The Import of Speaking Publicly About Democracy in Georgia

Last week several developments in Georgian politics suggested that a new dynamic is at work there. First, harassment of citizens known to be associated with the opposition Georgian Dream, by the Chamber of Control, appears to have wound down, at least for now. In March the Chamber of Control had sent letters summoning numerous of these citizens for questioning that according to many were more accurately described as intimidation and harassment. Second, the Georgian courts affirmed that leading opposition figure Bidzina Ivanishvili was not a citizen and thus forbidden from participating in the political life of his country. However, within a few short days this decision was overturned as the parliament of Georgia altered the constitution to allow Ivanishvili to run for office.

The details of these cases are significant because they are evidence that the Georgian government’s commitment to fair elections in October, when the country will choose a parliament and prime minister, cannot be taken for granted. The intimidation of Georgian Dream supporters is part of a pattern, going back for several elections in Georgia, where long before the election itself occurs, it is made clear to supporters of the opposition that there is a cost associated with visibly opposing the government. This, not surprisingly, is a very effective way to dissuade people from supporting the opposition and to facilitate a big victory by the ruling United National Movement (UNM) party.

The Ivanishvili citizenship case demonstrates the legal pyrotechnics which the UNM has been willing to employ to ensure that they would not have to face any strong opposition in elections. Ivanishvili is an extremely wealthy Georgian businessman and philanthropist. He received his citizenship from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004, which the Georgian government revoked late last year, shortly after Ivanishvili stated his intentions to become involved in politics. Although the Georgian government provided an obscure and tenuous legal rationale for this decision, and for the court decision upholding this decision, the real reason they stripped Ivanishvili, who was born and raised in Georgia and has lived there most of the last decade, of his citizenship was because he represented an electoral threat to the UNM.

The actions by the Chamber of Control and the Georgian legislature last week, at least at first glance, indicate that Georgia’s regime, which is semi-authoritarian in nature but rhetorically committed to democracy, was indeed seeking to align its actions more with rhetoric. This analysis, however, misses an important element, one which has direct and ongoing implications for western, particularly American, policy makers. In the last few week’s, beginning with their reaction to the Chamber of Control, the U.S. has begun to make public, and specific, statements urging Georgia’s government to take issues of democracy seriously.

For most of the time since Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003, concerns about the increasingly less democratic nature of Georgia’s regime, which people in Washington began to notice sometime around 2008, were always raised privately. A trip to Tbilisi by a visiting U.S. official would include public congratulations to the Georgian government for its democratic credentials, while concerns about the lack of media freedom, recent electoral or legal shenanigans, or the growing centralization of political power were made privately and discreetly. Similarly, Georgian officials visiting Washington were publicly greeted with platitudes about the strength of Georgian democracy, while concerns were, again, raised privately These warnings were generally politely ignored by the Georgian government who continued doing as it pleased while seeking to persuade the Georgian people that Saakashvili was uniquely able to win financial and political support for Georgia.

In the last few weeks, however, this dynamic has begun to change. At a confirmation hearing for Richard Norland, the Ambassador-designate from the U.S. to Georgia, shortly after the Chamber of Control began calling in citizens for questioning, two U.S. Senators, Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) made it clear that the senate takes concerns about problems of democracy seriously. Norland’s responses to these questions indicated that he shared those concerns. A similar dynamic occurred last week after the Georgian court upheld the decision that Ivanishvili would not get his citizenship back. Immediate, firm and public statements by American officials, notably John Bass, the current U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, pushed the Georgian parliament to this clumsy, and even somewhat embarrassing solution, which is nonetheless a victory for democracy in Georgia.

This new tone in the U.S.-Georgia dialog suggests that it may still be possible for the U.S., which remains Georgia’s biggest and most valued patron, to influence democratic development in Georgia. It also demonstrates the difference between private words, which are easily ignored, and strong public statements which put real pressure on the Georgian government to live up to their publicly, and frequently, stated commitments regarding democracy. As the parliamentary election approaches, it is critical that the U.S. continue, and strengthen, this new posture towards Georgia’s democratic development.