Georgia has reached a pivotal point in its political development. Having established an image as a reform model in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union since (now former) President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power, events in early November of this year brought into sharp relief the volatility of Georgia's politics and the relative immaturity of its democratic institutions. The government's response to the demonstrators who took to the streets was a particular shock. Images of security forces using water cannons and tear gas against their own citizens did not square with the understanding of the peaceful Rose Revolution.
In the aftermath of the mass protests and nine-day state of emergency put in place by the authorities, critics have been quick to point out the flaws in the Georgian system. While some of this analysis has been too quick to write Georgia off, it is undeniable the country faces real problems. Georgian institutions have experienced a political trauma that calls into question the society's ability to consolidate its democracy. And without a clear recommitment to democratic values and practices, starting with Saakashvili, it is entirely possible that Georgia's democratic experiment could fail.
At such times of acute political stress it is useful to take a step back and put developments in perspective. Freedom House has evaluated democratic development in independent Georgia for a decade and a half, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. An overview of developments in Georgia through the lens of Freedom House analysis, which offers a country-specific and regional context, can provide a useful frame of reference for looking at recent events.
Recently, Freedom House findings have been invoked by supporters and critics alike in Georgia. Such invocations from diverse quarters are possible because Georgia's record over the past four years is mixed. This fact isn't particularly surprising, given the difficult legacy the country was saddled with and its level of development at the time of the Rose Revolution.
Meanwhile, the debate over the country's fate has been so impassioned-and in many ways disproportionate to its size-because Georgia is viewed as one of the rare examples in the former Soviet Union of a country capable of achieving democratic reform.
In fact, the only other instance of meaningful reform in the region apart from Georgia is post-Orange Revolution Ukraine, which is slowly making headway on a number of democracy indicators but very much remains a work in progress. To put this progress into perspective, consider that it has become clear over the course of the past three elections that power in Ukraine is granted and taken away on the basis of elections that are largely free and fair, and whose results are respected by winners and losers alike. This is no small accomplishment in the former Soviet Union, where incumbents rule by zero-sum politics and power is rarely rotated. Compared with, say Russia, recent developments highlight the political reform distance Ukraine has put between itself and Russia's smothering "Putinism."
For these reasons, in the international context Georgia's achievements over the last several years are significant because so little meaningful democratic reform has occurred in the region, where brutal, controlling neo-Soviet politics have been on the ascent from Belarus to Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan. Russia has distinguished itself over the period since the Rose Revolution by thoroughly dismantling its own inchoate democratic institutions. The profoundly flawed process for the just-held Duma elections epitomizes the degree to which any semblance of democratic accountability has been shunted aside in today's Russia.
The Kremlin's heavy hand has made Georgia's efforts at reform a far more challenging enterprise. The blanket blockade imposed last year by Russia (now in effect seemingly in perpetuity)-which seals the border between the two countries to trade and transportation, and bars sea and air travel-and the ongoing Kremlin-inspired mischief in Georgia's breakaway territories are among the manifold efforts at destabilization. Not surprisingly, the recent upheaval in Georgia has revealed a good deal of Schadenfreude in the Russian media, whose tightly controlled broadcasts today represent a direct window into Kremlin's thinking.
So what are the main features of the current landscape in Georgia and what does this suggest for the future?
The most glaring features of Georgia's unconsolidated democracy were exposed in early November. The country's executive dominated the political landscape and displayed an increasing unwillingness to engage political opposition and civil society. Saakashvili admittedly is a complex figure who has demonstrated an authoritarian streak; his leadership also pulled Georgia from the post-Soviet doldrums in which it was mired until Eduard Shevardnadze's departure from the political scene.
Meanwhile, Georgia's opposition parties have yet to distinguish themselves on the political stage or offer any sort of meaningful policy alternatives to the current government. Much of the opposition has also shown itself to be irresponsible and sometime reckless. The estrangement between the government and opposition reinforces a discourse that reveals the immaturity of Georgian politics.
The current government's achievement of a number of noteworthy reforms deserves recognition, especially in the context of the barren reform landscape in the wider region. Freedom House findings identify a number of areas of progress, including reforms in law enforcement, the state bureaucracy, the election process and the country's universities, where safeguards have been implemented to combat entrenched corruption. Georgia still enjoys a capable civil society sector, which has been an important and positive feature of Georgian society pre-dating the Saakashvili era. Civil society represents an especially valuable resource to be supported for enhancing democracy's prospects going forward.
The analysis also suggests that the roots of Georgia's democratic institutions are shallow. Weaker areas of performance are found in the country's rule of law and the capacity and independence of the judiciary, which requires priority reform attention. Georgia's media is likewise given middling evaluations in Freedom House analysis. With the controversy over Imedi's closure in the aftermath of the November state of emergency, the media sector is in jeopardy of sliding backward.
Saakashvili, who resigned the presidency in order to be constitutionally eligible to run in January, must set a new tone for his country's politics. It must be emphasized that while the January elections are important, they are only one piece of a far larger puzzle that needs to be assembled to ensure the roots of democracy grow and are enduring.
Given the pivotal point at which Georgia finds itself, there is a role to play for the community of democratic states in whose interest it is to have a stable, durable democracy in the Caucasus. In fact, one conclusion that can be drawn from the Freedom House assessments is that some supporters in the West were too quick to declare democracy's success in Georgia in the aftermath of the Rose Revolution. A number of supporters also fell into the trap of focusing support on a single personality rather than developing durable institutions. Instead of offering premature plaudits for a job well done, the West could have done Georgian democracy a favor by being constructively critical quite some time ago. In this context, the upheaval of November 2007 should be viewed as a warning sign. To prevent further backsliding, the United States and European Union should recommit themselves to providing needed support for Georgia's democratic institutions.
Recent events have raised the political stakes in Georgia, which has entered a new, uncertain phase of its development. How the country's leadership responds will signal whether Georgia squanders the opportunity offered by the democratic opening of four years ago or turns a corner and advances toward the ranks of mature democracies.
Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House.