Writing in last week's In the National Interest, Nikolas Gvosdev goes further than most analysts in telling the truth about developments in Georgia since last November's Rose Revolution. He is right on the mark in claiming that today "the political processes in both Georgia and in Russia appear to be moving in tandem." However, given the country's tumultuous post-independence history, political culture and mores, Russian-style "managed democracy" that Gvosdev proposes for Georgia is not a viable alternative. Rather, the only choices for Georgia are between real democracy and authoritarianism. For this reason, waiting to "judge [President Mikheil Saakashvili] by the results" is a dangerous gamble. Instead, all efforts must be directed at ensuring that real democracy develops in Georgia not over time, but now.
At the end of his article, Gvosdev suggests that Georgia under Shevardnadze was very similar to Russia under Yeltsin-pluralistic but ineffective. Shevardnadze's regime was indeed ineffective, corrupt and damaging. However, without help from Shevardnadze, Georgia in 2003 possessed five characteristics essential for viable democracy, making Georgia very different from Russia under Yeltsin.
First, Georgia had a quasi-balanced constitutional framework with a legislature that functioned as a real check on executive power. This allowed for development of other state institutions (for example, the Supreme Court) which met semi-liberal democratic standards.
Second, Georgia had a pluralistic, diversified business community which the state did not control. Furthermore, while businessmen were not corruption-free (they did avoid taxes because paying them all would have resulted in bankruptcy), unlike their Russian counterparts, entrepreneurs in Georgia did not build their companies at the expense of the government or cheap privatization of high-value state property. As a result, the business community owed little to the Shevardnadze regime and was free to actively support opposition political forces. This support was instrumental in collapsing the Citizens Union of Georgia (the party which had united Shevardnadze, Saakashvili and current Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania) in 2001.
Third, by 2003 Georgia had a number of semi-democratic political parties with competing philosophic visions; there was a beginning of an ideological debate between the left and the right, akin to most democratic states. Saakashvili's National Movement won last November precisely because it succeeded in bringing to the Georgian poor its leader's populist and leftist message better than the more middle-class oriented forces.
Fourth, the media in Georgia used to be largely independent and pluralistic. It is true that TV channels often expressed the views of their owners, like newspapers in the United States did in the 1920s and 1930s. However, because several prominent TV networks were aligned with different political groups, a real political debate was possible. Interestingly, Shevardnadze left the private media alone, exerting control only over the State TV network.
Fifth, Georgia had an influential civil society (narrowly understood). Analysts in the West assumed that the NGO community was the most developed of Georgia's democratic institutions. In reality, it was far weaker than many thought because it consisted of organizations which depended exclusively on support from foreign donors, rather than their members, as is the case with powerful NGOs in the West. Thus, civil society's ability to impact the political process was dependent on personal relationships between NGO leaders, politicians and journalists, rather than grassroots activism.
Acknowledging these democratic achievements is not a means of ignoring the huge problem and stagnation that Shevardnadze's regime represented. Georgia's democratic characteristics existed not because but in spite of Shevardnadze, who utterly failed to take advantage of unique opportunities throughout the last decade to push through real reforms and good governance. However, because these characteristics existed, unlike Russia at the end of Yeltsin's rule, Georgia had the potential to become the first consolidated democracy among the countries the NIS once Shevardnadze office in early 2005.
The Bush administration was willing to spend political prestige (with Jim Baker's trip to Tbilisi being a key example of this) and financial resources pushing democracy in Georgia during 2003 precisely because it recognized this reality. A constitutional democratic transition to the younger generation of leaders that President Bush spoke about in his letters to Shevardnadze during 2002-2003 was possible even after November's fraudulent elections, because its outcome gave democratic forces a strong presence in the new Parliament. After the upheaval over fraud in November, any doubts that Shevardnadze would try to stay in office at the conclusion of his term disappeared. As a result, several democratic candidates, including Saakashvili, would have contested in a largely fair Presidential election, presenting the citizens with a real choice. A transition of power through such an election would have been a significant step on the road to democratic consolidation, somewhat similar to what happened in Taiwan a decade ago.