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Georgia’s Democracy is alive and well

After a series of protests that shook the South Caucasus, what is the current standing of Georgia’s democratic process?

June 20, 2018 - Maxim van Asseldonk - Articles and Commentary

The "Bridge of Peace" in Tbilisi, Georgia uniting the old and modern parts of the city. Photo: George Mel (cc) flickr.com

Something is brooding in the South Caucasus. Admittedly, the region has never been a bulwark of stability and tranquillity. The Nagorno-Karabkh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, while often relatively quiet, flares up every now and again. Russia’s invasion of Georgia took place only a decade ago. Today, occasional inflammatory rhetoric either from Georgia itself, from its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or from their patron, Russia, is part and parcel of political life. Just this March, the death of a Georgian citizen in detention by South Ossetian de facto officials sparked outrage in Georgia and abroad. Yet all this is really nothing new. If nothing else, such goings on are ‘just another day at the office’ for the South Caucasus countries. More recently, however, domestic stability has also proven to be a precarious artefact. Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, led by opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, saw rallies in Yerevan growing from several hundred in early April to a whopping 200,000 by April 22nd. In the end, the Velvet Revolution culminated in the removal of Armenia’s Republican Party – the only to have ruled the post-Soviet country since its 1991 independence – from power.

Perhaps Armenia’s popular uprising was bound to spill over into its neighbour. Though not necessarily related to Armenia’s protest, Georgia is now entering the fourth day of a second cycle of mass protests in just under a month in its capital of Tbilisi. Whereas the first round of protests saw mostly Georgian youth protesting against the excessive use of force by the Georgian authorities in raiding two popular nightclubs, the current demonstrations were kindled by the controversial verdict in a murder case of two teenage boys, which earlier sparked outrage throughout the country. The perceived mishandling of the case on the part of chief prosecutor Irakli Shotadze, who resigned amid ongoing protests on May 31st, has come to represent the corruption protestors perceive to be deeply entrenched in Georgia’s judicial system.
Entangled with concerns of nepotism in Georgia’s current government, the increasing dominance of the ruling Georgian Dream party, and concerns of declining plurality in the country’s media landscape, these recent demonstrations prompt the question of whether we are witnessing a fatal deterioration of Georgia’s developing democracy.

A Georgian path

Though nobody would deny that Georgia’s path towards democracy was far from complete or perfect, the country was once thought of as a prime example of democratisation in the post-Soviet world, particularly in comparison to many of its former Soviet compatriots. On Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, Georgia ranked 46th, coming in higher than such countries as Greece, Bulgaria, and Italy, and ranking just below Spain and Portugal, all members of the European Union – Georgia’s aspiration, as testified by the abundance of EU-flags endowing its institutions. Excluding the Baltic states, Georgia also surpasses all other post-Soviet countries on Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom in the World index. Scoring around 27 points, Georgia, again, rates higher than EU-members such as Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Greece on Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index. On The Economist’s Democracy Index, finally, Georgia fails to beat any EU members, but enters not far below Poland, Hungary, and Romania, and royally outperforms its neighbours. These figures are mostly developments of the past fifteen years, after Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution set the country on a decidedly pro-European course.

Georgia’s developments on these fronts have been remarkable. In its first decade of independence, Georgia was partially in disorder due to the Abkhazian and South Ossetian wars, as well as its autonomous region of Adjara being ruled at the whims of local strongman Aslan Abashidze. If anything, the country was best characterised as a kleptocracy – a plight typical of post-Soviet states where corruption is rife and government officials take for themselves what they can. Indeed, apart from the three Baltic success-stories, Georgia’s subsequent achievements in democratisation and combating corruption are virtually unmatched in the former Soviet Union. Where, then, did it go wrong? Or, did it go wrong at all?

A series of protests

The recent mass protests at least seem to signal that some things are not as they ought to be. On May 12th, protests followed the overnight raid by police of popular nightclub Bassiani in Tbilisi, which sparked solidarity from club-goers across Europe. These protests, mostly attended by Georgian youth, did not merely address a perceived attack on their favourite hangout. Swiftly, the raid came to symbolise more significant problems affecting Georgia as a whole. Beka Kiria, in an analysis recently published in New Eastern Europe, argued that the raids might function as a rehearsal for future liberalisation of Georgia’s drug laws, while simultaneously paying lip-service to the country’s most conservative elements, most notably the Georgian Orthodox Church and its patriarch, Ilia II. Bassiani, one of the raided clubs, is alleged to be part of a wider network of popular nightclubs across Tbilisi with ties to Georgia’s current government. As a result, those involved in both the government and the network of nightclubs are potentially set to profit heavily from a possible liberalisation of Georgia’s drug laws. Yet while the push for drug liberalisation, spearheaded by the White Noise movement, continued, the problems it addressed broadened so as to include a wider set of issues, including the government’s entanglement with the church and its alleged nepotism.

The currently ongoing protests, too, have attained a wider signification that what initiated them. First emerging on May 31st in response to the alleged mishandling in prosecuting of the suspects of the murder of two teenage boys in a street brawl in late 2017, the demonstrators’ initial demand was the resignation of chief prosecutor Irakli Shotadze. Indeed, Zaza Saralidze, father of one of the dead teenagers, played a pivotal role in initiating the demonstrations, claiming that political influence in the judicial system had allowed the true perpetrators to go free. Following Shotadze’s resignation on May 31st, the demonstrators broadened their demands so as to include the resignation of Georgia’s entire government. For many, not personally related to Saralidze’s case, these events have undoubtedly come to symbolise the wider involvement of Georgia’s government in its judicial system. As a result, despite Georgia’s fair score on the Corruption Perceptions Index, corruption is back on the agenda, and with a vengeance. Although, to be fair, concerns over government meddling in the justice system never truly disappeared. Former president Mikheil Saakashvili is still wanted in Georgia on charges of abuse of power, although Saakashvili himself considers these charges politically motivated.

