For many years Georgian officials argued, particularly with regards to NATO membership, that the goal posts were constantly being moved so as to thwart Georgia’s efforts to join the alliance. The meaning of this was that every time Georgia viewed itself as being on the verge of meeting the criteria to join NATO, the NATO countries would introduce new criteria or barriers.
A similar dynamic now confronts Georgia with regards to its democratic consolidation. The goalposts aren’t exactly being moved, but it is more like halfway through the football match the western powers looked up and decided maybe they should be playing hockey instead. What this means is that as Georgia continues to move toward consolidated democracy, democracy appears to be on the cusp of unraveling in several of the countries that are Georgia’s most important democratic allies. This is most apparent in the US, but is also occurring in varying degrees in France and several other European countries. Additionally, the Brexit vote in the UK earlier this year is not exactly a harbinger of a united democratic Europe.
Donald Trump’s election obviously raises questions about the future of the longstanding US-Georgia relationship, but even if the strong ties between Washington and Tbilisi continue, the likely weakening of democracy and democratic institutions in the US will have an effect on Tbilisi as well. Georgia is, of course, only one country; and Trump’s victory will have a large impact of the ability of the US to promote and support democracy globally as well.
As the credibility of powerful western countries on issues of democracy becomes increasingly shaky, one of the primary external checks on Georgian democracy will be removed. If institutions in the US continue to fail in their role as checks on presidential power and if the President, as seems likely, draws no clear line between his private business and his responsibility as President, it will be extremely difficult for the US to warn emerging democracies, like Georgia, of the perils of these kinds of things.
If democracy continues to be challenged in the countries that until now have been the most powerful of democratic states, Georgia will also lose valuable models of democratic development. For example, separation of powers has long been at the heart of American democracy. This has helped stop any branch of government from becoming too powerful and has been an important way for meaningful oversight, particularly of the executive branch, to occur. Georgia, a country that is prone to consolidation of power by elected Presidents, Prime Ministers and others, can learn a lot from things like like rigorous confirmation hearings, investigations and the institutional loyalty to different branches of government that have defined American politics over the centuries.
All of that, however, appears to be changing in the US. Beginning early this year when the US Senate placed partisan political goals over its constitutional duty to advise and consent on Supreme Court nominees, but continuing into the present when the majority party in Congress has failed to launch an investigation, or say much of anything, about the President-elect’s conflicts of interest, Congress has become much less of a check on the power of the executive branch, and therefore can no longer be a model in this regard for countries like Georgia. Other examples of the breakdown of the institutions of American democracy are not hard to find, but the overall point is clear. Georgia must continue its democratic consolidation with a decreasingly useful model in the US.
The US may still be able to provide technical support through democracy promotion and other related programs, although that too might change, but the people working on those programs, through in most cases no fault of their own, have lost a lot of credibility. Every time Donald Trump demands and apology from an actor, or attacks a major newspaper on Twitter, it will become more difficult for US democracy promoters to present themselves credibly in Georgia or elsewhere. Parenthetically, the possibility that somebody who once proposed postponing elections or otherwise changing the rules to remain in power could be nominated as Secretary of State reveals a great deal about the priority President-elect Trump places on democracy promotion.
The ongoing challenges for Georgia of institutionalizing genuine interest based pluralism, a meaningful multi-party system and ensuring that power rests only in the hands of democratically elected officials or their appointees would be difficult even under better international circumstances. Just as Georgia is, beginning to address these challenges and make enduring progress towards democratic consolidation, democratic rollback is spreading throughout Europe and even to the US. This development puts Georgian in a new and difficult position. While western powers may continue to push Georgia towards democracy, they will do so with decreasing credibility.
In this context, it is almost inevitable that western scrutiny and monitoring of Georgia’s democratic progress will be less intense, less rigorous or both. This creates an opportunity for Georgia to veer off of its democratic course. Additionally, the same global forces that contributed to Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the Brexit vote in the UK or the rise of various right wing populist parties in France, the Netherlands, Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, can impact Georgian politics as well. If Georgia were to begin its own democratic rollback of the kind that has occurred in parts of eastern and that is currently rearing its ugly head in the US, there be no outside authoritative voice to quickly nudge Georgia back on track.
Additionally, the election in the US of a President who campaigned on views about Russia that are considerably outside of the US mainstream foreign policy consensus and who may have some murky, not yet entirely known, ties to Russia, and the growing sense that the west’s moment as the driving force in international politics could be winding down much more quickly than expected, also pose a severe test to Georgia’s decision to cast its lot with the west and democracy.
If Georgia’s commitment to democracy is grounded in political instrumentalism, and the view, in form or another, that the democratic west is the winning side in global politics and the best bet for Georgia’s efforts to ensure its sovereignty and independence, than these will indeed by very trying times. The rationale for a democratic Georgia, in that framework, is rapidly eroding, as many powerful western countries are wrestling with their own crises of democracy stemming in no small part, from the inability of their democratic system to resolve economic problems, racial tension and foreign policy challenges.
If, however, the Georgian people and their leaders believe in democracy because of their values or a belief that it is the most equitable and just political system, they may find themselves relatively alone, but Georgia’s path to democracy will continue. For Georgia’s sake, it is essential that this is the case. Georgia, unlike the US or some older European democracies has much less room for error with regards to its political development. Donald Trump’s election is a setback for democracy and the US, and will damage our institutions and once strong structures of checks and balances, but it can be reversed, at least partially, in one or two election cycles. The damage that Trump can do to American democracy is very real, but he will probably need to be reelected and serve two full terms to do it.
Because Georgia’s democratic institutions and traditions are newer and weaker, it would take less time for them to collapse or be destroyed by a government that turns its back on democracy. If that happened, Georgia could quickly go the way of many of its semi-authoritarian neighbors and the work of building democracy that has occurred over the last years would easily be erased. This would also mean that Georgia’s would be knocked off of its western course for the foreseeable future, even if western countries find a way to reinvigorate their democratic institutions. Georgia’s government, for its part, has yet to demonstrate any significant wavering from its democratic aspirations. The recently held elections were good, but not perfect. Concerns that the Georgian Dream (GD) government, with its new constitutional majority in parliament, would rush to consolidate its power and move away from democracy seem to be premature.
Georgia, therefore, is entering a new and complex phase in its democratic development, largely due to events outside of its borders. Non-democratic forces inside Georgia, particularly those with a nationalist and populist bent may be able to build alliances with politically friendly forces in the west. Similarly, the west in general can no longer be counted on as a political and military bulwark against Russian aggression and democracy can no longer be presented to the Georgian people as prima facie the best or most powerful political system.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.