Georgia’s Hollow Revolution

Introduction

Ninety years to the day after the Bolsheviks successfully set in motion events which would culminate with the communists taking power in Russia, on November 7, 2007 the world again witnessed a political uprising with the potential to reshape a nation; this time in Russia’s southern neighbor, the Republic of Georgia.

But whereas the 1917 Bolshevik coup d’état ultimately succeeded, the consequences of last year’s events in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, remain less than certain. Four years after hailing the Rose Revolution as putting the former Soviet satellite on the road toward capitalism and democracy, observers in the West were stunned by the events of November 2007 – the suppression of a peaceful demonstration, the shutdown of opposition TV channels, and the declaration of a state of emergency. However, for those analysts following events from within the country, it was hardly a surprise.

Still, much was left to consider. Why were the events of November 2007 unforeseen by the international community, and in particular, the West? And why, until November 2007, did Georgia’s post-revolution leadership remain so attractive to observers in the West, even while analysts within the country grew increasingly disillusioned?

In this article, I seek to answer these questions by taking a closer look at developments in Georgia since the Rose Revolution. By doing so, I seek to demonstrate why the events of November 2007 were inevitable and how they stemmed from the Georgian government’s departure from the democratic ideals of the Rose Revolution.

Post-revolution Challenges and the President’s Centralization of Power

Georgia’s new, mostly young, and in many respects, inexperienced government inherited many problems from the prior Shevardnadze administration. An ongoing energy crisis meant yet another winter with electricity and heating shortages. An inability or unwillingness to collect taxes had left pensions and government salaries unpaid, and rampant corruption rendered the government inefficient and ineffective.

Citing the need to address these challenges, as well as the need to restore the country’s territorial integrity (two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, had declared independence in the early 1990s and a third region Ajara, while nominally loyal to Tbilisi, remained under de facto control of a local strongman), the post-revolution government of President Mikheil Saakashvili set about concentrating power in the executive from almost the moment it took power.

In February 2004, just a few weeks after the election, constitutional amendments were rushed through parliament granting the president the power to dismiss the government and, in the event of deadlock, to disband the parliament altogether and order for new parliamentary elections. The natural consequence was a parliamentary body loyal not only to the president but also to his government. This significantly weakened its independence and ability to check executive authority.

Although in late 2006, under pressure from the Council of Europe, Saakashvili proposed a further amendment to the constitution that would allow for an extraordinary presidential election in case of repeated dismissals of the parliament, it was largely a token reform. Despite this minor adjustment to the balance of power, other changes in the election schedule further strengthened presidential influence over the parliament. Previously, new parliamentary and presidential elections were due for spring 2008 and winter 2009, respectively, but the amendments rescheduled both to autumn 2008. Thus, although the president reduced his term by a few months, he extended the parliament’s term by more than half a year – an astute move guaranteed to bolster the president’s party which, though the majority, was losing public support every day. Additionally, prior to the events of November 7, 2007, Saakashvili had no significant competitors in the future presidential race. Hence, the change substantially increased the likelihood that those who would vote for Saakashvili would also vote for his party for parliament in future simultaneous elections.

Thus, even before the crackdown of November 7, 2007, the key plan of Saakashvili and his allies was greater concentration of executive power by maintaining parliamentary loyalty. Although some parliamentary opposition remained, it served more as a decoration; ironically necessary for the democratic image from the Rose Revolution which Saakashvili’s administration sought to maintain.

A Stronger Executive and a Stronger State

This concentration of power did little to advance democracy, but it was not entirely without benefit. For one thing, stronger presidential powers allowed Saakashvili’s government to restore financial order and increase tax revenues, overcoming the budgetary crisis inherited from the Shevardnadze-era, and allowing Georgia to pay off all accumulated debts to pensioners and public sector employees. Additionally, after the revolution in 2004 in the Autonomous Republic of Ajara, new opportunities emerged for arranging a normal budgeting process between the central government and the formerly separatist region. As a result of the changes that took place in Ajara, tax revenues of the national budget during 2004 significantly increased for the first time since Georgia’s independence in 1991. In the summer of 2004, the International Monetary Fund renewed its funding program which had been terminated in 2003 due to the incompetence and corruption of the Shevardnadze administration, further illustrating the country’s financial turnaround.

The new government also fought crime and corruption. Stronger presidential powers enabled it to abolish the much-detested traffic police, and to quickly create a Western-style police patrol. Targeting corruption in the energy sector also paid dividends, yielding a much more reliable supply of electricity. Additionally, to further reduce endemic corruption, the government introduced national examinations for admission to universities, abolishing the Soviet-era legacy of separate corruption-prone admission exams to individual universities. Former government officials and their relatives guilty of corrupt practices were arrested and only released upon paying the “price of liberty.” This created an additional revenue stream for the government, which was then paid into extra-budgetary “law-enforcement development accounts.” The practice was promoted as returning stolen state money and property, as well as creating an additional source of revenue. However, this practice is not a sustainable source of revenue.