The long and windy road

Georgia’s path to democracy thus appears less straightforward than might initially have been
assumed. Moreover, the present hardships come amid a political climate that already seemed less than favourable for a developing democracy. The Georgian Supreme Court ruling over the ownership of Rustavi 2, though overturned by the European Court of Human Rights in March 2017, was alleged by many to be an attack on one of Georgia’s only media outlets critical of the government. Additionally, the October 2017 municipal elections firmly consolidated the country’s ruling Georgian Dream party’s power. Opposition parties, if represented at all, proved to be largely scattered and disorganised, even former president Saakashvili’s once mighty United National Movement. Finally, there is the worrisome influence of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Despite his official resignation from politics, he Ivanishvili had long been perceived as continuing to pull the strings behind the scenes of the ruling Georgian Dream part, before announcing his return to politics in April this year. Altogether, these elements provide a potentially harmful cocktail for Georgia’s democratic institutions, since increasing control over various levels of government and public life may allow Georgian Dream to slowly but surely usurp ever more power. If pluralism in Georgia’s media and political parties is waning while corruption remains widespread, are we to pronounce the eulogy to Georgia’s short lived democratic existence?

Far from it. If nothing else, the recent mass protests in Tbilisi, and recently also in other cities across the country, demonstrate that Georgia’s democratic spirit is as vigorous as it has ever been. The late American political philosopher Sheldon S. Wolin calls democracy “a project concerned with the political potentialities of ordinary citizens.” And if in Georgia’s current constellation the government and its institutions clearly shows its weakness as far as democratisation goes, Georgian civil society certainly does not. The Georgian authorities
were undoubtedly nonplussed by the magnitude of the protests in response to the raid of Bassiani, by itself seemingly a minor event. Wolin’s point is that democracy is not merely embodied in its institutions, but, more importantly, in the political activities of its people.

Hence, while the ruling Georgian Dream party may attempt to consolidate its grip on the country’s institutions, Georgian citizens demonstrate – again in Wolin’s words – “their possibilities for becoming political beings through the self-discovery of common concerns and of modes of actions for realising them.” The killing of two teenagers and the botched court ruling might initially seem to concern only a limited number of people.
Yet, because the case has come to symbolise more widespread corruption in the country’s judicial system, many Georgians have realised that the case does in fact address a common concern. Through the recent protests they have, perhaps against the government’s expectations, found their mode of action for realising their political objectives.

Georgian civil society is not only alive and vigorous; it is also relatively well organised, as demonstrated by the quick rise to prominence of organisations such as White Noise. What Georgian Dream may have underestimated is the extent to which Georgian citizens have, as it were, ‘touched’ democracy, and now refuse to let go of it. The wider concerns these protests address is the attempt by government elites to further consolidate their power, all the while upholding a facade of democracy. Such is, after all, the plight of many a former Soviet state – illustrated perfectly by Armenia prior to the Velvet Revolution. Instead, in the recent
demonstrations, Georgians have shown precisely the political potential to which Sheldon Wolin referred. Even more encouraging, moreover, is the wide involvement of youthful Georgians in the protests, signaling that Georgia’s rediscovered democratic spirit might be here to stay

Changing dynamic

Assessing Georgia’s democracy along the line of its citizens’ involvement, not least in the streets, sketches a decidedly more positive image of the country’s democratic viability. It also puts the aforementioned figures on Georgia’s corruption, press freedom, and democracy in a different light. Indeed, such schemata can never fully capture the vitality of a democracy, for the simple reason that they focus generally on political institutions. Democracy, however, is not limited to institutions. If anything, institutions may limit democratic vitality. While Georgia’s institutions as well as its current government may lack such vitality, the thousands of Georgians currently occupying the streets of Tbilisi go a long way towards compensating for their government’s insufficiency. In this context the statements of Nino Burjanadze, leader of the Democratic Georgia opposition party, are reassuring. The fact that they do not explicitly join the protests, she said, means that they “are not using this process for [their] own political ends.” The ball is in the people’s court, and for the moment remains there.

All this is not to say that institutions are irrelevant. As Belgian political philosopher Chantal Mouffe points out, democratic struggles should not be about withdrawing from institutions, but about engaging with them in order to change them. Part of what motivates the Georgians on the streets of Tbilisi and elsewhere is anger over the fact that, to use Hannah Arendt’s words, “conditions could be changed and are not.”
Zaza Saralidze, for one, clearly demonstrated his determination to change conditions by concluding his address to protestors in Tbilisi late on June 3rd by shouting that “the system must be destroyed.” At the end of the day, the functioning of institutions such as the judicial system, the parliament, and the police apparatus, of course fundamentally conditions the way in which citizens can put their political potentialities to effect.

Notwithstanding, the most important lesson is that the failure of its institutions and the corruption of its government need not mean the failure of Georgia’s democracy altogether. To the contrary, Georgia currently shows that these defects may even serve to reinvigorate its democracy through widespread political participation of its citizens. Amid these demonstrations, the predicate that can at least not be credibly attributed to Georgians is apathy, so detrimental to democracy’s vitality.
If nothing else, Georgia’s recent demonstrations show that, although its institutions and its government may be fatally flawed, its democracy is alive and well.

Maxim van Asseldonk is a MA student of political philosophy and MSc student of human geography at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. His research interests are democratic theory, ethnic conflicts, the former Soviet Union (particularly the South Caucasus) and migration.

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