The Rose Revolution Through a Funhouse Mirror

In the 1990s, Western supported and funded democracy assistance programs, including support for civil society and rule of law, technical assistance to political parties and legislatures, and election monitoring to ensure free, fair and democratic elections, played an important role in the expansion of democracy throughout much the former Communist block, Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Over recent decades these tools have been integrated into the foreign policy apparatus of the West, but a funny thing happened on the way to the agora: The environment changed and the programs did not.

Most democracy assistance programs are based on the assumption that the societies in which they are being applied are transitioning to better political circumstances and have governments that, at the very least, are not hostile to democracy. Over the past ten or more years, this belief has become a triumph of hope over analysis, leading to democracy assistance programs that, while occasionally successful, have too frequently been ineffective, and in some cases have served counterproductively to strengthen non-democratic regimes.

For example, political party assistance programs aimed at making parties more efficient have reinforced authoritarianism when they have focused on the ruling party in one-party systems. Similarly, programs aimed to help legislatures process constituency concerns on behalf of better governance have strengthened still undemocratic regimes on those occasions when the legislature in question has been something other than a competitive and pluralist institution. Efforts to strengthen national legislatures in Azerbaijan or Cambodia are very stark, even obvious, examples of these unfortunate outcomes. More nuanced examples, such as those attending the October 2012 election in Georgia, exist as well.

If the October 2012 Georgian parliamentary election had occurred in some other post-Soviet country in the 2004–06 period, Western powers would have heralded it as a Color Revolution and a democratic breakthrough. Consider: A non-democratic government put numerous obstacles in the way of an opposition consisting substantially of former members of the government; a climate of fraud, intimidation and harassment existed, but enough democratic space existed to organize an opposition; the opposition unified behind one leader; widespread and peaceful demonstrations before and immediately after the election helped bring down the regime; the end of the regime was greeted with widespread celebration and relief; and international actors played an important role in identifying and drawing attention to election fraud. A perfect pro-democracy storm, no? No.

The Georgian election obviously does not fit the Color Revolution model perfectly. The post-election demonstrations lasted only hours before the leader of the defeated government party, President Mikheil Saakashvili, conceded his party’s defeat. The international monitors, governments and others hesitated to draw attention to election fraud and only did so in the face of political pressure. There are other differences, as well, but the Color Revolutions themselves also deviated from the ideal template. In Georgia in 2003, the opposition was not unified until after the election. There was violence in Kyrgyzstan. In Ukraine the defeated candidate did not resign as defeated presidents in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia did.

Yet policymakers in the United States and Europe have generally not interpreted the victory of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) over Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in the parliamentary elections, which led to the selection of Ivanishvili to the powerful position of prime minister, as anything approaching a democratic breakthrough. Instead, initial surprise has given way almost to a sense that Ivanishvili’s victory is illegitimate, and to hopes for political cohabitation between Saakashvili and Ivanishvili. This approach seem to overlook the fact that Saakashvili, although still president (his term does not expire until October of 2013) is a lame duck with almost no popular support who has abdicated most of his governing responsibilities. In many respects, it is as though most in the United States and European governments are more inclined to view the events not as an election victory over a non-democratic regime, but as a coup.

Last year’s events in Georgia raise questions about how the West missed an important development in the region and about how the longstanding methods of democracy promotion have lost their potency and, to a significant extent, meaning, particularly in the former Soviet space. Two primary reasons explain why Western policymakers, NGOs, pundits and others misread the political environment in Georgia. The first is simply that many in the West remained, enthralled, or perhaps intimidated, by Saakashvili and his UNM. The aggressive lobbying and media efforts of the UNM in the United States and Europe for most of the nine years preceding the October 2012 election, an effort matched by Ivanishvili for most of 2012, had a strong impact on how Western elites viewed Georgia and the Saakashvili government. That alone, however, does not explain the consistency with which Western policymakers overstated Saakashvili’s democratic credentials and overlooked the myriad problems of democracy in Georgia between 2004 and 2012, particularly since 2007.

Saakasvhili’s government also enjoyed strong support from the right wing of European and American politics, where his rhetorical emphasis on liberal economics and obsessive anti-Russian sentiments resonated powerfully. Similarly, the defense establishment of the Transatlantic alliance was fond of Saakashvili and his government because of his support for United States and NATO efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his willingness to cooperate extensively on security issues.

