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

Consider also local government reform, an area of particular interest to the Council of Europe. Pressured by Strasbourg, the Georgian parliament adopted a package of new laws in 1997. A system of local councils with directly elected members was established in each of the country's districts. So far, however, the ability of the councils to influence policy has been negligible. The real power in Georgia's regions rests with the district governors and prefects--both appointed by the president. The overhaul has had little real impact on local administration; if anything, it seems to have diminished it further, at least in the eyes of average Georgians. According to the UNDP's 1999 Human Development Report, in 1996, 42 percent of Georgians expressed high or moderate confidence in local government institutions; by 1998 the figure had fallen to 25 percent. The truth is that the country remains highly centralized in terms of both political authority and budgetary control, with the mass of the country's citizens having no power to effect change.

Many foreign governments, and especially the United States, are concerned to present a different picture. So eager have U.S. agencies been to give a positive spin to Georgian developments that inaccurate facts have been inflated into evidence of major progress. In May 2000, for example, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched a call for proposals to administer a $5.82 million program in the area of local government reform, a solicitation eventually won by the Washington-based Urban Institute. In the background information for prospective contractors, the agency asserted that the Georgian government had worked hard to reshape local government and that the country was entering a critical stage in which foreign expertise would be necessary to round off the reform effort. As the solicitation explained, "USAID, in cooperation with the U.S. Treasury, has . . . supported the development of a package of eight draft laws related to fiscal decentralization (local budget, municipal finance, local audit, equalization formula for transfers, etc.). The newly elected Parliament will be debating these bills in 2000."

Yet not only were the "eight draft laws" never debated in parliament in 2000, but it is questionable whether they really existed at all.

The Georgian government has also been active in placing obstacles in the way of the few individuals who are genuinely committed to serious reform. In May 2000, when the Rustavi 2 television station broadcast a series of reports on abuses within the prosecutor's office, the prosecutor launched an investigation against the program's producer. A major anti-corruption commission, staffed by seven prominent government officials and intellectuals (and financed by the U.S. Department of Justice), was set up in September 2000. But since the commission reports directly to Shevardnadze, its draft recommendations were only made public after the international community began to put pressure on the president.

Notwithstanding its origins, there is a great deal of excitement about this new commission, with everyone from the U.S. government to George Soros getting behind the effort. Still, some of those intimately involved with the commission's work, both Georgians and Americans, are skeptical that anything but the most anodyne recommendations will ever be fully implemented. In November 2000, when Mikheil Saakashvili, the new justice minister, suggested launching a full-scale crackdown within his ministry, Shevardnadze publicly rebuked him for the potential "negative consequences" of his zeal.

Of course, this is not to say that no progress has been made. After all, Georgia under Shevardnadze is not involved in a full-scale war, either internally or with its neighbors; there have been elections, although fraudulent ones; human rights are guaranteed by law, even though the police and chief prosecutor have been known to harass journalists and torture prisoners; and the government has admitted that corruption exists and should be rooted out. All of this may be progress of a sort, but not the kind that warrants the enthusiastic accolades Georgia typically receives.

The Myth of "Georgia"

Like all its neighbors from the south Balkans to the south Caucasus to Central Asia, Georgia is a chronically weak state. In a region of only minimally successful countries, however, the Georgian case is particularly dire, even compared to its immediate neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, it is worth asking whether a state called "Georgia" even exists today in any meaningful sense.

Some 20 percent of the country's territory is either wholly outside the control of the recognized government or is only tenuously connected to it. After winning secessionist wars in the early 1990s, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are de facto independent states with their own armies, customs posts, flags, currencies (the Russian ruble) and school systems. Neither considers itself to be in the same time zone as the rest of Georgia; because of their strong political connections with Russia, locals set their clocks on Moscow time, an hour behind Tbilisi's. Travel between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, is relatively easy, if one can push through the crowds of smugglers selling contraband petroleum products, wheat flour and cigarettes imported from the Russian Federation. Traveling in Abkhazia, however, is still dangerous, so much so that the U.S. government now forbids its two soldiers working with the United Nations mission in Georgia to go anywhere near the security zone separating Georgian and Abkhaz forces.

Achara, while still officially committed to existence inside a unified Georgia, has little real connection to the center. The region's population is linguistically Georgian, although many inhabitants are Muslim rather than Orthodox Christian. The region does send deputies to the parliament in Tbilisi but, in practical terms, Achara is controlled by one man, Abashidze. He and his extended family have enriched themselves by controlling the border trade with Turkey, where illegal commerce in hazelnuts, cigarettes, alcohol and women is rife. So profitable has Abashidze's fiefdom become that it even attracted the attention of Hillary Clinton's brothers, Hugh and Tony Rodham, who signed a hazelnut export deal with Abashidze in 1999, before being dissuaded from going through with it by the Clinton administration.

In Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Achara, state structures exist that are, more or less, independent of the Georgian center. But plenty of other regions of Georgia are only theoretically part of a single state. The country's main north-south artery, the Georgian Military Highway, is no more than a wagon trail for much of its length, becoming impassable in the winter snows and the spring thaw. For most Georgians outside Tbilisi and a few other urban centers, the only interaction with the Georgian state is through a corrupt traffic policeman, waving down cars loaded with produce to extort a few lari in "fines." So accustomed have average Georgians become to the predatory state that they either voluntarily pull over and drop a few bills in the police coffer or speed past the roadblock, hoping that the officers will think that only someone too important to be swindled would dare rush through without stopping. In Georgia, flouting the law has become a hedge against being cheated by it.

No observers deny that Georgia's economic and social situation is dire. One need only spend a night in Tbilisi--and venture anywhere outside the Sheraton hotel--to experience the frequent electricity cuts. Strangely, though, the progressive pauperization of Georgian society is usually seen as a phenomenon somehow outside the control of the government, as if the poverty, corruption and lawlessness that confront average Georgian citizens were separable from the policies pursued by the CUG government. But to local journalists and analysts, the links between Georgia's weak state and the interests of its rulers are readily apparent.

Under Shevardnadze, Georgia has seen a marked expansion in banditry, kidnapping and extortion, yet the police and security organs remain largely unreformed. Indeed, as average Georgians and Western expatriates alike report, state officials are themselves often complicit in the crimes they are meant to police. Stories are legion about police officers who mysteriously seem to know their way around an apartment when they are called to investigate a break-in. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry has superseded the Defense Ministry as the real locus of organized violence. In budgetary terms, the army is largely an irrelevant institution; its allocations, which accounted for only 9 percent of the total state budget in 1997, stood at under 3 percent in 2000. The security services, however, have maintained their level of state support at 7-8 percent throughout this period, and remain under the control of a Soviet-era minister. Furthermore, the "other goods and services" line in the ministry's budget each year covers a host of administrative sins, including the purchase in 1998 of a fleet of expensive foreign cars bearing police license plates.

There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that state budget expenditures are only a fraction of the amount of money coming into government institutions and the pockets of their employees. Even during the Soviet years, for example, the highway police was essentially a tax farming organization. Its employees paid exorbitant bribes to secure positions--the better the post, such as on a road leading to a vacation spot where people were likely to carry money, the higher the cost--and then spent the rest of their careers paying off their investment by extorting money from travelers. The same system operates today, as a drive on any Georgian highway will confirm.

Essay Types: Essay