Democracy in Georgia: Da Capo?

By Professor Stephen F. Jones 

This paper was originally published in English by the Cicero Foundation as “Cicero Foundation Great Debate Paper”, No. 13/02, April 2013.



Could it be, after twenty years of experimentation, that the peaceful transfer of power by a free vote in Georgia on October 1, 2012, has brought the country close to the fabled epoch of a “consolidated democracy?” The victory of the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia coalition (GD) represents the first time in Georgia’s independent history, when one government has voluntarily turned over power to another. Georgia has not reached Samuel Huntington’s “two turnover test,” (Huntington believes the change of power should occur twice to ensure all parties adhere to the democratic rules); much depends on how the new government, headed by prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, manages the opposition, and how the UNM, in the cold after ten years of easy dominance, manages its secondary role. Western pundits, European MPs and US Congressmen, condemning the series of arrests and trials of former government officials that began soon after Georgian Dream’s accession to power, have expressed doubts about the transition; they condemn “democratic backsliding,” and wonder whether Georgia is destined to a repeat performance of one-party dominance. Actually, what we are seeing is a repetition of misinformed Western observers, who so often get Georgia wrong. Western opinion makers initially misinterpreted the first Georgian president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, as a brave former dissident fighting for human rights. They supported Eduard Shevardnadze long after systematic electoral fraud was obvious to Georgians themselves, and they welcomed the “reforms” of Mikheil Saakashvili, a youthful and dynamic modernizer, despite early signs that democracy and the law were subservient to his determination to build a strong state. These errors of judgment have consequences; Western support for Saakashvili prolonged his period in office and encouraged his ambition to remake Georgia, regardless of the social and political cost. Add to this the absurd democratic standards Western governments hold Georgia to, but can barely sustain themselves. Such standards have become mechanical benchmarks obscuring the devil in the details. The EU and the US, bogged down by their own economic and democratic deficits, should be more humble about exporting policies and institutions which, in many cases, do not meet Georgia’s needs or solve its problems.