This support continued throughout Saakasvhili’s administration despite growing revelations about the true state of Georgian democracy. A violent dispersion of a peaceful rally in November of 2007, followed by the government seizing and shutting down the country’s only national independent television station, was perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the turn the government had taken away from the initial democratic promise of the Rose Revolution. But it was not the only one. During the past five years of the UNM’s time in power, opposition politicians were allowed very limited access to the media, opposition activists were regularly harassed, fined and arrested, supporters of the opposition risked losing their jobs, and the elite corruption grew to be a serious problem.

In this period almost all foreign and domestic critics of the government were attacked as Russian stooges or spies, public demonstrations were frequently met with violence, and the UNM appeared to be consolidating complete control over the country. After the 2010 local election, for example, every single local legislature in the country, as well as every mayor and governor, fell under UNM control. Georgia during these years was, by most measures, still more free than authoritarian neighbors like Azerbaijan, but this was a difference of degree not kind.

Because most in the West were unable or unwilling to see the problems of democracy in Georgia, despite its stagnant Freedom House scores, reports from various human rights organizations, and ample documentation of widespread abuses of media and civil liberties throughout most of the 2012 campaign, it has been difficult for these people to process Ivanishvili’s victory as a democratic advance, or to see the end of Saakashvili’s regime as a defeat for non-democratic forces.

After the election there was, of course, a lot of ambiguity surrounding Ivanishvili, his team and their victory. Not much was known about what he intended to do; some members of his coalition gave cause for concern; his team was inexperienced. There is no guarantee that he will bring democracy. Similar ambiguity, however, can apply to any election won by a challenger, particularly in a democratically under-institutionalized polity. All of this was also true of the governments of Saakashvili, Ukraine’s Viktor Yuschenko and Kyrgyzstan’s Kurmanbek Bakiev when they came to power following Color Revolutions in their countries.

Therein lies the major reason why Ivanishvili’s election has not been viewed with the enthusiasm with which the Color Revolutions were greeted in 2003–05. The fates of democracy in Kyrgyzstan, where Bakiev rapidly made the country more authoritarian than it had been under his predecessor Askar Akaev, and in Ukraine where after more than six years in office, Yuschenko lost his bid for reelection and Viktor Yanukovych, the eventual winner of that election has made that country more authoritarian, has undermined the narrative of democracy and democratization in the former Soviet Union.

Similarly, few in the West still feel any of the initial excitement generated by the Arab Spring. Optimism has given way to concern about the future of democracy in Egypt and elsewhere. This context of suspicion of the possibility of electoral breakthroughs and democratization more generally also framed Western reaction to the 2012 Georgian election. Given all this, it is no surprise policymakers in Washington, Brussels and other Euorpean capital reacted differently to Ivanishvili’s victory than they did to the Rose Revolution, and its leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, nine years earlier.

The recent election in Georgia may lead to greater democracy or it may be part of the cycle of one-party domination followed by eventual regime collapse that has dogged Georgia since independence in 1991. Either way, this election is instructive for other countries and perhaps can lead to a more constructive role for international actors in future elections.

Comparing the Rose Revolution election of 2003 with the 2012 election in Georgia helps demonstrate this. In the big picture there are some similarities between the two, but the differences are more noteworthy. Many of the structures and institutions that framed the 2003 election seem to have taken on distorted forms, for worse and for better, in 2012. Thus, 2012 looks like the 2003 election as seen through a funhouse mirror that changes the way the people and things look, but leaves them still recognizable.

For example, election monitoring organizations played different roles, and their activities had different consequences in the two elections. In 2003 Georgian democracy activists and their foreign supporters did an exit poll and a parallel vote tabulation (PVT). An American polling firm did the exit poll with funding primarily from the Open Society Institute. A Georgian NGO conducted the PVT with support from the National Democratic Institution (NDI) and funding primarily from the United States. The existence and provenance of both these projects were clear to everybody in Georgia. And their impact was significant, as the PVT and exit poll both passed authoritative judgment over the election.

In 2012, by contrast, PVTs and exit polls were no longer a potent way for civil society to speak with one voice. Instead of one organization doing a PVT there were around five, depending on who was counting. The U.S. government and other international actors funded several of these, while others were closely affiliated with one of the two major parties. Additionally, the GD did its own internal vote tabulation aimed at reducing the possibility of fraud.

