Response to Nikolas Gvosdev: A Western-style Two Party System, Not 'Managed Democracy' is Georgia's Only Hope

Response to Nikolas Gvosdev: A Western-style Two Party System, Not 'Managed Democracy' is Georgia's Only Hope

Writing in last week's In the National Interest, Nikolas Gvosdev goes further than most analysts in telling the truth about developments in Georgia since last November's Rose Revolution.


Writing in last week's In the National Interest, Nikolas Gvosdev goes further than most analysts in telling the truth about developments in Georgia since last November's Rose Revolution.  He is right on the mark in claiming that today "the political processes in both Georgia and in Russia appear to be moving in tandem."  However, given the country's tumultuous post-independence history, political culture and mores, Russian-style "managed democracy" that Gvosdev proposes for Georgia is not a viable alternative.  Rather, the only choices for Georgia are between real democracy and authoritarianism.  For this reason, waiting to "judge [President Mikheil Saakashvili] by the results" is a dangerous gamble.  Instead, all efforts must be directed at ensuring that real democracy develops in Georgia not over time, but now.

At the end of his article, Gvosdev suggests that Georgia under Shevardnadze was very similar to Russia under Yeltsin-pluralistic but ineffective.  Shevardnadze's regime was indeed ineffective, corrupt and damaging.  However, without help from Shevardnadze, Georgia in 2003 possessed five characteristics essential for viable democracy, making Georgia very different from Russia under Yeltsin.  

First, Georgia had a quasi-balanced constitutional framework with a legislature that functioned as a real check on executive power.  This allowed for development of other state institutions (for example, the Supreme Court) which met semi-liberal democratic standards. 

Second, Georgia had a pluralistic, diversified business community which the state did not control.  Furthermore, while businessmen were not corruption-free (they did avoid taxes because paying them all would have resulted in bankruptcy), unlike their Russian counterparts, entrepreneurs in Georgia did not build their companies at the expense of the government or cheap privatization of high-value state property.  As a result, the business community owed little to the Shevardnadze regime and was free to actively support opposition political forces.  This support was instrumental in collapsing the Citizens Union of Georgia (the party which had united Shevardnadze, Saakashvili and current Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania) in 2001. 

Third, by 2003 Georgia had a number of semi-democratic political parties with competing philosophic visions; there was a beginning of an ideological debate between the left and the right, akin to most democratic states.  Saakashvili's National Movement won last November precisely because it succeeded in bringing to the Georgian poor its leader's populist and leftist message better than the more middle-class oriented forces. 

Fourth, the media in Georgia used to be largely independent and pluralistic.  It is true that TV channels often expressed the views of their owners, like newspapers in the United States did in the 1920s and 1930s.  However, because several prominent TV networks were aligned with different political groups, a real political debate was possible.  Interestingly, Shevardnadze left the private media alone, exerting control only over the State TV network. 

Fifth, Georgia had an influential civil society (narrowly understood).  Analysts in the West assumed that the NGO community was the most developed of Georgia's democratic institutions.  In reality, it was far weaker than many thought because it consisted of organizations which depended exclusively on support from foreign donors, rather than their members, as is the case with powerful NGOs in the West.  Thus, civil society's ability to impact the political process was dependent on personal relationships between NGO leaders, politicians and journalists, rather than grassroots activism.      

Acknowledging these democratic achievements is not a means of ignoring the huge problem and stagnation that Shevardnadze's regime represented.  Georgia's democratic characteristics existed not because but in spite of Shevardnadze, who utterly failed to take advantage of unique opportunities throughout the last decade to push through real reforms and good governance.  However, because these characteristics existed, unlike Russia at the end of Yeltsin's rule, Georgia had the potential to become the first consolidated democracy among the countries the NIS once Shevardnadze office in early 2005. 

The Bush administration was willing to spend political prestige (with Jim Baker's trip to Tbilisi being a key example of this) and financial resources pushing democracy in Georgia during 2003 precisely because it recognized this reality.  A constitutional democratic transition to the younger generation of leaders that President Bush spoke about in his letters to Shevardnadze during 2002-2003 was possible even after November's fraudulent elections, because its outcome gave democratic forces a strong presence in the new Parliament.  After the upheaval over fraud in November, any doubts that Shevardnadze would try to stay in office at the conclusion of his term disappeared.  As a result, several democratic candidates, including Saakashvili, would have contested in a largely fair Presidential election, presenting the citizens with a real choice.  A transition of power through such an election would have been a significant step on the road to democratic consolidation, somewhat similar to what happened in Taiwan a decade ago. 

