Standoff in Georgia

May 6, 2009 Topic: DemocracySociety Region: RussiaEurasia

Standoff in Georgia

NATO’s military exercises begin today in Georgia. Meanwhile, President Saakashvili has accused the Russians of planning a coup against his government. This dispute ignores Georgia’s deeper internal problems with democracy.

On Tuesday, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Russia of supporting efforts to overthrow his government. He made these allegations on the eve of NATO's planned military exercises in Georgia. Many are beginning to question if this was not a ploy by the Georgian president and his many Western advisers and lobbyists to distract the West from the continuing antigovernment demonstrations.

Having just returned from Tbilisi, and with almost twenty years of experience with the domestic and foreign policies of Georgia, I can say that this external posturing, especially with regard to Russia, masks deeper internal fractures and problems.

To understand Georgia's current crisis and the mass upheavals, we need to consider how we got to what appears to be an impossible impasse between a politically marginalized opposition, deprived of access to most media, and a once-democratic, now authoritarian leader. At least that's the way it currently looks from many Western capitals.

After the first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections in which his supporters gained a substantial majority, President Saakashvili made major contributions to the reform of Georgia's system by using television to promote his anticorruption efforts, and reviving the country's tax system and armed forces. He took steps that led President George W. Bush to call Georgia "a regional beacon of democracy."

But he also implemented a constitutional change which shifted considerable power from the legislature to the executive, thus creating a kind of super presidency, and also seriously diminishing the independence and role of the Supreme Court. Over time, this new regime curtailed media freedom and restricted the activities of civil society. As a result, human and political rights, specifically private-property rights, suffered, and there were even increases in the number of politically motivated assaults and killings, many of which remain unsolved.

In November 2007, the government's police violently suppressed mass demonstrations by the opposition. Snap presidential and parliamentary elections, held shortly after, did not restore political equilibrium, but rather increased Saakashvili's personal power at the expense of other parts of the government and society. The country that was a beacon of democracy four years earlier slid into trivial and petty authoritarianism and bad governance. As the situation deteriorated, more people have been taking to the streets to protest. On April 9, 2009, mass demonstrations were held calling for President Saakashvili's resignation, which an ever-greater share of Georgians now view as the only way out of the crisis.

This is not a purely internal Georgian problem. What happens in Georgia is going to cast a shadow on developments not only across the South Caucasus but also damage the reputation of those in the West, and specifically in the United States, who have invested so much in "Project Georgia."

These protests are not just directed at President Saakashvili or a few individuals within the current leadership. Instead they are expressions of deep-seated frustration and displeasure with the system and the style of governance: constitutional and electoral issues; problems with rule of law; economic difficulties; institutional, political and social imbalances; questions about independence of the judiciary; law and order in general and some concrete problems such as, for example, freedom of the mass media and drastic changes in the electoral code. The laundry list of problems is long and diverse. And if the issues are not resolved, the demonstrators will again hit the streets of Tbilisi and other Georgian cities in much greater numbers.

It is clear that the current Georgian government, if left to its own devices, will not bring stability, peace or democracy to Georgia. The government has shown itself to be unwilling to listen to other voices, govern more inclusively or even entertain the thought that those outside the government's circles, including the opposition, might have something valuable to contribute to Georgia. This will inevitably, in my view, lead to further instability, conflict and chaos. The demands of Georgian citizens for fundamental change stems from the recognition that the current government can no longer be trusted.

But it is hardly realistic to expect Saakashvili's resignation at this moment. I very much doubt he would be happy to trim his powers voluntarily-not many leaders would. And in the end demands for the resignation of Saakashvili may just serve to lower the opposition's standing in Washington and some European capitals, which has been a fact on the ground.

The United States and the EU could help by pressing both sides to come together. President Saakashvili must be told that to begin with he has to make real and meaningful changes, including first of all the promulgation of a new electoral code and a new electoral commission, followed by truly democratic and fair elections, or a referendum as identified by the constitution in case of a political stalemate. The opposition has to be told that it must work within the reformed system. Neither side will accept this in the absence of a Western ultimatum. And unless there is outside pressure of this kind, the current standoff between President Saakashvili and the opposition could gradually spin out of control-toward either chaos or authoritarianism.


Ambassador 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.