Comment: Georgia's Incomplete Democracy

The country President George Bush is visiting on May 9-10 may look like a beacon of democracy from far away, but close up, its deficiencies are more glaring.

Comment: Georgia's Incomplete Democracy

The country President George Bush is visiting on May 9-10 may look like a beacon of democracy from far away, but close up, its deficiencies are more glaring.

The visit of United States president George Bush to Tbilisi on May 9-10 is a momentous event for the small nation of Georgia.


The Bush visit will demonstrate the United States’ unwavering support for democratisation in the former Soviet Union, a process which received a powerful boost from Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” in November 2003.


It will also confirm Georgia’s role as the South Caucasus country that is leading the way to integration in Euro-Atlantic organisations, and send a clear message to Russia that Georgia is not being abandoned by the West.


However, while most Georgians will enthusiastically welcome these statements of support from the president of the most powerful country in the world, they will also be listening out for the specific messages that President Bush delivers to his younger colleague, Mikheil Saakashvili.


This keen attention is understandable. Saakashvili’s presidency, which is now one week short of 500 days, has been full of contradictions. And if the president’s successes generally appear more impressive than his failures, it is the latter that are more obvious to Georgians themselves.


On May 6, Georgia marks the first anniversary of the country’s “second revolution” - the bloodless ousting of Aslan Abashidze, the veteran despot of the south-western autonomous region of Ajaria. The removal of Abashidze, whose dictatorial tendencies rivalled those of President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, has been justly hailed as Saakashvili’s biggest achievement.


It contrasted favourably with the feeble actions of former president Eduard Shevardnadze, who not only failed to rein in Abashidze’s tyrannical behaviour, but used him to prop up his own faltering administration.


Yet Ajaria after Abashidze provides a fine illustration of the nature of Saakashvili’s rule.


An attempt was made – not entirely successfully – to replace Abashidze’s totalitarian grip with one-party rule by the president’s National Movement; elections to the Ajarian parliament in June 2004 were a missed opportunity in terms of democratic process and transparency; the new constitutional law on the status of Ajaria reduced its powers to the purely symbolic; and the new elite that came to power there disappointed local people by its high-handed behaviour in office.


The Ajarian case is illustrative of the wider pattern of events in post-revolutionary Georgia. Changes that start out in a positive fashion are cast into doubt or undermined by the authorities’ lack of a long-term strategic plan of action, by dubious methods of implementation, by the lack of qualified professionals, by the brazen and unceremonious way officials treat ordinary people, and by their reluctance or inability to take on board constructive and well-meant criticism.


Not long after taking office, Saakashvili changed the Georgian constitution to suit his own purposes. As a result, as both Georgian and international experts have argued, an already fragile system of checks and balances was disrupted, and parliament grew weaker while the president acquired greater powers without added accountability.


The creation of a new cabinet of ministers did not have the desired effect, as became clear with the tragic death of prime minister Zurab Zhvania in February this year in an apparent gas poisoning accident which has left many unanswered questions. The president acquired the right to dismiss the “power ministers” responsible for security matters without consulting the prime minister, upsetting the balance of executive authority.


Frequent hirings and firings within government have become a characteristic feature of Saakashvili’s style. The number and titles of ministries have changed several times, and the interior and national security ministries have undergone a controversial merger. There have been three defence ministers, and three ambassadors to Moscow, a difficult and crucial post for Georgia. Provincial governors have changed so rapidly that few of them have been able to leave any lasting mark.


Back in 2002-2003, when Saakashvili was head of the Tbilisi city assembly, he campaigned for direct elections for the post of mayor in the capital and other cities. As president he has entirely changed his view, and established an indirect system whereby the local legislature chooses the mayor. Evidently, the prospect of acquiring a strong independent figure in charge of Tbilisi, responsible for a third of Georgia’s population and a considerable budget, is no more attractive to Saakashvili than it was to Shevardnadze.


In another volte-face, the president has instituted a new method for choosing members of the central electoral commission that is little different from the one put in place by Shevardnadze. The commission is now selected by the pro-presidential majority in parliament on the recommendation of the president. Yet it was a row over the electoral commission that helped trigger the Rose Revolution in the first place.


Saakashvili’s overwhelming majority in parliament, where his supporters hold three-quarters of the seats, is not contributing to increased pluralism or transparency. Parliament is bound to approve any initiative the president submits without properly debating it, with the result that the prevailing spirit in government is one of experiment rather than reform.


For example, in autumn 2004 the parliament voted to reduce the length of conscripted army service from 18 months to one year, but this spring it changed it back to 18 months again. The tax code has been subject to similar whimsical changes, being altered substantially within four months of it being passed.


The most blatant manifestation of arbitrary and opaque decision-making and lack of foresight came last summer, with the campaign waged against the separatist territory of South Ossetia. An anti-smuggling operation conducted by armed units led, quite predictably, to a dangerous escalation of tension. Several dozen people from both sides were killed, and the trust that had taken many years to build up between Georgians and Ossetians was badly damaged.


President Saakashvili’s failed intervention in South Ossetia has complicated relations with Abkhazia as well and the emphasis he puts on restoring control over the two breakaway territories is arguably counter-productive.


Yet despite all the problems that the new authorities in Georgia have caused through inexperience and incompetence, it would be wrong not to note the genuine efforts that Saakashvili has made to drag the country out of the morass of political stagnation and economic corruption in which it was sunk during the Shevardnadze years.


The new president has tried to give Georgians back their sense of pride in a country that had come to be regarded as a failed state.


Reform of the education system, which has encountered strong opposition and will not bring results overnight, is designed to improve the country’s prospects. Military reform is gathering pace with the support of Georgia’s partners and allies. Attempts are being made to implement judicial reform – although by no means everyone in the establishment likes the idea of independent judges. The anti-corruption campaign has created a mass of unanswered questions but has at the very least swelled the state budget through increased tax revenues.


Finally, Georgia is making genuine strides in its long-term aspiration to join the European Union and NATO. And this is where ordinary Georgians are pinning their hopes – that western partners and allies can make demands on the new leadership of Georgia as it seeks to achieve these goals.


The people can call on their leaders to take Georgia closer to European standards of democracy, rule of law and the free market, and to live up to the obligations it has made to the Council of Europe, NATO and the European Union.


As leader of the most powerful western nation, President Bush could find plenty to say to President Saakashvili on these issues – if he chooses to.


Ivlian Haindrava is director of the South Caucasus Studies programme at the Centre for Development and Cooperation - Centre for Pluralism in Tbilisi.


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