Georgia's election: lesson and prospect

The first constitutional transfer of power in Tbilisi has implications for an assessment of the immediate past as well as for the future, says Ghia Nodia.

Ghia Nodia
15 October 2012

Georgia’s parliamentary elections held on 1 October 2012 have proved historic. For the first time in the history of a nation known for its record of turmoil and revolutions, power changed hands through the vote of the people. There were occasional scuffles and irregularities, and widely shared expectations of post-election disorder, but despite these the process proved essentially peaceful, free, and fair.

If this is unique for Georgia, it is also quite unusual for the broader post-Soviet space. True, the rulers here almost never transfer power to their political opponents, but when such a thing happens it is linked to a major upheaval. This was the case in Moldova in 2009, when protests against the election result included large rallies and even the storming of parliament, and in Ukraine in 2010 when the incumbent Viktor Yushchenko yielded power to Victor Yanukovich following the presidential election.

It is natural to ask what this means for the future of Georgia, though it may be too early to give a definitive answer. Instead, I will start by considering the implications for the country's immediate past: namely, by taking stock of the nine-year rule of the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power as a result of the "Rose Revolution" of November 2003.

The revolution's ambition

The record of this government, which came to power with Mikheil Saakashvili's inauguration in January 2004, is rather controversial, as reflected in the largely polarised assessments of it both in Georgia and in the west. For some, the president has been a brave reformer and a true democrat, fighting for the values espoused by the west (and demonised by Russia for that very reason). For others, he has been an autocrat of an almost Stalinist bent who paid lip-service to democracy in order to secure support in the west.

Amid these differences, though, a point of near-consensus exists among serious analysts. This is that Saakashvili’s government had great achievements to its name, but these were not necessarily in the area of democracy - or, arguably, even came at the expense of democracy.

The perception of this success is often applied to a broad concept of "modernisation", which covers a number of different things. In 2003, Georgia was a failing state unable to sustain forceful authority, collect taxes, or provide basic services - the core functions a government is expected to provide. Whatever state there was depended on corruption, which many considered endemic to Georgian culture. The public infrastructure was a shambles, and almost nobody - save for a few areas in central Tbilisi - enjoyed a more or less stable electricity supply and passable roads.

During the almost nine years of the government of the United National Movement (UNM), all this changed almost miraculously. Georgia now has competent and non-corrupt public administration that is capable of enforcing control over all of the country’s territory (save for the territories occupied by Russia); large-scale corruption is basically eradicated; electricity shortages are barely remembered; streets have become safe and organised crime is defeated. The World Bank rates Georgia among the most liberal economies in the world. Some analysts - as authoritative as those of the Economist magazine - have spoken of Georgia’s "mental revolution", implying that young reformers with western education and experience have also succeeded in changing people’s attitudes towards the state and society, and made Georgia feel much less post-Soviet than other countries of the region.

These changes are closely linked to Georgia’s identity and related geopolitical orientation. Georgians consider themselves part of Europe and aspire to membership of its most prestigious clubs: the European Union and Nato. This direction is not just promoted by the government, but supported by the majority of citizens. For Saakashvili’s government, the idea of becoming members of these European organisations was the guiding-light that informed its various policies.

The democratic deficit

There was, however, a significant gap in this picture. Every modern European state is supposed to be a democracy. While no respectable analyst considered Georgia to be an autocracy in the full sense of the word, Saakashvili was widely accused of having autocratic leanings - and maybe even of backtracking as compared with his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze.

There were grounds for making this claim. Saakashvili began his rule by changing the constitution to concentrate power in the institution of the presidency, and by taking important decisions within a narrow circle of his kitchen cabinet. Later, his UNM party used its strong majority in parliament further to amend the constitution too easily and frequently. There was a tendency to apply justice selectively and put pressure on courts, especially in politically sensitive cases. The ruling party often used the state bureaucracy as a political resource. It was rare for opposition political parties to get donations from business - suggesting that the latter could be under pressure. Saakashvili managed to ensure that the two most important TV networks, Rustavi-2 and Imedi, came to be owned by his friends; both presented a picture of events that was favourable to the government. Against this backdrop, many commentators believed that the opposition was denied a fair chance genuinely to challenge the government in elections.

Still, Georgia was by far the most free and pluralistic society within the neighbourhood (with Turkey the only other exception). It had a rather critical media, aggressive civil-society organisations, and political competition that at times got quite tense. But this was not enough: many analysts (including this one) categorised it as a "hybrid regime" that found itself somewhere in the grey area between democracy and autocracy.

This hybrid reality is, I believe, the result of an interplay of structural and agency-related factors. It is quite obvious that Mikheil Saakashvili’s impatient wish rapidly to carry out fundamental reforms contributed to democratic imbalances. His government's self-image was that of an intellectually and morally superior social avant-garde, and this led it to be dismissive and arrogant towards its opponents. In this perspective, the success of his reforms and the democracy deficit were two sides of the same coin.

The democratic breakthrough

It is not fair, though, to judge government performance against some kind of absolute criteria, nor even against the best available models of democracy represented at present by political regimes in Europe and north America. The main measure is how much progress rulers make as compared to the condition in which they initially find their countries.

