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Georgia: A question of image

January 9, 2012 - Lili Di Puppo - Bez kategorii

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In the years after the Rose Revolution of November 2003, the new Georgian elite has engaged in a project of image change as a way to leave behind the country’s legacy as a “failed post-Soviet state”. In this effort to promote Georgia as a “success story” in the Eastern neighbourhood, the challenge for the new leadership was to translate the outcomes of its ambitious reform programme to an international audience. While the “democracy label” has proven more hazardous to capture, the country now faces a series of challenges in its quest to be recognised as a modern democratic state.

Ina2011 commentary, analyst Nicu Popescu notes that Georgia has evolved into a “reformer” rather than a model of democracy in the years since the revolution. He further observes that today’s Eastern neighbourbood displays more shades of grey than Central Europe in the 1990s where democracy and reformism still went hand in hand. This verdict reflects other commentaries that lament what is seen as political stagnation in the Caucasus republic and the lack of real democratic reforms.

Georgia as a “reformer”

Another striking fact about post-revolutionary Georgia beyond its status as a “reformer”, albeit with more mixed democratic achievements, is the seemingly significant amount of resources dedicated to the cultivation of this particular image. The Georgian government is notorious for having invested in the services of international PR firms as well as promotional campaigns, while it has apparently spent at least 1.5 million dollars on Washington-based lobbying firms in 2010 to assist him with building contacts with decision-makers and reaching out to the US media.

These efforts spent on projecting an image as a “successful reformer” are worth the examination to the extent that they shed light on certain overlooked aspects of the country’s trajectory since the revolution as well as broader trends in international relations.

The “power of narratives” in international relations

Georgia’s post-revolutionary trajectory and its apparent leaning towards the image of a reformer rather than a bright democratic model calls the attention to the increasing “power of narratives” in international relations or how the ability to create and fix narratives has entered the soft power arsenal of foreign policy actors. It is not only the fact that Georgia has emphasised an agenda of liberal economic reforms and a state-building project after the revolution, while being less successful on the democratic front, that is worth the scrutiny, but the question of why the Georgian elite has chosen precisely to accentuate this particular narrative and market itself as a reformer?

The “making of narratives” or the ability to build and sustain coherent narratives of success and failure has become, nowadays, an essential exercise in foreign policy in which a multitude of actors participate ranging from governments to transnational and domestic NGOs, think-tanks, the media and PR firms. The challenge for small countries such as Georgia is to succeed in “claiming success” and achieve the validation of these claims by other actors. PR firms are contracted to substitute for inexperienced diplomatic corps and help these countries market themselves as “successful brands”. Concepts such as “public diplomacy” and “nation-branding” design these practices that have been used to good effect by countries such as the Baltic States in the 1990s.

The “marketing of states” must be understood in conjunction with the increasing scrutiny placed on the performance of countries. Indeed, no country in the world is in a position to escape the growing practices of pinning down success and failure in various governance rankings. Increasingly sophisticated methods are used to elaborate rankings of states’ performances that allow their measurement, evaluation, classification and comparison. Indexes such as the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index or the Freedom House Index have proliferated in recent years. Not only do these indexes partake in the “labelling” of states as “failed”, “undemocratic” or “corrupt”, but they also have tangible effects on policy decisions to allocate grants for developing countries or on investors’ decisions.

Developing countries have to submit to these exercises that take place under a “veneer of objectivity” or risk attracting a doubt of failure on them. They must play the “rankings’ games” and open up a space for investigation. But as a counter-reaction they also invest in their own branding as a way to avoid being stamped by default with negative labels.

The exercise of producing and sustaining claims to success involves a complex process where disparate reform activities are made intelligible to an international audience, constructed into a coherent image of success and validated through external judgments. In turn, external judgments translate into tangible support for more reforms. Where a country’s aspirations and Western interests converge like in the case of post-revolutionary Georgia, an image is produced and polished that legitimises a certain course of actions. Where a country fails in courting an outside approval, it can be quickly relegated to the margins of the international community and castigated as “authoritarian” and “failed”. For all their objectivity claims, assessments of a country’s performance more often than not serve to legitimise a desired foreign policy course.

If we consider the growing influence of governance rankings and the practice of applying labels to developing and transition countries as well as their inevitable effects on the disbursement of foreign aid and the attraction of foreign investments, the amount of resources dedicated by the Georgian government to PR firms is not so surprising.

What should not be overlooked in an examination of Georgia’s trajectory after the revolution – which goes beyond a simple analysis of whether the contents of the labels attributed to the country do indeed match with the reality of local Georgian politics – is the very process of production and strategic use of such labels by different actors inside and outside Georgia. Indeed, the expert community, decision-makers and domestic actors such as NGOs all contribute to fabricate and challenge Georgia’s image.

The “democracy ticket” vs. the “reformer” image

What then explains the apparent emphasis put by the Georgian elite on the image of a “reformer” as a privileged way to construct an image of success?

After the revolution, Georgia’s most pressing need was to eradicate not only negative and corrupt practices in society, but most importantly its label as a “failed and corrupt post-Soviet state” and all the negative perceptions that went with it. Not only were reforms implemented, but their outcomes needed to be translated to an international audience as a way to earn external support and provide stimulus for more reforms. Georgia had to market itself as the “successful product” of sound reforms.

