Democracy in Tbilisi

Democracy in Tbilisi

Saakashvili’s spin isn’t true—Georgia isn’t really a democracy. To recover from the 2008 war, it must adopt liberal reforms and include all Georgians in the political process.

The August 2008 war with Russia exacerbated many existing problems in Georgia, perhaps most obviously whether Tbilisi's priority should be the establishment of a strong state or one with democratic institutions. With Mikheil Saakashvili at the helm, this seems to be an either-or proposition. Although he is talented and well educated, Saakashvili is unwilling to allow the whole of Georgia's political class to take part in the democratic process. He has suppressed dissent and made little effort to include members of the opposition in practical domestic and foreign-policy decisions, other than in a retouched manner for PR purposes-thus straying from the principles and values of democracy in favor of his own personal political ambitions and interests. And, of course, it seems that the Georgian opposition is disorganized and chaotic.

Few in the West, however, recognize Saakashvili's true intentions. They either do not know or do not care much, being busy and over-burdened with their own complex and challenging problems. Though this regime is better than the last, there is a lot more talk of change and democratic politics than action. The current government has paid more attention to its international image than with reforming Georgian politics. With the help of foreign lobbyists, Saakashvili successfully created his own narrative about Georgia's supposed respect for democratic institutions, one eagerly accepted by Western states. This narrative went over particularly well in the United States, where the Bush administration and, after that, presidential candidate John McCain offered steadfast support to Tbilisi. It seems the Obama administration's position may be little different.

In Western capitals, Georgia was recognized as the "the beacon of democracy" and, to be fully sincere, the Revolutions of the Roses began that way. But this later didn't reflect the realities on the ground. Georgia remained undemocratic and illiberal. The disconnect between Western perception and Georgian reality was no more evident than in the war with Russia. In the West, the conflict was seen through Saakashvili's version of events, with Moscow as the aggressor, instead of the truer line of argument-that Saakashvili, being strongly provoked to do so by the Russians, got Georgia involved in the war in a vain attempt to integrate Tbilisi into the Euro-Atlantic community. That strategy did not work. America and Europe did not risk war with Moscow to bail out Georgia. And our problems cannot be solved through Western sympathy alone. So Georgia still remains defeated, dismembered and occupied country.

The way out of Georgia's post-war crisis lies in ensuring the continued enfranchisement of all citizens of Georgians in the country's political process. The government must search for compromises and maintain a political balance, since democracy is a constantly renewable contract resting on a country's institutional systems and legitimacy. Free-and-fair elections, even ones recognized by the international community, are only the beginning of the process. Even undemocratic and illiberal countries are capable of holding fair elections that deserve the approval of both foreign observers and the wider international community. Georgia has been governed by illiberal methods, and the main administrative and financial resources of the country are often directed in the interests of one political clan. Real democratic systems require mutual responsibility between the ruling elite and its citizens, including first of all the opposition. A secure democracy is one that is governed according to its constitution and its laws. Only by striving to fully embody this democratic ideal will Georgia be able to cope with the problems it is facing.

Tbilisi must not look abroad for assistance with its political difficulties-and this includes in its troubles with Russia. The West will not go to war with Moscow over Georgia. The United States is beset with its own domestic and foreign-policy agendas and can ill afford to antagonize the Kremlin over a single Eastern European state. Europe, meanwhile, is beholden to Russian energy supplies and other business and trade interests. Moscow is well aware of the leverage it holds and uses its powerful commercial and political interests to its advantage. Georgia must be very careful not to make hasty decisions that would annoy Russia or anybody else in the world, as it will find little more than a sympathetic ear in the international community, as it belatedly realized in the aftermath of the conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

So Georgia must first and foremost help itself. It must settle its own internal problems by ensuring its adherence to democratic governance. Georgians must learn from their past mistakes, and realize that Saakashvili's obsession with his standing in Western capitals will get them nowhere. A commitment to real democratic reform that includes Georgians of all political stripes is the only way out of the country's current post-war malaise.

There are some important nuances, and those purely Georgian domestic developments must be considered in terms of broader strategic implications. The world at large is going through a period of adaptation to some painful new realities: that is the impulse behind the American "reset" with Russia, an approach that may involve both new security paradigms and the inclusion of Moscow and other states in Eurasia in new cooperative relationships. This tumultuous and more than animated process will have to include all actors in the international community, no matter how big or how small, how powerful or weak they may be.

But for any of this to happen, Russia and its neighbors will have to address their own disputes and issues (including the internal ones) for the better. Though the chances may be very slim, at the end of the day each of the countries involved is going to have to come up with its own "reset" agenda. In Russia and Georgia's case, especially after the August 2008 war, it will be particularly difficult. Nonetheless, everyone has an interest in seeing such a retooling of the relationship between Moscow and Tbilisi, because if that piece of the puzzle doesn't fit, little else will work. That's why the internal "reset" of Georgian politics may matter more for its immediate neighbors and partners than many would think.


Tedo Japaridze is a former national-security adviser and foreign minister of Georgia. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily correspond to those of any government, international organization or think tank.