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Georgia moves closer to Europe or just away from authoritarianism?

The reforms of Georgia’s electoral system are entering a crucial phase as they have to be completed no later than six months before the elections.

June 29, 2020 - Krassen Stanchev - Articles and Commentary

Parliament of Georgia Photo: Ddohler flickr.com

On June 23rd, the Georgian parliament approved a crucial constitutional amendment concerning the electoral system. This change is directly related to last year’s public protests and political crisis in the country, as was recently reported in New Eastern Europe.

On June 25th, a week-long popular vote began in Russia, which is also related to amendments to the constitution. Putin had requested a vote concerning these matters earlier this year.

The first hearing related to Georgia’s amendment took place during an extraordinary parliamentary session on June 21st. The third hearing is scheduled for later this week. There is now a sense of urgency in the country, as reforms to the electoral system will need to be completed no later than six months before the elections. These are scheduled for autumn this year.

This article will not go into detail with regard to the country’s previous political standoffs. These have already been discussed by Soso Dzamukashvili for New Eastern Europe. However, I would like to point out several strange and even ironic coincidences in relation to these events in Georgia and Russia.

“Russian” sentiment

While mass protests were taking place in Georgia in June last year, the Russian government banned flights to the country, which was now considered off-limits for Russian citizens altogether. This decision was enforced from July 8th, just before the start of the tourist season. My friend in Tbilisi, Paata Sheshelidze of the New Economic School of Georgia, provided me with a theory as to the reasons behind this decision. This policy was not only designed to punish Georgia’s strong hospitality industry, but to deny Russians the ability to compare their own country’s situation with that of another former Soviet Republic.

Georgians were not surprised by this decision. This was just a new move in a long series of Russian sanctions directed at Georgia since December 2005. Thanks to Paata, I counted about 20 restrictive actions taken by Russia against Georgia, 17 occurred between December 2005 and September 2008.

Before 2005, Moscow had enforced virtually no restrictive policies related to the country. The table below demonstrates that the majority of the country’s sanctions were put into place in 2006. This was the year that the Georgian government implemented various reforms which find their origins in the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003. Three years later, the success of these reforms had become clear with regards to high trade turnovers with the EU, a sharp decline in homicide and other heavy crimes and an average rate of economic growth on par with China and India. A good summary of these years can be found in Larisa Burakova’s book “Why Georgia succeeded”.

In 2006, I was working on a World Bank project to assist public governance in the Russian Federation, which led to me spending ten days in the country every month. I vividly remember the negative reports about Georgia on the daily news. That same year, I also worked in Georgia. The reports in the Russian media had absolutely no relation to what I saw during my visits.

October 10, 2012 elections changed the political landscape in Tbilisi and the entire country. The achievements described by Burakova and confirmed by all key international comparisons, remained untouched.

Tensions with Russia decreased. In mid-June 2013 – the month seems important for Russian sentiment towards Georgia – as they waived all sanctions on Georgian wine and then on other goods and, in December 2015, had softened the visa regime for her citizens.

Georgian way: what is at stake?

Politics is often about symbols. Electoral systems decide as to the ways in which parties compete to promote their own competing ‘symbols’.

Three years ago, the victorious Georgian Dream party promised to reinvent the country’s political system. The party proposed transforming a system that gave almost equal weighting to party list and constituency voting in elections. In parliament, 77 seats had been chosen by proportional party lists and 73 by single-member constituencies. This system was to be replaced by the gradual introduction of a fully proportional presentation with an entry threshold as low as one per cent.

In part due to the presidential elections of 2018, which were won by the political moderate and first female head of state Salome Zurabishvili, these plans were put on hold. This victory itself was effectively a symbolic warning from an electorate that had grown tired of traditional political rivalries.

This stalemate regarding electoral reforms was often motivated by matters related to the benefits of various proposals. Debates over whether a majority or party list system would help sustain economic success remained a key topic of discussion. However, it was also a highly symbolic debate that divided people according to whether they preferred a Russian or European style of rule. Overall, the public chose in favour of European practices.

The deeper political background to this debate is also important. It should be remembered that a mixed system with high entry barriers was a traditional part of Georgia’s electoral system.

From 1990 to 1999, the threshold for representation was raised from four to seven per cent of the vote. This left a high percentage of voters unrepresented, with 27 per cent falling into this category in 2004.

The most recent elections in 2017 were held with a four per cent barrier. Current plans are to reduce this to three and then one per cent.

Georgia’s electoral statistics hint at interesting trends. Underrepresentation is now not a key issue, fewer people vote in presidential elections than those for the parliament (one notable exception was the second round of the elections that brought Ms. Zurabishvili to power), and that referendums rarely occur. The country’s last referendum was held in November 2003 in order to change the number of seats in parliament.

Without going into detail regarding Georgian party politics, it is clear that voters protested last year in order to demand promised electoral reform that would help prevent authoritarian tendencies so common in the region. This includes Russia, most of the former Soviet republics and even some EU member states. Here I include my own country – Bulgaria.

I believe that these amendments to Georgia’s electoral system overall represent a guarantee against authoritarianism and are less concerned with issues such as economic efficiency.

It should be remembered that a legislature with “ad hoc” majorities formed in a fully proportional system would still find it difficult to dismantle the economic institutions and political achievements that emerged after 2003.

Such parliaments would be forced to seek consensus and/or agreements across party lines.

The public drive for such reform in Georgia clearly contrasts with the Russian referendum, which is taking place from June 25th to July 1st. During this “All-Russian vote”, it could be argued that the electorate is now being invited to dismantle democracy by means of a plebiscite.

Krassen Stanchev is Associate Professor at Sofia University and teaches Macroeconomic Analysis of Policies and Public Choice Theory; he is a former executive director (and one of the founders) of the Institute for Market Economics, a member of the Mont Pelerin Society and the NOUS Network.

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