Similarly, in 2012 there were several exit polls. A major American firm, Penn, Schoen and Berland (PSB), did one of them, and English, German and Georgian firms did exit polls as well. Making distinctions between these polls was very difficult. Some UNM supporters questioned the PSB exit poll, despite that firm’s strong international reputation, because it had a relationship with the GD. ISFED’s PVT was suspect in some opposition quarters because of ISFED’s close relationship with NDI, which by 2012 was viewed as supporting the UNM government. Thus, these tools, which nine years earlier had played an important role in clarifying the extent of election fraud, had a very different impact in 2012.

The role of Western (largely American) NGOs changed significantly between 2003 and 2012 as well. In both elections Georgian NGOs supported by western donors pushed for democracy and fair elections. During the Rose Revolution, however, major foreign organizations like NDI and IRI worked closely with opposition activists before and after the election. They offered technical support and some strategic guidance, and sought to raise awareness in Western capitals of the likelihood of fraud going into the elections. By 2012, other than occasionally reporting polling numbers that inevitably led to controversies in the media and bickering between politicians, these NGOs had limited direct impact on the election.

This was partially because Ivanishvili didn’t much need them. His extraordinary wealth allowed him to simply hire consultants, rather than take advantage of the kinds of useful training and technical support offered by foreign NGOs. Hiring top American polling, campaign and communications firms was probably more effective than trying to acquire those skills through workshops and seminars with NGOs. These U.S.-backed NGOs also labored under the assumption that the government, while not perfect, was genuinely committed to democracy. As this notion became more untenable, their programs became less relevant.

In the nine years between these two elections, politics developed in Georgia to the point where the traditional democracy assistance programs were simply less in demand. Campaign workshops, polling and the like were no longer new in Georgia by 2012. Thus, while these democracy organizations remained influential political actors, they were significantly less relevant as providers of services or skills.

International election observers were important in both 2003 and 2012. In both elections, the opposition hoped that European and American election monitoring organizations would help identify and combat election fraud. In 2003, however, there was only one major observation group (ODIHR/OSCE) and several smaller, affiliated groups like the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. There were considerably more organizations observing the 2012 elections.

Significantly, while in 2003 international actors, the political opposition and Georgian civil society regarded the monitoring organizations as committed to democracy and fair elections, this was not true in 2012. In 2012 the GD invested a great deal of resources in liaising and communicating with the various monitoring organizations, and the Western governments supporting them, because they were concerned that otherwise they would simply believe whatever the Georgian government told them. This created a new dynamic that changed the nature of election monitoring in Georgia. For the first time, somebody was watching the observers, not with the intention of undermining them, but rather to influence the political side of election observation.

In most cases, technical observation reports, which almost always consist of both positive and negative findings, are framed according to the political wishes of the countries funding the observations. In 2012 the GD feared that technical observation findings would be filtered through governments that leaned toward Saakashvili’s UNM. Because of the presence of influential lobbyists and former government officials in Georgia at the behest of, and often being paid by, the Georgian opposition, this did not occur. Instead, information was sent from these influential people directly to government officials at the highest levels in Washington, Brussels and elsewhere, circumventing the monitoring groups and NGOs.

Lastly, consider the role played by the English language. In Washington, the ability of a foreign leader or politician to speak English is not simply something that facilitates better communication. It is a symbol of democracy and modernity. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that in the government and in non-governmental corridors of Washington, a foreign politician who is under 50 years old and speaks good English is, largely for those reasons, viewed as a democrat. This was particularly clear during the Rose Revolution, which pitted a trio of English-speaking leaders, all under 40, against a regime whose leaders were almost all over 50 and, with a few exceptions, did not speak English. In 2003 and the years that followed, English language skills among the Georgian leadership too frequently served as a proxy for commitment to reform and democracy.

Saakashvili and his government were very aware of this and used it to their advantage. The widespread use of English was one of the pillars on which they built a façade of democracy. This was impressive, but it was not a substitute for true reform. During the 2012 election, unlike in 2003, the non-democratic government had the most English speakers. President Saakashvili’s English is fluent, while then-candidate Ivanishvili was still learning the language. There was also a deeper bench of English-speaking Georgians on the government side who could communicate with foreign visitors and press. In 2012 Western actors were seemingly unable to process the fact that the English language was no longer a proxy for democratic and reform impulses.

From the mid-1990s through the first half of the past decade, many elections in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe took similar forms. Although there was no shortage of election fraud and other shenanigans, the structures and international presence looked more or less the same. In many respects, 2003 in Georgia was an archetype of this. In these elections, when street demonstrations and appeals to the West occurred they were usually the tools of democrats and the opposition.