On this basis, the parliamentary elections of October 2012 have significantly altered the sense of the balance-sheet of Saakashvili’s achievements and deficiencies. For the process, results, and aftermath of the elections demonstrate anew that during the last nine years, Georgia has indeed made great progress both in overall modernisation and in the area of democracy. Saakashvili came to power through a revolution triggered by fraudulent elections, and his party left it through constitutional-democratic mechanisms. This is the best indicator for his success as a democratic reformer, however frustrating this event might have been for him as a political leader.

A comparison with the Rose Revolution is the best way to measure progress. By all objective criteria, Saakashvili had less ground to concede defeat to the majority of citizens than his predecessor. In 2012, his party maintained a much higher level of popular support than Eduard Shevardnadze’s Citizens' Union had in 2003. In 2012, the police and the army were much more effective and loyal to the government than in 2003. In 2012, the opposition was even more vocal in its demands not just to defeat the government but to prosecute it through the courts: therefore, Saakashvili had an even greater motivation to cling to power by all means.

True, the 2012 parliamentary elections attracted an especially high level of international attention and scrutiny - but so did those of 2003, when President George W Bush even sent his close advisor, James Baker, to mediate in Georgia’s electoral process. Saakashvili's temptation or capacity to revert to electoral fraud could have been as great as that of his predecessor. Still, he behaved in the way he did.

Why? Maybe, he took into account the lesson of the Rose Revolution: that it is counterproductive to resist the will of the people once that is clearly formed. Yet this is not the only way to learn from the experience of 2003. I remember a talk-show in which I participated on the day after Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation. When the anchor asked the former president what his greatest mistake had been, Shevardnadze replied that he had lost control over democracy. For many post-Soviet leaders, the major lesson from the "colour revolutions" was that allowing too much freedom is dangerous: the lesson they took was the need for tighter control.

For me, the key lies in the political vision Saakashvili and his team identified with, which was to bring Georgia to Europe. And they could not continue in power without the support of the people who shared this vision. The sense of mission that gripped them could sometimes be a source of Jacobin arrogance and serve as an excuse for cutting corners with rules and procedures; but once it became crystal clear that a majority of the electorate rejected their government, they could not afford to trample on basic democratic principles.

The "mental revolution"

It could, though, be argued that the change in Georgian society explains the difference between 2003 and 2012. Here, the picture too is mixed. Many Georgia-watchers would agree that the prison-video scandal that broke out two weeks before the elections proved decisive for the election outcome. Before that, the campaign was mainly focused on economic issues such as unemployment, access to healthcare, and the development of agriculture. But the tapes depicting abuse of prisoners in Georgia’s penitentiary system caused universal outrage that pushed the people to vote with their hearts.

The government's neglect of the abuse of prisoners was a fundamental mistake. Saakashvili took responsibility for it, but it was too late. Perhaps, then, it was fair that the Georgian people punished the government by voting it out of power. But the very fact that in the end the government fell over a human-rights issue is indicative, for it means that over recent year, the order of priorities in Georgian society has changed.

The responsibility for that change goes beyond the government, but the latter does share in it. The main reason why Shevardnadze’s government lost popularity a decade ago is that it was completely inept and unable to solve the most basic tasks. The new government tackled many problems in a way that allowed the people to move to higher concerns - a fact that Saakashvili and his team clearly underestimated.

Moreover, Saakashvili's decision to put the idea of joining democratic Europe at the top of the agenda led people to hold him to much higher standards than they did his predecessor. The student movement that spontaneously erupted in response to the release of the prison tapes was the clearest indication of this. The "mental revolution" proved real, though in this particular case it worked against Saakashvili himself.

The uncertain future

At the same time, painting a too optimistic picture should be avoided. This time, the mobilisation - and sometimes manipulation - of public anger depended on the money of a single individual, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. His personal fortune (about $7 billion) is approximately half of Georgia’s GDP; everybody agrees that without his funding the opposition would have had no chance.

The prison-videos reflected unacceptable conditions in Georgian prisons, but the way they were presented can be seen as a dirty trick, for the tapes were intentionally "reserved" for the very last pre-election moment and at least one of them (depicting rape, and causing the greatest outrage) was most probably faked. There is no conclusive proof that the whole operation was masterminded by the opposition and financed by Ivanishvili’s money, but this is the most credible explanation.

When a democratic transfer of power depends on such a contingent fact, the sustainability of the democratic change remains under question. These elections were justly called a "democratic breakthrough", but how will the processes continue? The Ukrainian precedent should be recalled: there, the Orange coalition proved its democratic credentials by losing later elections to Yanukovich, but the latter made Ukraine a much less democratic country than it had been in the moment of his victory.

It is still too early to say the same about Bidzina Ivanishvili, but many domestic and international observers have serious concerns. He is an untested leader whose statements and behaviour so far are extremely inconsistent, while his understanding of democracy is rather peculiar. His response to Saakashvili’s historic concession of power - namely, demanding the president's resignation - immediately put his democratic credentials into question. His Georgian Dream is an eclectic coalition that brings together very different people, quite a few of whom are anti-western bigots and may hardly be considered democrats. In the words of one analyst, it may not too long before headlines like "Georgian Dream Turns to Nightmare" become familiar.

It might be, though, that Ivanishvili will learn on the job and avoid authoritarian temptations. The precedent of a fairly smooth democratic transfer of power may create a momentum of its own. In any case, the balance-sheet of Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream will be struck when he too concedes power to his successor.

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