it is obviously disappointing that the case will not reach an open trial, the evidence presented and the overall circumstances do not support the campaign’s propositions.

The implication is that Georgia’s media community should better apply its capacity for concerted action. It should also remember that the first job of journalists is to inform society rather than fight for what they believe to be “just causes”. The episode demonstrated that much of the Georgian media is truly independent from the government - but this is not sufficient for a high-quality, free media. Georgian journalists need more maturity and responsibility.

Such a development, alongside others referred to in this article, would greatly contribute to the deepening of democracy in Georgia. If they proceed, the episodes which have dominated Georgia’s politics in mid-2011 may yet come to be seen as illustrations of a gradual democratisation. 

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