Broad and ambitious economic reforms, such as large-scale privatization, simplified business-licensing practices, and the reduction of tax and tariff rates, have also accompanied the expansion of executive authority and garnered much international attention.

Georgia’s improved financial situation has also allowed the post-revolution government to radically overhaul the Armed Forces of Georgia. With additional assistance from the United States and other NATO member states, military readiness has improved greatly, and Georgian forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have received high marks from coalition officials.

Setbacks for Democracy

But much of this progress has come at a cost. For starters, the subordination of the legislature to the executive lessened any sense of government officials’ accountability. Consequently, this has produced many instances of gross disrespect for the rule of law. The parliament has become so weakened that it is now called the “government’s notary.” In addition to the weakening of parliament, the judiciary has also lost its strength and independence. Today, it is run by the General Prosecutor’s Office , firmly rooting it within the executive branch.

The post-revolution government has also claimed greater control over the media, especially television. Many independent TV stations and popular newspapers were closed shortly after the Rose Revolution. While several private stations were permitted to continue operating, they are now effectively under state control. This has resulted in the freedom of press being severely curtailed – a major setback for democratic development, but a setback largely unnoticed by Saakashvili’s Western friends.

Additionally, sweeping staffing and institutional reforms were often poorly considered. Most experienced civil servants were dismissed (often illegally) with younger, and frequently foreign-educated staffers, resulting in a significant loss of institutional memory. These problems were further compounded when non-professional cabinet ministers were named and assignment of responsibilities became arbitrary. A notable example of these practices came in late 2004, when the state anti-monopoly service was abolished. In 2007 its functions were reassigned to the Ministry of the Interior, thus making the ministry responsible not only for crime and police, but also business. Another notable example came in spring 2006, when the task of marketing Georgian wines abroad was delegated to the Minister of Defense.

The revolutionary wave also emboldened the government to reorganize a number of ministries and departments. In particular, the State Department of Statistics, which before the revolution had been an independent agency accountable to the president, was folded into the Ministry of Economic Development, despite the inherent conflict of interests between the two entities. As a result, statistics in Georgia now play the same role as they did in the Soviet Union: a political function to proclaim annual improvement in the country’s economy. For example, in an “accidental leak” in August 2006, the department declared that the annual inflation rate in Georgia had reached 14.5 percent in July. After receiving strong criticism from the IMF, the government dismissed the head of the department and charged his successor with reducing inflation. By December 2006 the government was reporting an inflation rate of 9.2 percent; nominally satisfied, the IMF was content to turn a blind eye.

Disrespect for Property Rights

While the post-revolution government has been widely hailed for fighting corruption, in practice, corruption in Georgia has been transformed, not eliminated. Spendings from the extra-budgetary accounts, at the discretion of the executive, has not been subject to public scrutiny. The problem has only become more acute since the government started to replenish those accounts with “voluntary contributions” from businesses. Further, if pre-revolution functionaries had pockets open for bribes, their successors – who may have closed pockets – certainly had open bank accounts. Tthese accounts were initially ignored by the IMF, which largely regarded them as a lesser of two evils. However, the IMF was ultimately forced to recognize that the use of these accounts were a futile endeavor to beat corruption while allowing corruption. Still, it was not until spring 2006, under IMF pressure, that the extra-budgetary accounts being used for illicit donations were finally abolished.

Ultimately, the government’s disrespect for the constitution and the rule of law was made most evident with respect to property rights. In instances of privatization of state-owned property, new owners seemingly emerge from nowhere. “De-privatization,” that is, the taking back of property which had been privatized before the revolution, has also been prone to injustice: property has often been reclaimed forcibly by the government through its law enforcement entities: the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of the Interior. Based on the recipients of this reclaimed property, it would appear that the real goal of de-privatization has been the redistribution of property for the benefit of the newly formed elite not for the benefit of the public. And although thus far de-privatization has only been widely pursued once, there is no guarantee that another round is not in the offing.

The government’s rejection of property rights has also extended to extralegal decisions to demolish privately owned houses built before the revolution, even when owners have documentation of ownership and legitimacy of construction. In many instances, the government’s only stated argument was a desire to improve the city’s image. However, these practices have largely evaded Western attention. In fact, in the World Bank’s Doing Business 2007 report, Georgia was ranked as the world’s eighteenth best place for businesses, despite the number of instances of impropriety by the government with respect to private property.

Continued Corruption Among Elites

While the campaign against petty corruption has largely been successful, corruption among elites continues to be a problem for the government. This came to the surface, most notably, when Irakli Okruashvili, the former defense minister and onetime member of the president’s inner circle, was charged with corruption – but only after forming an opposition party and making scandalous accusations against Saakashvili. In addition to revealing that corruption continues among the post-revolution elite, the episode also put other officials on notice that their corrupt behaviors will be exposed should they dare to join the opposition. As a result, while the government’s campaign against corruption has largely been a success for the state in terms of efficiency, it has also been an opportunity for the Saakashvili administration to silence dissent. Thus, the campaign has actually been a setback for the cause of real democracy.