At first, the “democracy ticket” appeared as an opportunity to leave behind Georgia’s dysfunctional legacy by achieving Euro-Atlantic integration and joining a community of Western democratic states. Narratives of success seemed to converge in the branding of Georgia as a prospective showcase of successful democracy promotion as shown by former US President George W. Bush’s labelling of the country as a “beacon of democracy” in 2005. But Georgia was rapidly confronted with the difficulty of keeping hold of the “democracy label”. Indeed, the events of November 2007 where the violent dispersal of protesters by policemen was greeted with international outcry revealed the hazardous nature of this label and its easy contestation and appropriation as a slogan by heterogeneous groups of actors comprising such dubious figures as the late oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili. The attempt to emulate the Central European states and translate democratic reforms into European integration did not prove a promising road for Georgia to escape its failed legacy.

To some extent Georgia’s difficulty to capture the democracy label and translate it into tangible achievements such as European integration has to do with the problem of democracy becoming a victim of its own success. With the demise of totalitarianism and other forms of autocracy in the post-Cold War era, democracy has evolved into a “successful global brand” that is increasingly difficult to go against. But precisely because of its nature as a brand that requires universalisation and can be acquired by acquiescing to a catalogue of rather technical criteria, democracy appears to have transformed into an empty vessel that can be filled with all sorts of meanings. Indeed, democracy is appropriated as a label by countries, such as Russia, that provide their own interpretation of the term.

Once a prerogative of the West to the extent that “democracy” was equalled with Westernisation, the democracy label has now no clear geographical location as shown in the recent democratic revolutions in the Middle East. One only needs to remember the confusion created by these same protests in Georgia to understand how the democracy label is subjected to competing meanings. While the Georgian government attempted to draw some uneasy parallels between the Arab revolutions and the Rose Revolution of November 2003, the opposition parties in Georgia lose no time to connect the struggle of the Arab demonstrators to their own battle against the Georgian leadership.

Against the background of the hazardous nature of “brand democracy”, the image of Georgia as a “reformer” and a “corruption-free island” in the post-Soviet space appears like a more stable foundation on which to build an image of success, simply because it is more difficult to challenge. Two of the success stories that Georgian officials never tire of referring to when painting the country’s achievements after the revolution are the police reform, where about 15,000 police officers were fired almost overnight, and Georgia’s labelling as a “world’s top reformer” by the World Bank in 2007. Adding to this picture of indisputable progress, the country has seen its scores on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index quickly improving since 2004.

The image of “reformer” that was able to cut the red tape and dramatically improve tax collection and the business climate also allows Georgia to build a neater demarcation line with its post-Soviet neighbours, in particular Russia. If there is a field where Russia is ill-placed to compete with Georgia and challenge its record, it is the field of corruption fighting. Russia scores negatively on corruption indexes, while trust in the police remains low despite recent reform steps. In contrast, Georgian officials regularly boast of the experience of visitors to the Caucasus republic that do not need to pay bribes to police officers, a practice that remains widespread in neighbouring states.

The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index also proved an effective international “channel of validation” for Georgia and a handy tool to translate tangible reforms into claims to success.

Georgia’s challenges

However, Georgia’s claim to constitute an alternative model of development in the post-Soviet space demands great efforts to be sustained as well as the ability to juggle contradictions and constantly “reinvent itself”.

The contradictions generated by Georgia’s image construction in a world of competing narratives are revealed in major challenges that Georgia will face in 2012 and 2013. First, the Georgian government is still caught in a “Singapore-EU dilemma” in its attempt to juggle its economic liberal reforms with a European democratic and social model. The acrobatic efforts that are required in this exercise of branding are revealed in the curious image of a Singapore model moving politically towards Europe. The government will need to translate its European rhetoric into concrete reforms if it wants to sustain a pro-Europe image. Second, billionaire-turned-politician Bidzina Ivanishvili has emerged as a major challenge to the current government of Mikheil Saakashvili. Not surprisingly, he has hired the services of a Washington-based lobbying firm and seems intent to contest the government’s democratic claims by portraying his political movement as a force for democracy against an increasingly authoritarian regime. The government will need to allow some political space for opposition actors if it wants to avoid parallels with authoritarian states in the post-Soviet space.

Finally, the government faces its most pressing “branding challenge” in inevitable parallels with the country it wishes the most to distinguish itself from: Russia. Should the parliamentary elections give birth to a Russian model in the shape of a Prime Minister role for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the country’s aspirations to portray itself as an alternative model of development in the Eastern neighbourhood would be definitely challenged. In this latter matter, no PR firm will be ingenious enough to help Georgia escape all-too obvious parallels. In addition, the recent protests in Russia even if greeted by the current Georgian leadership could also be read as a warning signal. Indeed, they show how an increasing number of citizens and opposition actors are intent on reclaiming the label “democracy” against its misuse by those in power.  

Lili Di Puppo holds a PhD from the European Viadrina University in Germany. She has written her doctoral thesis on the question of success in anti-corruption activity in Georgia. She is co-editor of the Caucasus Analytical Digest.

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