Beacon of Democracy or Khachapuri Republic?

Assessing progress toward democracy in Georgia points to positive as well as negative developments. What Washington has done well—and where it has failed—is revealing.

So how did we get from the days of wine, roses and khachapuri in late 2003 and early 2004 to where we are today in Georgia?

Immediately after the crackdown on November 7, 2007, the Western media, in addition to the inevitable puns about roses, thorns and withering, offered two different narratives. The first, perhaps best seen in Anne Applebaum's piece in The Washington Post, was that democracy had failed in Georgia partially because of wrongheaded U.S. policies. The second was that this was a mistake, but otherwise things were going well in Georgia and if the January 5 elections went well, democracy in Georgia would be back on track.  Interestingly, this latter narrative seems to be in the ascendancy and seems to reflect US policy. The truth lies somewhere in between and is worth thinking about.

First, I think that the post-Rose Revolution Government of Georgia has accomplished a lot, which some of our speakers have recognized. They have fought corruption in government and business. Foreign assistance has actually been used to rebuild Georgia, and stopped ending up in individual bank accounts. Laws have been passed to streamline business procedures with the hopes of luring more foreign investment. In mid-2004, Aslan Abashidze, the criminal leader of Ajara, fled to Russia under pressure from the newly revitalized government. Cities, notably Tbilisi and Batumi, have begun to look noticeably cleaner, busier and more modern as the economy has slowly improved. These are real accomplishments for which the Georgian government deserves credit. And they've done in it in the shadow of, shall we say, a very difficult neighbor.

The Georgian government has argued that they have prioritized state building-not democracy-during these years. I think this is an argument made of convenience that creates a false dichotomy between these two ideas. A government as popular and competent as Saakashvili's in its first few years would only have been made stronger by doing things more democratically with a little more attention paid to process.  

Second, I think a great deal of Georgia's strategic import is tied in to its democratic development. A failure of democracy in Georgia is a failure for a U.S. and European policy that goes far beyond Georgia. If democracy fails in Georgia, it will be hard to make the argument that democracy can succeed in any non-democratic country. On the other hand, success for democracy in Georgia breathes life into U.S. democracy assistance policies and convinces people that the spread of democracy has not come to an end.

I believe there is still hope for democracy in Georgia. Four years of better elections, less corruption and a public commitment to democracy by the government are buttressed by widespread agreement in Georgia that the future lies with the West-and that means democracy. While these are far from guarantees of success, they do help and should not be overlooked.

But the development of democracy in Georgia has been decidedly mixed since the early days of the Rose Revolution. Constitutional amendments were pushed through in 2004, concentrating power in the president's hands more than ever before, giving the president the right to dissolve parliament and weakening the powers of the legislative branch.

The judiciary never achieved full independence either, as the government continued to dominate it. Additionally, the spirit of democracy was conspicuously absent from the new Georgia. Media was less free. The parliament, once a place of lively debate, became dominated by the president's party and far less independent. Leaders of the political opposition were frequently accused of being parties to Russian plots to destabilize Georgia and ridiculed by the president and government for their weakness.

In 2006, the government manipulated the electoral system for local elections, ensuring that the ruling party would dominate local legislatures. Later that year, the government again changed the constitution so that the president and parliament would be elected on the same day. This was broadly seen as an effort to ensure that the still-popular President Saakashvili could provide coattails to the unpopular parliamentary leadership of his party.

However, the actions of the Georgian government described above only tell a limited part of the story. It is also important to look at the actions of Georgia's biggest and most important ally, the United States.

Since the Rose Revolution, the failure of the U.S. government to challenge the erosion of Georgian democracy has become increasingly conspicuous and troubling. Additionally, democracy assistance in Georgia has changed. Civil society organizations, which might have provided a balance to the powerful government, received less money. Instead, support went to strengthening the Georgian state-an important goal, but not one that helped democracy in Georgia. Georgia is a country that is very pro-American; politicians and ordinary people care a lot about what the United States does and says. The U.S. policy of praising Georgian accomplishments in other areas but not criticizing the increasingly clear shortcomings in the democracy area led the Georgian government to believe that they could move further away from democracy without consequences.

So they did.

In short, the United States acted as an enabler as Georgian democracy slipped further and further away.

Where then do we go from here, and how can we help Georgian democracy get back on track?