Potemkin Democracy

Potemkin Democracy

Mini Teaser: Georgia's image in the West is belied by the reality on the ground.

by Author(s): Charles King

It is an old culture squeezed into a tiny new state. That is the way visitors to post-Soviet Georgia often describe the place. Resting on the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, hemmed in by the Black Sea, Turkey and its south Caucasus neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the roots of Georgia's history wind back for millennia. As ancient Colchis, Georgia was the endpoint of Jason's epic quest for the golden fleece and the homeland of Medea. Its alphabet has been around since perhaps the fifth century AD. As a country of mainly Orthodox Christians, Georgia has long been linked with the magnificent art and culture of eastern Christianity, from Byzantium to Moscow. Beyond that, the country's natural beauty, from the Black Sea coastline to the magnificent churches nestled in lush mountains, and the blend of European and Near Eastern influences in its music, cuisine and architecture have all made it an attractive spot for American and European expatriates.

Partly for these reasons, there are few countries in the former Soviet Union that get better press than Georgia. On a per capita basis, it is one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid in the world--since 1992 over $850 million for a population of five million. It is headed by an internationally acclaimed statesman, President Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who was a key player in the peaceful reunification of Germany. It has a cabinet and governing party, the Citizens' Union of Georgia (CUG), peppered with urbane, thirtysomething, English-speaking politicians, several of whom hold degrees from Columbia, Georgetown and other prestigious American universities. In its 2000 Human Development report, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) praised Georgia's success:

Of the former Soviet republics, Georgia has been one of the leading countries in providing its population with access to human rights. Georgia is to be given recognition for its achievements in the democratization process of the political, social, and economic aspects of its development. The country's commitment to a free press and respect of political rights have been remarkable in a region of the world not yet known for ensuring respect of such rights to their full extent.

The picture on the ground, however, is sorely at odds with such assessments. Indeed, whether because of Georgia's importance to Western strategic interests in the south Caucasus or because of the Georgian government's talent in public relations, the United States and international organizations continue to cast the country's corrupt economy, its bloated state apparatus and its increasingly authoritarian politics in the best possible light.

During the 1999 parliamentary elections and the 2000 presidential election in which Shevardnadze won another five-year term as president, observers reported multiple irregularities. Recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have chronicled a host of abuses, including extrajudicial killing, police torture and state-condoned violence against religious minorities. All of this, moreover, seems to have increased since Georgia's admission to the Council of Europe in April 1999. The economy has continued to slide downward, and the government is unable even to ensure electricity and water supplies to the capital, Tbilisi, much less pay state pensions and salaries. Illegal commerce pouring through the many areas of the state outside Tbilisi's control--the separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the autonomous republic of Achara--have deepened the culture of impunity that has placed Georgia among the world's most corrupt countries.

Georgia is not, of course, the worst of the lot in the former Soviet Union. For all its problems, it is not a raw autocracy. There is no cult of personality (although Shevardnadze does loom far larger in public life than presidents such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine). Unlike President Heidar Aliev of neighboring Azerbaijan, Shevardnadze has not made his son heir-apparent to the presidency. Still, comparing Georgia favorably to the most authoritarian of its immediate neighbors obscures the extreme distance between the country and even the average, mostly illiberal democracies that have arisen across Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Whether consciously complicit in the misrepresentation of the realities of local politics or not, the international community is perpetuating four myths about Georgia--and, in the process, selling out its citizens to a government whose commitment to multiparty democracy, human rights and clean governance is, to put it mildly, highly questionable.

The Myth of Shevardnadze

When Eduard Shevardnadze came to Georgia in the early 1990s, the country was in the middle of a separatist war, on the brink of another, and under the control of a military junta. The policies of the previous president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, had not only alienated the country's substantial ethnic minorities but had led to the virtual disintegration of the state. Abkhazia, the region in the northwest that had enjoyed autonomous status during the Soviet period, opposed Gamsakhurdia's reforms and refused to participate in elections for new central institutions. In the north-central part of the country, another dispute surrounded the status of South Ossetia. The Ossetians, an ethnic group split between Georgia and the Republic of North Ossetia inside Russia, had declared an independent state already in 1990. In the middle of all this, the Gamsakhurdia administration collapsed. Many Georgians had grown increasingly dissatisfied with Gamsakhurdia's authoritarian behavior and his inability to quell the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A coup, engineered by members of the Georgian military, overthrew him in January 1992.

Into this failed state stepped Shevardnadze. Having served as Communist Party first secretary in Soviet Georgia through the 1970s and early 1980s, Shevardnadze already had a strong network among former party officials and administrative personnel, and he was respected in both Moscow and Western capitals for his sober hand in guiding Soviet foreign policy during the federation's collapse in 1990-91. He seemed the ideal candidate to haul his native republic, now an independent state, back from the abyss.

His early efforts, though, were an abysmal failure. Under his leadership, the Georgian army launched an assault on both South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the first half of 1992. With the assistance of Soviet, and later Russian, forces stationed in the separatist zones, the regional administrations managed to rout Shevardnadze's troops. In the process, over 250,000 ethnic Georgian refugees from Abkhazia--about half the region's total population--were driven across the Inguri River into Georgia proper, another 10,000 Georgians fled from South Ossetia, and some 80,000 Ossetians moved north to Russia. Throughout 1992 and 1993, "Zviadist" guerrillas loyal to former President Gamsakhurdia continued to attack military and police forces in western Georgia. So uncertain was Georgia's future that it was not until July 1992 that the country became the last Soviet successor state to join the United Nations.

These defeats sobered Shevardnadze and demonstrated the need for a solid political base on which to consolidate his rule. That came in the form of the Citizens' Union of Georgia (CUG), formed in 1993. Like similar "presidential parties" in other parts of the former Soviet Union, the CUG was driven less by ties of ideology and class than by loyalty to Shevardnadze and a desire of local elites to secure their political and economic positions amid the turmoil of civil war and state collapse. Shevardnadze was able to rebuild the web of relationships among district-level administrative personnel, factory managers and former party bosses whom he had known before his departure for Moscow. The CUG also attracted a small group of younger, generally reform-minded leaders from the civic organizations that had sprung up in the waning days of Soviet power.

It is undeniable that Shevardnadze's return to Georgia helped save the country from even greater tragedy, perhaps even complete disintegration. The new president managed to corral many of the paramilitary groups that once roamed the country and eventually to defeat the major Zviadist formations. With the exception of a flare-up in violence in 1998, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been quiet, if for no other reason than that the separatists won their wars and have now turned to the task of building independent--but unrecognized--states. But the absence of open warfare has not produced the growth of a genuinely stable, multiparty and free state. Indeed, in recent years both Shevardnadze and the CUG have seemed less the bearers of democracy than brakes on further progress toward it.

Shevardnadze remains the single most important player in Georgian politics. Under the country's strongly presidential system, he is the ultimate decisionmaker both within the state and within the CUG; even the few political figures who have broken with the ruling party have remained staunchly loyal to the president. His leadership style, however, has been characterized by an effort to balance competing interests to ensure that no single group is able to challenge his authority as head of state, head of government and head of the ruling party. He has at times seemed a strong supporter of Zurab Zhvania, the young chairman of parliament and the most powerful genuine democrat on the Georgian scene. However, Shevardnadze has also cut deals with the country's least reformist figure, Aslan Abashidze, the potentate of the Autonomous Republic of Achara in the southwest. In exchange for Shevardnadze's recognizing his iron rule in Achara, Abashidze guaranteed a high voter turnout in his republic and aided Shevardnadze's victory in the first round of the 2000 presidential race.

Essay Types: Essay