Democracy Bound

Democracy Bound

Mini Teaser: Is the democracy cure a panacea or a placebo?

by Author(s): Lincoln Mitchell

AMERICAN FOREIGN policy identifies the ongoing spread of democracy around the world as a vital national interest, seeing other democratic states as "effective partners joining with us to promote global freedom and prosperity," in the words of the 2006 National Security Strategy. But events in the last few months of 2007-in countries as different as Pakistan, Kenya and Georgia-demonstrated that the challenges in spreading democracy are different than the ones the United States confronted more than a decade ago. It is no longer a clear-cut struggle between anti-Western dictators and pro-American masses struggling to be free, nor one of helping right-minded postauthoritarian leaders move their countries toward democracy. Instead, the challenge is now how to "develop better strategies for advancing democracy in semi-authoritarian countries, when the leaders do not want further democratization"-especially when those leaders may also be pro-American in their strategic orientation.1 Trying to craft policy responses to troubling events-the street demonstrations and varying degrees of violence ranging from tear gas and rubber bullets in Georgia to political assassination and suicide bombs in Pakistan and widespread civilian casualties in Kenya-demonstrate how difficult these tasks can be.

In Pakistan, the United States had supported a clearly undemocratic leader in hopes that Pakistan would remain, or become, a valuable ally in the war on terror. As Pervez Musharraf became increasingly undemocratic and unpopular, this position became more difficult for the United States. The Pakistani parliamentary elections in February 2008 demonstrated the extent to which the Pakistani people had become tired of their leader as Musharraf's party lost badly, further demonstrating the need for the United States to rethink its policy toward that key country.

Developments in Kenya and Georgia were especially troubling because the United States had invested high hopes that the success of democracy in these two countries would spread beyond their immediate borders and lead to further democratic breakthroughs across Africa and the post-Soviet space, respectively. But the 2007 Kenyan presidential election ended in charges from opposition- candidate Raila Odinga that Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki-who himself had come to power in an election assessed as reasonably free and fair in 2002 when he had run as the leader of an opposition coalition-had stolen the election. These accusations spilled into the streets and villages of Kenya, leading to widespread civil unrest, and by conservative estimates, hundreds of civilian casualties. These events occurred in a country that many had viewed as one of the hopes for democracy in Africa. Efforts to broker a compromise between the two groups seem to be getting some traction, but the deeper issues there certainly remain.

In Georgia, a government which had come to power through a peaceful electoral breakthrough and had pledged its commitment to democracy and integration into Western political institutions relied on tear gas, rubber bullets, accusing opposition leaders of being Russian pawns and using emergency law to break up peaceful demonstrations. The story in Georgia became further complicated by snap presidential elections in which President Saakashvili was reelected with 53.4 percent of the vote, although this was down from the 96 percent he received in 2004.

All three of these countries highlight related problems in America's strategy of promoting democracy in countries of strategic import. Sometimes, democratic institutions do not show themselves to be as strong as they look at first from the outside-and individuals in whom the West places confidence do not always live up to their promises. Moreover, in each of these three countries, the cultivation of democracy must occur alongside the challenge of building an effective state. The problems of pursuing these two goals simultaneously should not be overlooked. Democracies that cannot construct effective state institutions-including those charged with guaranteeing law and order-and deliver essential services will not last. But this creates the very real temptation to focus on state building at the expense of further democratization, and to argue that strengthening the government, even at the expense of participation and accountability, is justifiable.

Finally, democracy itself needs to be balanced against other American interests-such as cooperation in the war on terror in Pakistan and Kenya or facilitating the West's energy security in Georgia. However, the recent events in the above three examples have demonstrated that de-emphasizing democratic development comes with a cost-even for America's core security interests.


OF THESE three countries, Georgia is perhaps the most intriguing, because it shows just how difficult it is, even under reasonably good circumstances, to consolidate democratic gains-as well as how strong the temptation to cut democratic corners in the name of expedience and state building is, even for those who claim, with some legitimacy, to be democrats.

