Georgia's puzzled transition

Tbilisi by Bakar Berekashvili.jpg

The disintegration of the Soviet Union has given birth to a new and difficult reality in Georgia.


Bakar Berekashvili
29 April 2015

Twenty five years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgian society lives in a world of stereotypes and ruthless economic conditions, regularly intensified by economic crisis and free market fetishism. Adapting to capitalism has become the most difficult task for every Georgian – affecting not only their everyday lives, but isolating them from the state and politics. This situation has completely atomised Georgian society.

Unequal social and economic development, social Darwinism, and the fragile political order have led not only to harder lives for the people of Georgia, but have cast a shadow on the future of democracy.

Talking shop

As a rule, Georgians are obsessed with talking about politics. But on a very practical level, they never understand that, without real people, there will be no real politics.

Georgians are attached to social equality as a concept, but otherwise consider equality a utopian project. Georgians are amused with the idea of democracy, but when it comes to practicalities, they fail to recognise that social ethics and civic responsibility are essentials for democracy.

It is popular among scholars and intellectuals to link our current problems with the Soviet past, but the tragic reality of Georgia – its poor economic life and an infinite crisis of democracy – is more a consequence of post-communist politics than Soviet. Indeed, linking the current situation with the Soviet past implies victimhood, above all.

Tbilisi by Bakar Berekashvili.jpg

ExpoGeorgia, now a leading convention centre in the Caucasus, was originally a fairground in Soviet times.

Many of the problems facing Georgia emerged precisely in the post-communist period. The increasingly high levels of social and economic inequality emerging in Georgia during the 1990s were the consequences of chaotic capitalism, in which the state sacrificed its citizens to the cause of social Darwinism, avoiding any further accountability.

Many of the problems facing Georgia emerged precisely in the post-communist period.

In modern social and political theory, development and democracy cannot exist without one another. As Seymour Lipset rightly noted, democracy is integrally and directly linked to economic development.

In conditions of dire socio-economic development, the fate of democracy became dramatic in Georgia. Indeed, the period of 2003-2012 was crucial in the sense that economic development declined, threatening democracy more deeply than ever before.

Era of imitation: Georgia, 2003-2012

In 2009, Mikheil Saakashvili, President of Georgia and leader of the dominant party United National Movement (UNM), told Newsweek: 'I admire American ideas. I used to idealise America under Bush, when ideas were above pragmatic politics.' Saakashvili's statement encapsulates the political ontology of Georgia during 2003-2012 – when a new political class, who claimed to be trained in the West, launched a project to create a new people and a new society in Georgia.

The reforms initiated by Saakasvhili's government, practically an autocratic regime at this point, aimed not only to neo-liberalise economic life, but to organise a 'cultic' social and political order instead of a democratic one. By this I mean a system whereby the decisions on how to organise citizens' social and political life were taken by a single leader or, at best, by a small group of political actors without any civic consensus. More worryingly, all of these decisions were legitimised on the basis of Georgia's European aspirations.

Democracy is a word used widely by people in Georgia, but practically nobody understands why they need it and what it really means today. Since Georgia gained independence in 1991, the process of democratisation has suffered frequently at the hands of various ruling political elites. The Rose Revolution of 2003 and its consequences were fatal for the future of Georgian democracy.

The Rose Revolution of 2003 and its consequences were fatal for the future of Georgian democracy.

The crisis under the government of Saakashvili emerged not only from existing patterns of governance, but Georgia's economic development. The economic policies of UNM never produced the kind of economic growth necessary for democratic rule. For example, Saakashvili's economic team was obsessed with the utopian ideas of neo-liberal economic thought, aspiring to present Georgia as an oasis of utopian economic experiments. This situation practically shut down the prospect of progressive socio-economic transformation and democratisation.

Indeed, Pierre Bourdieu believes that, under the neo-liberal order, a Darwinist world emerges – the struggle of everyone against everyone, at all levels of hierarchy. And in Georgia, the social injustice produced by post-communist neo-liberal rule provoked scepticism towards the ideas of social justice and social solidarity, and both were announced as anachronistic.