The Rose Revolution destroyed the chance for such a step-by-step development of the democratic political culture and free institutions.  Given that this was the second time in just over a decade that the Georgian President was not allowed to finish his constitutional term, the revolution helped set a precedent - if an organized, well-led group does not like the President, it can ignore the rule of law, bring people into the streets and remove him.   For this reason, unlike the majority of Georgians, I viewed last November's events not as a triumph for freedom, but as an example of mob rule: the revolution was an extra-constitutional, albeit popular, coup by politicians who in elections had the support of only one-third of the population.[1] 

As a consequence of the revolution, Georgia's above-discussed democratic characteristics, and the possibility of democratic consolidation, were damaged.  The constitution was altered based on the Russian authoritarian model.  The so-called anti-corruption drive has scared legitimate businessmen, forcing them to quietly support Saakashvili, notwithstanding serious concerns about his policies (which are not addressing the real reasons for corruption, such as over-taxation and over-regulation).  Since the revolution, there has been greater self-censorship at private TV networks than there used to be at State TV under Shevardnadze because owners of TV channel are just as scared as other businessmen (though since the March 28 elections censorship has eased).  Finally, the civil society has been weakened: those NGO leaders who feared that the revolution might hurt the democratic process have been partly vindicated, while the cheerleaders have been unable to explain why the leaders they supported have engaged in so many undemocratic actions.  All of this has made the post-revolutionary Georgia quite like today's autocratic Russia.  This environment raises serious concerns about how the political process will develop in the future and what the government can do to help establish a stable, but just, political regime. 

The precedents of Shevardnadze's and President Zviad Gamsakhurdia's removal are the main reason why Russian-style "managed democracy" would inevitably, and quickly, fail in Georgia.  The mores of the Georgian people are very different from those of the Russians - the latter accept Putin's authoritarian rule because they are devoted to the "Derzava" which Putin exemplifies; Georgians are not driven by any similar ideas.  Furthermore, even though the above-mentioned democratic characteristics are weaker in Georgia today than they were before November 2, ultimately, the government will not be able to exercise complete control over the business and the media.  If it tries to control the business community fully, the economy will collapse; meanwhile, controlling the media requires near totalitarian censorship, including closure of independent TV stations and arrest of political opponents.  I seriously doubt that Saakashvili intends to do this, but given Gamsakhurdia's experience (who lost support largely because he arrested his opponents) it's unlikely that he would even dare to try. 

Saakashvili is not the first Georgian President to be overwhelmingly popular: his two predecessors also were; tens-of-thousands of Georgians once even stood on their knees begging Shevardnadze to not resign.  However, they were both overthrown because the Georgian political culture cannot stand one-man rule - eventually people get fed up.  (Gamsakhurdia's rule was short because he was far more authoritarian and nationalistic than Shevardnadze.)  Saakashvili can avoid his predecessors' fate only if he quickly moves away from one-man rule that the post-revolutionary hysteria drives him toward, and promotes consolidation of democratic institutions. 

The outcome of the March 28 Parliamentary elections gives Saakashvili a chance to do this, so long as law becomes the ultimate political arbiter.  Though barely, the vote nevertheless saved political pluralism in Georgia.  Many thought that all opposition parties were bankrupt and predicted that political pluralism in Georgia was not possible; Saakashvili himself regularly declared that he did not need an opposition in Parliament.  However, Georgian citizens proved smart: they gave Saakashvili an overwhelming majority necessary to press for changes, while also giving sufficient support to an opposition party to provide it with an official, respectable minority status in Parliament.  

Given the ideological differences between Saakashvili's National Movement (which is akin to French Social Democrats with a touch of nationalism) and Rightist Opposition (which is akin to the British Conservatives, except that it is popular largely with the youth) there now is a possibility that a Western-style two party system will develop in Georgia.  In many respects, unless this two-party process develops, Georgia political regime is likely to become an authoritarian one-man rule.  In this environment, so long as the leader is popular, only the minority point of view will suffer (though so will the natural liberty that every citizen is born with).  However, popularity will last only so long; once it is gone, we might see Georgians engaging in yet another extra-constitutional coup to the great disservice to the country's future.