Georgia's Path to Authoritarianism

Georgia's Path to Authoritarianism

Though he may be perceived as a reformer in the West, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is anything but a model democrat.

In 2001, in the pages of this journal, Charles King ("Potemkin Democracy") spoke of Georgia as a sham democracy, with a democratic image in the West contradicted by the reality on the ground. That was when the country was under the leadership of Eduard Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze was an internationally acclaimed statesman, a former Soviet foreign minister who was a key player in the peaceful reunification of Germany. Struggling to maintain his democratic image in the West, Shevardnadze had turned into an impotent and corrupt leader; his country devolved into a failed state with two frozen conflicts, massive corruption and extreme poverty. Unfortunately, King's assertions in his six-year-old article still hold true today. Under the leadership of U.S.-educated lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia has become an authoritarian state with kangaroo courts, with a Parliament that does the bidding of the executive who flagrantly disregards basic civil liberties.

How is it, then, that Saakashvili's reputation within the U.S. government appears to be untarnished? Like Shevardnadze, Saakashvili knows that his strongest cards are Georgia's Western orientation and his friendship with the United States. Saakashvili is a canny and shrewd politician who understands there is a price for U.S. support. So, as he makes eloquent speeches to Western audiences about political reforms and successful democratization initiatives undertaken in Georgia, he adroitly increases Georgia's military participation in Iraq, and he welcomes a proposal to station the new U.S. missile-defense shield in Georgia.

Saakashvili was considered by many as the "great hope" for Georgia's transformation into a democratic and free-market society. But soon after the Rose Revolution of November 2003, he began to concentrate power in presidential hands.

Saakashvili accomplished his campaign to increase executive authority and restrict civil rights by targeting the Parliament, the media and the judiciary. The methods used to undermine each democratic institution are similar: legislative restrictions, political arm-twisting, blackmail and persecution.

In February 2004, he sponsored amendments to the constitution that violated the balance of powers, expanding the president's authority at the Parliament's expense. The Parliament was stripped of important powers that served as a check on the executive branch and ensured the government's accountability to its legislature. The amendments granted the president the right to disband the Parliament and disregard a parliamentary no-confidence vote on the cabinet of ministers. Moreover, the Parliament lost its power to amend the budget or question the government's annual report on budgetary obligations

Next, Saakashvili concentrated government power by stifling political expression, pressuring influential media and targeting vocal critics and opposition leaders. Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, official intimidation of opposition groups and media figures critical of the government continues on a daily basis.

Several media outlets were closed down in the first half of 2004: TV companies (Channel IX, Iberia), newspapers (Mtavari Gatzeti, Dilis Gazeti, Akhali Epoka, Tribune), Omega magazine and Media-News Information Agency. In February 2004, the largest TV companies ended their evening political talk shows.

Giga Bokeria, Deputy Chair of the Legal Issues Committee of the Parliament, strongly criticized Irakli Imnaishvili, the anchor of a daily political talk, for making comments critical of police action at a public demonstration that turned into a violent skirmish with the police. Bokeria stressed that in any other country such a journalist would have been fired. The next day, the channel stopped airing the program and fired the Imnaishvili. In December 2006, he was publicly assaulted by a regional governor. The governor was never questioned in the investigation into Imnashvili's beating, which was soon closed because of a lack of evidence.

Georgian law enforcement has also gone after the government's civil society critics. In late June of last year, members of the Egalitarian Institute were imprisoned for thirty days for staging a demonstration in support of a beleaguered government critic. They were not given a hearing, the right to appeal the sentence or the right to consult their lawyers. In June 2007, members of the institute were put behind bars for twenty days for simply writing "No to Violence" on asphalt.

Even members of government are not immune to reprisals. In June 2005, a group of thugs dragged Republican Party MP Valeri Gelashvili out of his car and severely beat him. The assault on Gelashvili followed his public criticisms of Saakashvili's administration and private life. No one was punished for this brutal attack. Irakli Batiashvili, an opposition leader who exposed the current government's corruption and ties with paramilitary units, was arrested on trumped-up charges. He was later put on trial-and the evidence presented against him was both weak and fabricated.

The attack on political opponents was ratcheted up in September 2006 when the Ministry of Interior began to persecute political opponents en masse. Georgian police arrested 29 supporters and alleged associates of fugitive former National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze. Eventually, 13 people were charged with high treason, namely conspiracy to overthrow the government. So far, the treason trial has been characterized by a host of due process and human rights abuses, including witness intimidation and manufactured evidence. To conceal deficiencies in the prosecution's case, the judge took the unprecedented decision to close the entire trial to the media, the public, and even outside impartial observers.

Having exerted control, more or less, over the media and curbed the free expression of political ideas, the Georgian government turned to reducing the judiciary's independence. Under the pretext of court unification, a majority of judges with guaranteed ten-year tenures were forced to leave their offices. And without using any objective criteria to measure eligibility, the judges most loyal to the government were permitted to stay in their positions. Notably, a parliamentary majority dismissed five so-called "Rebel Judges" on the Supreme Court, who had been outspoken about threats they had received from the executive branch.

According to Freedom House's 2007 Nations in Transit report on Georgia, "a lack of competence and independence among judges", is a reality. "There are widespread allegations", the report notes, "that political leadership exerts hidden pressure on judges who, at least in politically sensitive cases, hardly dare to disappoint the demands of the prosecution." The dispositions of all criminal cases in 2006 attest to this concern: 16,911 convictions and only 37 acquittals.

The situation in Georgia today is far from the promise of the U.S.-backed Rose Revolution. Instead of becoming a fully functioning democracy, the country is moving toward autocracy-a kind of "super-presidentialism", as Dr. Taras Kuzio of George Washington University calls it. Parliament rubber stamps initiatives from the executive; there is no independent judiciary; economic gains have not translated into a better standard of living for anyone but government employees; and individual rights and freedoms are being quashed. According to a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in February 2007, 76 percent of Georgian citizens are afraid to voice their political opinions.

The success or failure of democracy in Georgia must be a real concern for the United States. The legitimacy of this regime will ultimately be determined by its democratic and economic reforms. If the United States continues to accept at face value the democratic, political, economic, social and judicial reforms the government says it is making, yet turns a blind eye to the realities on the ground in Georgia, then the United States will be complicit in reinforcing, if not permitting, Saakashvili's march towards Putin-style autocracy. Legitimacy in Georgia today depends on timely interventions from the West, providing constructive, critical engagement to encourage Georgia to demonstrate through results-not just words-that Georgia's commitment to democracy is firm.

Ana Dolidze is a lawyer and former chair of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association.