The November 2007 images looked uncannily like those of the Rose Revolution of November 2003: thousands of demonstrators shivering on the wintry streets of Tbilisi, listening to firebrand speeches by angry radical leaders, being encouraged by an assertive and independent television station while the government seemed flummoxed and made vague allusions to shadowy Russian plots. But there was one major difference between these two Novembers. In November 2003, the demonstrators were protesting a failed, kleptocratic leader who had presided over more than a decade of corruption, economic decline and even the partial breakup of the Georgian state. In November 2007, the demonstrations were against a democratically elected leader who had reduced corruption, improved the country's economy and begun to put the Georgian state back together. The new Georgian state was stronger and less corrupt than in the past, but in key respects, less free and more dominated by one political group.

In truth, democracy has been stalled in Georgia for a few years. Georgia's impressive record of political reform, fighting corruption, reasserting sovereignty over the breakaway region of Ajara and Upper Abkhazia, or the Kodori Gorge, improving the investment climate, reducing unnecessary bureaucracy and improving the energy situation should be recognized. However, the government's record on democracy issues which have direct bearing on the extent to which opposition voices are heard-the degree to which policy is debated and input is sought, how the government is kept in check, transparency and the like-is far less impressive. Georgia's democratic development since the Rose Revolution has been characterized by strong rhetoric and verbal commitments to democracy from both the U.S. and Georgian governments, but both governments have fallen short in their efforts to follow through on this.

Beginning with the constitutional reforms the new administration pushed through in the early part of 2004 that substantially weakened the parliament and concentrated more power in the presidency, a troubling lack of commitment to democracy on the part of the government began to emerge. This became clearer a few months later when previously lively and often-critical political talk shows were taken off the air and replaced by drier, less-controversial fare. The line between the new governing party and the Georgian state remained blurred as Saakashvili's National Movement consolidated its control over the government after handily winning the parliamentary elections in March of 2004. An independent judiciary never fully emerged as important court cases were said to be decided by the judiciary only after consultation with the executive.

Then there were the 2006 elections. Though they were determined to be democratic, their fairness was questionable. First the dates and structure of local elections were manipulated to maximize the ruling party's representation. Then, later that year, a constitutional amendment was passed linking the date of the presidential election with the parliamentary election. Presumably, such a change was intended to give a boost to unpopular candidates from the government's party by allowing them to ride the coattails of a popular president.

Finally, since the Rose Revolution, Georgia has not had an impartial broadcast media. Both Rustavi 2 and Imedi, two major Georgian television stations, became highly partisan, one clearly supporting the government and the other clearly sympathizing with the opposition. This is the environment which produced the demonstrations and the reaction by the government in November 2007. The story became even more confusing when the president resigned on November 26 and called for a snap presidential election on January 5. The ensuing campaign period was marked by unequal access to media and state resources, altogether allowing for a free, but not necessarily fair, election.

Throughout these years, Saakashvili's rhetoric about wanting to make Georgia a strong and democratic country was taken at face value by the United States. If criticisms were made, they were expressed privately-as the official position of the United States was that democracy was sailing along in Georgia. U.S. funding priorities reflected this as support for Georgian civil society and political-party development gave way to programs aimed at strengthening and supporting the Georgian government. This silence on the part of the United States was interpreted, probably correctly, by the Georgian government as evidence that the U.S. government shared the opinion that making further progress on democracy did not need to be a high priority for the Georgian government.


THE BUSH administration has hailed post-Rose Revolution Georgia as one of its "success stories" in the freedom crusade-and as proof that the United States could "do both"-secure its interests while spreading democracy. And after Saakashvili was reelected on January 5, many viewed the relatively good election as evidence that democracy was back on track in Georgia. The warm feelings which characterized the March 2008 meeting between Bush and Saakashvili underscore this sentiment.

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