At the same time, neo-liberalism and democracy turned out to be poor bedfellows. Modern theories of democracy argue that no regime can be called a democracy unless its rulers govern democratically. As Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan put it: 'If freely elected executives (no matter what the magnitude of their majority) infringe the constitution, violate the rights of individuals and minorities, impinge upon the legitimate functions of the legislature, and thus fail to rule within the bounds of a state of law, their regimes are not democracies.'

The Saakashvili administration, despite being elected by the vast majority of voters in January 2004, patently rejected methods of democratic rule. What Georgia really experienced under Saakasvhili was a ruthless hybrid regime with systematic symptoms of neo-liberal autocracy, violently controlling all spheres of political and social life.

The Legacy of Imitation: Georgia after Saakashvili

Undoubtedly, the new ruling political class, which emerged after winning the parliamentary elections of 2012, would face increasingly drastic problems when it came to changing the political and social agenda of the country – as promised to the voters.

The legacy of Saakashvili has proven a difficult one. The current government has failed to position itself against the core concepts of Saakasvhili-era Georgia. It is simply impossible to deconstruct those dogmas developed by neo-liberal elites in Georgia, both on the level of social and political institutions. One thinks of free market fetishism, hostile, anti-Russian rhetoric, and the hegemony of radical liberal thinking in all fields of life, with other forms of thinking demonised in turn.

The tragedy of today’s Georgia is that neither the political, nor the administrative class is able to deconstruct the ideology once promoted by Saakashvili. There is a lack of political consensus even in the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. While the current government has no ideology of its own, several influential members of the coalition have explicitly neo-liberal preferences, such as the Republican Party and the Free Democrats Party (who recently broke away from the coalition due to internal political struggles). Symbols of a new Georgia, Tbilisi. Maxim Edwards, 2014 The situation becomes even less satisfactory when we realise that public servants still labour under UNM ideas. Administrative structures and people employed there (mid-career technocrats and managers) conform to the political, cultural, and economic stereotypes adopted by Saakashvili. They believe in ideas, which are not only utopian, but which also strongly contradict democratisation, and promote a path of corporate rule and militarism.

More worryingly, politics belongs not to the institutions of representative democracy, but to civil society actors – who have become a kind of new cultural elite. These groups use media to further their political and social doctrines (from idealising a free market economy to secular totalitarianism), again legitimising it with reference to integration with the West. In fact, civil society in Georgia operates as an industry of educators who promote particular ideological values, and if any political institution, social actor or mere citizen opposes such ideas, they are immediately announced as marginal, an 'anti-European'.

Civil society elites in Georgia are almost an imitation of the Soviet 'cultural intelligentsia.'

Civil society elites in Georgia are almost an imitation of the Soviet 'cultural intelligentsia', which legitimised and developed dominant Soviet ideas. In Soviet Georgia, the task of such cultural elites was to make the Soviet lifestyle and Soviet ideology appear as if they had no alternative. Today, new radical liberal elites of civil society in Georgia try to convince us that there is no alternative to a 'Western lifestyle', and no better form of governance than liberal democracy. In effect, this is a transformation of Soviet discourse by the new cultural elites in Georgia.

Today, both Georgian politics and society are in a state of chaos. Take the current tension between the president and government: neither party is able to reach political consensus, thus weakening both the development and the practice of democracy. Georgia’s prospects for development and progressive transformation are infringed by the rhetoric and propaganda of UNM, now in opposition.

A dangerous future

Many years ago Vilfredo Pareto wrote: 'It is a known fact that almost all revolutions have been the work, not of the common people, but of the aristocracy, and especially of the decayed part of the aristocracy.' Both the Rose Revolution of 2003, and the parliamentary elections of 2012 (ending nine years of UNM dominance) led to disappointment for people across Georgia.

Despite Georgian Dream's implementation of several important reforms (such as in healthcare), people still continue to live in hunger, stress, and frustration. To be sure, economic well being, prosperity and democracy take time and effort: we all know that task is far from simple.

But what makes the future of Georgia dangerous is that there is no political class which can push back against the legacy of an authoritarian past, propose a fair agenda for development and, most importantly, understand that Georgia has to emancipate itself not only from the traumas of its Soviet past, but from the traumas of its recent past, too.

Image one: (c) Bakar Berekashvili.

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