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Democracy: a goal or a merely a commitment for the West?

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The 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia heralded a rebirth of democracy and alignment with Western countries, especially the United States. But continuing Western support in the face of the gradual unravelling of Georgian democracy compels Vladimer Papava to wonder if Western support is perhaps not all it originally seemed to be.

Vladimer Papava
21 May 2012

It is a widely-held view that a major goal of Western powers is the strengthening of democratic processes in every country of the world. The basis for such a view is the recognition that the West, namely the USA and the EU, furnish excellent examples of democratic arrangements and have publicly-declared priorities of building and developing democracy.

In my opinion, however, recent developments have shown that this is not necessarily always the case. Much more significant for the West is that the country’s government will be sympathetic and willing to offer support (whether political, military or economic). Being pro-Western, of course, does not always mean sharing the democratic values that are recognised and established in Western countries.  Usually, being pro-Western means supporting the political and economic interests of the West in a given country and in the neighbouring region. It is by no means unacceptable for the West to co-operate with authoritarian regimes (not to mention dictators) in different countries. Obvious examples from recent years are the ‘warm’ relations of the USA with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, those of France with Ben Ali in Tunisia or those of Italy with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

‘Usually, being pro-Western means supporting the political and economic interests of the West in a given country and in the neighbouring region.’

If undemocratic regimes are not pro-Western in the sense described above, but the states they govern are relatively big and, therefore, considerable powers, then the West nonetheless tries to maintain firm and steady relations with them. Western calls for strengthening democracy in such countries tend to be more ritual in nature than targeted at actual outcomes. China and Russia belong to this class of state for the West. It is, therefore, hardly unsurprising that leaders of Western democratic governments saw fit to congratulate Vladimir Putin on being elected President for the third time and, by so doing, effectively offer him their support.

Those undemocratic regimes, which are more or less well aware that strengthening democratic processes is not a decisive factor for the West, try to satisfy its major political and economic interests and to assist with the realisation of these interests in their countries and in the neighbouring regions.

‘Democratisation’: a process of backing the winner

The Arab Spring offered a very interesting recent example. The undemocratic regimes in power were under Western protection, but as soon as growing popular protest was clearly becoming irreversible, Western leaders felt compelled to turn their backs on these regimes and take the side of the people. That said, neither Paris nor Washington were in any hurry to turn their backs on Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak, respectively, when the protest rallies started.

'In Afghanistan, Georgia makes the biggest contribution of the non-NATO member countries participating in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).'

In the Arab countries it was only large protest rallies that reminded the West about democracy. This allows us to conclude that for the West democracy is more of a stated commitment than a real goal.

If a pro-Western, but undemocratic, regime manages to maintain its power in such a way as to prevent protest rallies or to keep them few and far between, then support for the democratic process in that country is not a Western priority. If, however, the people can no longer endure the undemocratic regime and express their ever-increasing readiness to overthrow it, then the West recalls its main commitment and takes the side of the rebels in support of democracy.

Saakashvili_Batumi

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili delivers a speech at the opening of the economic conference in Batumi, Georgia, 12 May 2012 (photo: www.flickr.com, oscepa photostream)

The Arab Spring should have been a valuable lesson for the West and the failure to pay attention to it a serious mistake. Specifically, the commitment of the West to support democracy should be more important than allowing countries to adopt ‘pseudo-Western’ status, and the criteria for deciding whether a government is pro- or pseudo-Western must be radically changed.  Only those governments which do their best to support democratic values and the irreversible strengthening of the democratisation process above all else should be considered pro-Western.

Elections in Georgia: yet another test for Western democracy

Whether or not the West has learned its lesson from the Arab Spring will become clear in the course of the autumn 2012 parliamentary elections in the post-Communist state of Georgia.

President Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime came to power as a result of the Rose Revolution in November 2003. Initially, it cultivated a reforming democratic image, but this was revealed to the world as false on 7 November 2007, when the government brutally broke up a protest rally. The authoritarian character of Saakashvili’s regime has over the years become increasingly apparent: the abuse of human rights is systematic, property rights are flagrantly violated, the judiciary is subordinate to the government and freedom of speech is restricted. All this time, however, the West has attached more importance to the fact that the leader of Georgia was trying his best to be the outpost for the West (more specifically, for the USA) in the Caucasus. For the West, and especially the USA, the significance of governments in countries bordering Iran being avowedly pro-Western is paramount and Mr Saakashvili uses this to strengthen his regime. 

On every possible occasion, Mikheil Saakashvili has attempted to prove his devotion to the USA. Georgia sent military troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Georgia makes the biggest contribution of the non-NATO member countries participating in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). At the same time, several famous lobbyist companies are engaged in promoting the pro-Western image of President Saakashvili.

In 2013 Saakashvili’s second term as president expires. Changes to the Georgian Constitution, initiated by the president, will enable him to maintain his position in the country. The next leader of Georgia will be Prime Minister, rather than President, elected by Parliament for an unlimited term of office. It is vitally important for President Saakashvili that his party, the National Movement, should triumph at the 2012 parliamentary election, as this will allow him to assume the post of Prime Minister.

'If a pro-Western, but undemocratic, regime manages to maintain its power in such a way as to prevent protest rallies or to keep them few and far between, then support for the democratic process in that country is not a Western priority.'

Georgia will thus become the new testing ground for the West. To put it a different way, what is more important – a goal, i.e., to maintain the regime of a so-called ‘pro-Western’, but really pseudo-Western, Saakashvili, or a real commitment to protect the main democratic principles and not allow him to rig the coming elections and prevent the usual street protests and rallies?

We shall very soon find out which one the West opts for.

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