Two other issues have moved to the forefront of Georgian politics in the absence of a heated election campaign. These are the question of whether or not the Georgian Dream coalition will hold together, and what the impact on Georgian politics will be if Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili steps down shortly after the election, as he has indicated he will do? The general feeling with regards to these questions is that both of these possibilities would threaten the democratic advances Georgia has enjoyed over the last year or so.
The recent parliamentary election in Georgia saw the ruling United National Movement (UNM) party defeated by the opposition Georgian Dream (GD) coalition led by new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. This election has been variously described as evidence of the strength of Georgian democracy, a turn toward Russia by Georgia, a victory which Ivanishvili bought by spending lavishly in the United States, Europe and Georgia, the end of UNM domination, and more or less everything in between. It is still too early to know the real meaning of this election, but it is possible to make some observations, and raise some questions.
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.
The Georgian government has very cleverly exploited this situation, frequently complaining to both foreign and domestic audiences that Georgia lacks a serious and powerful opposition. The government has, of course, complained about the opposition being too weak while simultaneously working to ensure that this remains the case. Thus, the Georgian government has been able to deflect criticisms of one party dominance by arguing the self-fulfilling prophecy that due to the UNM’s popularity nobody was able to pose a plausible challenge. This explanation has been useful and accurate for several years.
While civil society advocates all over the world should be happy to see Ben Ali and Mubarak depart from power, celebrating recent events in North Africa as a democratic breakthrough is premature. There is still a lot of hard work to be done. For the United States, viewed as the deus ex machina in the Color Revolutions and as the dictators’ patron in North Africa, the challenge will be to find a way to become part of this process, and to become relevant to political development in post-Mubarak Egypt and post-Ben Ali Tunisia.
The current Georgian paradoxes are not altogether unusual. There are other countries that have been modernized by soft authoritarian regimes, or that have financed economic progress on borrowed money and faced the consequences when those debts have come due. Perhaps recognizing the unexceptionalism of Georgia can be useful for policy makers. This might allow policy makers to see Georgia as a country more concerned with modernization than democracy, and to recognize the potential seriousness of a looming debt crisis, which is scheduled to coincide with a sharp decline in American assistance, and how this could have a potentially destabilizing impact. This might be a better foundation for a sound Georgian policy than increasingly vague rhetoric, particularly from Washington, about democracy and territorial integrity.
Regardless of how events play out in Kyrgyzstan, it is now clear that US policy there in recent years has been misguided. The U.S. allowed itself to be manipulated into supporting a government that was not only corrupt and undemocratic but also weak and incompetent because of the strong need to have access to the Manas Air Force Base which is only a few miles from Bishkek. It is worth noting that the U.S. had to provide Bakiev thugocracy a contract worth roughly $180 million, in the form of loans, grants and contracts, all of which was looted by the ruling clique, in exchange for access to the base.
In other words, maybe the Orange Revolution never really happened at all. Obviously, the events on Kiev’s Maidan in late 2004 happened, leading to Yuschenko’s becoming president, but it is possible that in the excitement of the moment, too much was read into these events. The victory in December of 2004 by a former prime minister under Leonid Kuchma over Kuchma’s sitting prime minister may simply not have been the pivotal and revolutionary moment which it looked like at the time. Rather, it may have been another stage in Ukraine’s continuous path from Soviet republic to something else.
Speculation about who will win the election, and how that person will govern, can overshadow the democratic advances Ukraine has made since the Orange Revolution of 2004, particularly when contrasted with Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, the other two post-Soviet countries to have Color Revolutions in the last decade. All three Color Revolutions were, at the time they occurred, hailed as democratic advances, but Ukraine is the only one of the three countries that can accurately be said to have experienced greater democratization since those dramatic events. According to Freedom House, for example, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan have the same level of democracy as they did before the Rose and Tulip Revolutions, while Ukraine has become more democratic that it was before the Orange Revolution.