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Georgia’s grotesque democracy

Bakar Berekashvili_1.jpg

Neoliberal dogma has taken root and, ahead of parliamentary elections next year, our political elites have nothing else to offer us.

Democracy in Georgia has taken a turn for the worst. While ordinary people still hope that it will work in the interests of the majority, democracy is often perceived as a political system that benefits only political, cultural and economic elites. Here, democracy has been misinterpreted and distorted, becoming cynical, absurd and irrelevant.

Postcommunist prophets

In the years since transition, Georgia’s academic and political elites have been taught that democracy is possible only under a capitalist system—without a strong free market, there is no democracy. For them, the only constituent principle of democracy is individual rights; the market and individualism have become synonyms of democracy.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Georgia, we witnessed another catastrophe—the moral collapse of postcommunist political and academic elites. The attitudes of political parties, think-tanks and universities towards our transition to capitalism leave much to be desired.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian presidential election, 2013. Marco Fieber / Flickr. Some rights reserved.These institutions claim that while transition has had a negative impact on ‘future Georgia’, it has also been useful. Their discourse tells us that, yes, there are specific cases when market and investor interests trump those of democracy, but only in order to save the future of democracy. They claim that, yes, nowadays we require extremely liberal legislation and a minimal state to save the Georgian people in the future.

An oligarchic tendency 

Is democracy same as the free market, capitalism and individualism? Well, it depends on which form of democracy we’re talking about. If we talk about ‘market democracy’, then of course. But market democracy isn’t the only form of political and economic organisation.

Cornelius Castoriadis, a great 20th century supporter of democracy, considered market democracy (or democratic capitalism) a form of socio-economic and political organisation that inevitably produces an oligarchy, a system where individualism is perceived as true liberty, a system without social and political conflicts. 

Castoriadis’s critique of democratic capitalism is based on the argument that, under so-called liberal democratic regimes, power belongs to certain privileged political and economic groups—to a relatively small group of society that extracts resources from the country as much as possible. The people have no role in determining the agenda of political, economic and social life.

Instead, the people are viewed as spectators who take part in elections where, in the end, resources decide everything.

The only game in the town

The postcommunist model of democracy is definitely more harmful than the so-called western liberal or oligarchic democracies, so harshly criticised by Castoriadis. And Georgia is a good example of how democracy is used by political and economic elites in order to strengthen their dominant positions—in recent years, the interests of Georgia's political class have systematically merged with the interests of financial elites. 

No government in Georgia since independence has been brave enough to resist the practice of using the idea of democracy in the interests of hegemonic financial elites. Sadly, Georgian academics have welcomed this approach too, with mainstream academic figures frequently advocating right wing concepts in the media.

Tbilisi, presidential election 2013. Marco Fieber / Flickr. Some rights reserved.This distortion of democracy in Georgia, grotesque in its magnitude, reached its peak under Mikheil Saakashvili, who ruled the country from 2004-2013, when the Georgian government systematically praised Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong as the model of future Georgia. Those three countries have nothing to do with democracy; rather, they are models of authoritarian capitalism.

Unfortunately, Saakashvili’s replacement, the Georgian Dream coalition, revealed itself unable to resist the same dogmas from the very start of its rule. When the coalition, bankrolled by businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, celebrated its victory in the 2012 parliamentary elections, it quickly became clear that the new government would be unable to implement a new agenda for Georgia’s political and socio-economic development.

For instance, take the spring 2013 debates over reforms to Georgia’s labour code. Giorgi Margvelashvili, Vice-Prime Minister, Minister of Education and Sciences, and shortly to become president, criticised and attacked these alterations, stating arrogantly that ‘In parliament, they have introduced a labour code which does not allow anybody to operate a business. This is Rosa Luxemburg’s dream legislation. I didn’t know we were here to make Rosa Luxemburg’s dreams come true.’ 

Of course, the labour code that Margvelashvili resisted so fiercely hardly represented the fantasy of a dead revolutionary. Instead, the government has made only minor improvements to the legislation, and the labour code still needs to be developed further for it to become a moral and fair legislative act for Georgia’s working class. 

Instead, statements like Margvelashvili’s are symptomatic of the continuing domination of liberal democratic dogma. It was clear in early 2013 that some members of government, such as Irakli Alasania (former defence minister, now in opposition), or Alexi Petriashvili (former minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration, now in opposition), would simply promote the interests of economic elites. 

Margvelashvili, who frequently lobbies for radical liberal standpoints, merely pioneered this via his harsh opposition to the new labour code.

New elections, old discourses 

In practical terms, the current ruling coalition is not ready to offer an alternative to the liberal democratic agenda ahead of the next parliamentary elections in autumn 2016. They cannot propose an agenda that goes beyond market democracy and neoliberal transformation: true postcommunist elites, they are imprisoned by the constraints of liberal dogma.

More worryingly, just like previous ruling elites, Georgian Dream has trivialised people’s perceptions of democratisation. The current government in Georgia maintains the political traditions of postcommunist elites who inevitably link the country’s democratisation to western messianism.

Thus, politicians in Georgia do not consider internal factors as crucial for democracy, they only look to external forces. When they speak publicly, they stress the role of the people. But in practical political life, politicians rarely cooperate with citizens, instead choosing our western partners, such as US and EU, to democratise our country.

Georgian Dream has nothing to say to the citizens of Georgia ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. They can only replicate trivial discourses about Georgia’s aspirations for European integration, liberal transformation and empowering investors and business corporations. To ordinary people, this sounds just like vague and tattered rhetoric.

About the author

Bakar Berekashvili is Lecturer in Politics and Critical Theory at the Georgian-American University, Tbilisi. His articles regularly appear on the website of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, where he works as a political analyst.


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