However, even more troubling are the reports of human rights abuses by the government. These reports, which include alleged murders by the police and which have been detailed in numerous reports by public defenders, have both troubled the public and contributed to a sense among Georgians that the police are not being adequately punished for abuse. Still, these instances of police brutality and human rights abuses have generally provoked little criticism from the West. As a result, the Saakashvili government has had little incentive to exercise restraint.

Why Has the West Turned a Blind Eye?

While the Saakashvili government’s achievements were enthusiastically received in the West, its failures were typically subject to moderate criticism at best. So why did it take the extreme events of November 7 to finally prompt serious criticism in the West of Mikheil Saakashvili, along with his government and the parliamentary majority? And why has the West not held the post-revolution government of Georgia to a higher standard?

For one thing, the West was captivated by Saakashvili. A post-Soviet leader with a Western university education, Saakasvili in his rhetoric has been a passionate advocate of democratic values, human rights, and a market economy. Official statements regarding Georgia’s desire to join NATO and the EU, and its participation in the coalition in Iraq and peacekeeping operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan, were regarded as further proof of the post-revolution government’s Western orientation (even though these policies were also in place under Shevardnadze) and further galvanized his support in foreign capitals.

But in contrast to his engaging manner with Western audiences, his rhetoric in Georgia had a much blunter edge (in one appearance on Georgian TV he said that the senior generation of Georgian scholars and public figures must be “flushed down”). This hostility, and his numerous policy failings, led many within Georgia to see Saakashvili as an authoritarian ruler and to see Georgia’s embryonic democracy as growing weaker by the day.

The West also liked Saakashvili’s consistently anti-Russian rhetoric and typically tough – and sometimes cynical – criticism of Russia’s political leadership. But very little attention was paid to the fact that, after the Rose Revolution, Georgia opened its doors to Russian capital, which has continued to flow despite the embargo on Georgian exports that Russia initiated in spring 2006. The Kremlin’s open and intense dislike for Georgia’s post-revolution government and Saakashvili in particular – manifested in bombardments of Georgian territory, and de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by issuing Russian passports to their inhabitants – only reinforced the West’s longstanding support for Georgia and its leadership.

In short, Georgia’s pro-Western and anti-Russian course compelled the West to turn a blind eye to the post-revolution government’s failings and excesses – a fact which did not go unnoticed by the Saakashvili administration. After US President George W. Bush visited Georgia in May 2005, the Georgian leadership behaved as if the visit by itself exonerated it for its antidemocratic actions, past and future.

Lessons of the Rose Revolution

In the end, what Georgia’s experience calls to light is the folly of equating a pro-Western and anti-Russian orientation with democracy. For Georgians, the lesson is often expressed with dark humor and biting cynicism: “Don’t upset me while I’m building democracy, or I’ll kill you all!”

The experience of Georgia also calls to light the West’s double standards for democracy: one for itself and another for countries such as Georgia. Although post-revolution Georgia had been hailed as a rising democracy, in reality, Georgia’s government has resembled authoritarianism more than democracy. But by not taking a stronger stand toward the Saakashvili government on the disparity between its lofty rhetoric and actual governance, the West is ultimately undermining its own ideals since Georgians are beginning to equate a pro-Western government with a more authoritarian one.

Epilogue

Following the dramatic public backlash against his government’s failures and shortly after the events of November 7, 2007, Saakashvili resigned and called for a new presidential election on January 5, 2008 to rescue his own image and Georgia’s image. (The Georgian Constitution requires that a sitting president resign at least 45 days before standing for re-election.) Similarly, parliamentary elections were tentatively moved up to spring 2008.

Still, despite this token democratic gesture to appease the public, during the presidential campaign it was apparent that Saakashvili – though technically no longer in office – was still using administrative resources for his own interests, directing government officials, and appearing at public openings of civil projects.

Considering the circumstances, the elections were competitive, and polling was mostly uneventful. In the final accounting, Saakashvili received more than half the total vote, thus averting a runoff. Although international observers gave qualified approval to the campaign environment and elections conduct, Georgian watchdog groups have expressed serious reservations about the transparency and fairness of the ballot counting, and the opposition continues to protest the results.

Given the progress and setbacks since the Rose Revolution four years ago, and the gravity of the events of November 2007, this post-election period will be critical. Georgia faces the real possibility of further sliding toward the Russian model of so-called “managed” or “sovereign” democracy – which is really just authoritarianism in disguise. The West’s active engagement will be critical to avoiding this outcome, and for this reason, with elections now complete and the lessons from November 2007 made painfully clear, Georgians can only hope that the West will no longer blindly trust Georgia’s newly elected president and parliament, and instead hold both to a higher standard.

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Vladimer Papava