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

Shevardnadze's party has become a mechanism for capturing the state rather than transforming it. The CUG's underlying structure is composed of a system of administrative cadres, factory bosses and security officials who ran Georgia under Shevardnadze in the 1970s. They have transformed themselves into a new class of entrepreneurs in Georgia's largely dysfunctional economy, benefiting from the opportunities to take over state enterprises under the country's Byzantine privatization program. There is little evidence that Shevardnadze has sought to transform the party he controls, precisely because he has created a state in which the ruling party and the administrative system are largely fused--a style of politics borrowed from the Soviet period. All of that may produce some semblance of stability in the short term, especially in a state still threatened by territorial separatism and a hot war in Chechnya on its northern border. But it hardly makes Shevardnadze a committed democratic leader.

The Myth of the "Young Reformers"

No analyst of Georgian politics denies that the CUG is still in large part a tool of Soviet-era elites whose main interest is the protection of their own positions in the country's economy. But, it is often said, at least there is a reform-oriented wing within the CUG, a collection of younger parliamentarians and government ministers allied with the parliamentary chairman, Zhvania. Since these CUG members come from a very different background than their older colleagues--from pro-democracy civic groups--they stand a real chance of reforming the ruling party from within. And given the fact that Shevardnadze is now in his constitutionally-mandated final term as president, it is claimed that this "young reformer" wing will be the group to watch in Georgia's post-Shevardnadze era. The reality, however, is more complicated.

Talk of the young reformers goes back to the very beginnings of the CUG. The party leadership, and Shevardnadze in particular, were very astute about promoting younger party members to public positions, especially those offices best sited for contact with Western governments and international financial institutions. In the last year, several of these members have been placed in high-profile ministerial posts. By autumn 2000 the parliamentary speakership, the CUG faction leadership, the parliament's defense committee, and the ministries of justice, tax, finance, economics and agriculture had all come under the control of a younger, partially Western-educated elite.

These personnel changes are significant. Never before have so many members of the CUG's new generation held governmental portfolios. Still, they do not signal the sea change in Georgian politics that observers have been expecting for nearly a decade. As has often been the case in Georgia under Shevardnadze, there are several reasons for suspecting that the very idea of a "young reformer" circle is more the result of wishful thinking by the international community than a portent of clean and responsive governance.

In the first place, younger CUG activists, although in more visible positions than before, still control ministries that are largely irrelevant in the real world of Georgian politics. The ministries with genuine influence remain firmly in the hands of Soviet-era cadres, all in their late forties and fifties. Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili was a former leader of the Georgian communist youth organization, chair of a district party committee, and minister of health in Soviet Georgia before becoming foreign minister in 1995. Minister of Internal Affairs Kakha Targamadze--arguably the most powerful person in Georgia after Shevardnadze--is likewise a product of the Soviet era who has refused to launch thoroughgoing reforms in his institution. The minister of state security spent his early career in the Soviet security services. The minister of state property served in the Soviet ministry of foreign trade, including at the Soviet trade mission in Iraq. A real sign of change would be to see a young reformer appointed to one of these positions. Until then, it is this older, Soviet-era elite that will control both the government and the internal machinery of the CUG.

Another reason for skepticism is that the young reformers are in no real sense a unified group. They are united by little more than age, and there are plenty of other young party activists whose reform credentials are uncertain at best. Their positions in government are likely to highlight their differences on key policy issues. Indeed, the only thing that seems to bind them at the moment is their loyalty to the CUG as the leading force in Georgian politics and the vehicle of their own political ascendancy. Unwavering loyalty to a party that has led the country deeper into corruption, and has been behind several flawed elections, hardly seems a sign of a clear reform orientation.

The Myth of Progress

Progress in democratization is notoriously difficult to measure, as is the impact that foreign assistance might have on the process. Those who design, administer and monitor democracy assistance programs rightly stress that a country's overall trajectory, not the short-term ups and downs of its reform effort, is the proper measure of how well it is performing. In these terms, Georgia has drifted backward in recent years, not inched forward, in the critical areas of democratization, human rights and administrative reform.

Since independence Georgia has had three parliamentary elections, three presidential races and one set of local elections--most of them during Shevardnadze's tenure. None, however, has fully met international standards, and the elections got worse throughout the 1990s. Parliamentary elections in 1995 and 1999 produced an assembly overwhelmingly controlled by the CUG, and presidential elections in 1995 and 2000 led to sweeping victories for Shevardnadze. In all of the elections, observers openly condemned CUG manipulations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) primly noted in its report on the 1999 elections that they "failed to fully meet all commitments", especially since the "election law allowed the ruling party to enjoy a dominant position in the election administration at all levels." Non-governmental observers were less guarded. The International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), the country's highly respected local monitoring organization, reported widespread stuffing of ballot boxes, intimidation of voters by police and violence against independent observers.

Both local and international observers were unanimous in their assessment of Shevardnadze's 79.8 percent victory in the 2000 presidential race. As ISFED noted in its election report, "The biased interference of local officials and law enforcement representatives in the election process, as well as their criminal inaction, were outrageous. These facts demonstrate that the rights of presidential candidates and thousands of voters were severely violated." The victory even gave rise to a popular joke: Shevardnadze's chief adviser greets him the morning after the election with good news and bad news. "The good news is that you won the election", he reports. "The bad news is that no one voted for you."

In practical terms, Georgia's multiparty system remains to a great degree a notional one. Under the current electoral law, central and regional electoral commissions have most of their members appointed by state institutions--and are therefore guaranteed a majority of CUG supporters. Moreover, complaints about the conduct of the elections are processed not through the courts but by the electoral commission itself, an exemplary case of the fox guarding the hen house.

There are, of course, other parties represented in parliament. The most powerful of these is the Revival Union, a political formation that could not exist in its present strength without the willingness of the strongman of the Achara republic, Aslan Abashidze, to deliver votes in openly fraudulent elections in the districts he controls. There are opposition currents besides Revival, but these mostly exist within the ranks of the CUG rather than in the weak and poorly organized opposition parties. Machinations within the ruling party are far more significant to everyday politics than any potential challenges from outside, and representatives of foreign NGOs report that, especially in the countryside, there is little sense among CUG activists that a genuine multiparty system is even desirable. At the moment, Georgia does have a relatively stable political system, at least at the center, but that stability is based on a hardening of the CUG's corporatist authoritarianism. That may be better than the perpetual presidencies and quasi-monarchical rule of chief executives farther to the east, in Central Asia, but it is a far cry from the standards to which other post-communist states to Georgia's west are normally held.

A similar situation prevails with regard to human rights. Georgia joined the Council of Europe in April 1999, only the fourth country in the Commonwealth of Independent States to be admitted to Europe's human rights and democracy body. In the lead up to the Council's vote on accession, Georgia adopted a number of reforms designed to bring the country in line with European standards, particularly in the area of human rights and judicial procedure. Since then, however, not only has Georgia failed to comply with the Council's mandated reforms, but some of the legislation adopted before it became a member has been reversed or watered down.

Thus, in February 1998, for example, Shevardnadze signed a new criminal code that strengthened the power of the defense counsel, re-inforced the right of individuals to seek redress in cases of alleged abuse, and reduced the legal value of defendant confessions as a way of diminishing the opportunities for police torture. But in the summer of 1999, shortly after admission to the Council, amendments to the criminal code were adopted that virtually destroyed any progress that the original reforms might have made. Local and international human rights groups continue to report frequent police beatings (both inside and outside police stations), death threats to journalists coming from state officials, and the use of electric shock torture against detainees.

Essay Types: Essay