Beginning sometime after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, this began to change as tactics like international election monitoring delegations, NGOs, peaceful demonstrations and appeals to international arbiters became available to all political actors. In countries like Ukraine in recent years street demonstrations, charges of election fraud and appeals to the West were employed by groups across the political spectrum. In Georgia in 2012, the party opposing the semi-authoritarian regime could not rely on any of the instruments that in recent years the West had made available to similar opposition blocks, so they had to create them themselves.

This demonstrates a major challenge confronting Western based democracy promotion efforts. If the NGOs and other structures that are the backbone of this assistance can no longer work without oversight from political actors, or without being manipulated by non-democratic governments, then democracy work will become both more difficult and less effective. This will force the West to confront questions about its role, credibility and objectivity that others have been asking for years. The tools that Western countries and multi-lateral organizations have used to carry out democracy assistance project for years have diminished in credibility and impact. Instead of being the tools of democracy, they simply became the tools of political mobilization—and in some cases manipulation—and in Georgia were easily appropriated in support of a government whose democratic credentials were weak.

Even as these problems intensified, democracy organizations often sought to expand their programs, not because this will help democracy, but because it is what is best for their organizations. Similarly, funding organizations like USAID have sought to fund more programs, because that is what they do. The question of the true impact of this work on democracy, or whether it is really the best use of tax dollars, is rarely front and center. Polling supported by foreign governments (albeit not the United States) and conducted by NDI and IRI in Georgia, is only one example of dubious spending. A more egregious example is how the same programs are replicated globally, despite differences in regimes and, in many countries, seeing little change over a period of several years.

Thus the relationship between funding agencies, implementing organizations (which include both NGOs and for-profit contracting companies), and non-democratic governments that are friendly toward the United States has become something of a closed loop that has made democracy work much less effective. Donors continue to give money and are careful not to damage relationships with the host government; the government continues to operate with limited pressure from the West; and the implementing organizations can continue to pursue programs that may be productive but rarely have significant impact.

Because these relationships benefit so many stakeholders, breaking this loop will not be easy. However, if the United States and its European allies are serious about democracy work, it will be essential. It will be an enormous challenge to ensure that programs are driven by need, not by bureaucratic logic; that undemocratic governments are viewed as such and policies and programs are adjusted accordingly; and that the network of arbiters, monitors and graders that permeate democracy work are again viewed as neutral actors seeking objectivity rather than political actors pursuing an agenda.

The U.S. government should begin the change. First, it should not assume that every non-democratic country needs the same battery of programs to become more democratic. Instead, donors and implementers should be more thoughtful and craft programs that reflect the particular political challenges facing that country. This should include recognition that training, capacity-building and other, similar programs may not be what some countries need, and that at times democracy assistance in general is unlikely to have an impact.

Second, it is imperative that U.S. and European policymakers understand that democracy promotion organizations are not seen as independent judges of what is good and democratic, but as self-interested actors. The accuracy of this perception is debatable, but until Western governments address this perception, the utility of election monitors, democracy graders or corruption indices will be limited. A central part of this is to stop conflating support for American foreign policy with democracy. This flawed and not always conscious understanding of democratic development has damaged Western credibility in many countries, including Georgia.

Finally, disaggregating the technical and political barriers to democracy remains a central challenge for democracy promotion. Technical problems are easier and safer to solve, while political problems are often bigger, harder and more serious in nature. However, we continue to rely on technical projects, not because the problems are actually technical, but because if the problems are technical we can avoid many tougher questions we don’t know how to answer. The United States and the West can either recognize the political nature of the democracy deficit in many countries and adapt a more political, and inevitably, confrontational approach, or else toil away at safer but less effective technical projects.

The 2012 election in Georgia is not significant simply because it provides an interesting contrast to the elections that occurred nine years earlier in that country. It underscores the way the dialogue, actors, policies and interpretations around elections, and around democracy promotion more generally, have changed substantially. It is impossible to replicate what happened in Georgia in 2012, due to the unusual position of the Georgian government as a pro-West, English-speaking, NGO-courting non-democratic regime and because of the extraordinary private wealth Ivanishvili dedicated to his election. Nonetheless, elements of the Georgian election are likely harbingers of how the internationalization of elections will occur in the future, and reflect some of the problems confronting the project of democracy promotion.

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