Georgia’s Oct. 1 Parliament elections were remarkable for two reasons: one, because the opposition Georgian Dream coalition won an overwhelming victory, notwithstanding an extremely unfair pre-election environment, and two, because President Mikhail Saakashvili admitted his defeat. This presents a unique, albeit fragile, opportunity to build a consolidated democracy.
Many hailed Mr. Saakashvili as a democrat when he rose to power during the Rose Revolution in 2003, but by late 2007 he had established an essentially authoritarian regime in which many Georgians lived in a state of fear. Yet because President George Bush had declared Georgia a “Beacon of Liberty” and because Saakashvili was seen as an opponent of Russian influence, many in the United States, especially conservatives, supported him, ignoring his domestic shortcomings. This deference marginalized the extremely weak political opposition.
Saakashvili’s luck began to run out in 2011 when the billionaire Bidzina Ivanshivili decided to challenge him. Ivanishvili, the new Prime Minister-elect, made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and afterward settled into a reclusive philanthropic life in Georgia. He spent more than $1.5 billion (according to some estimates) paying salaries of state employees, buying equipment for the military, funding elderly pensions, and rebuilding ancient churches.
Saakashvili’s de facto authoritarianism had three core pillars: control over national TV media (through direct and indirect ownership); weak and financially starved opposition; and people’s fear of reprisal by the state. This sense of fear came from what many have alleged to be illegal surveillances, random arrests, acts of intimidation, extortion, and blackmail undertaken by the Ministries of Interior, Justice, and Prisons and other “law enforcement” powers. These structures of repression were facilitated and legalized by an unconditionally subservient judiciary.
Mr. Ivanishvili’s challenge to Saakashvili did not weaken these power structures, but he united virtually all of Saakashvili’s opponents, and used his immense wealth to create new TV stations that provided the critical alternative to state media. He also ran an exceptional campaign orchestrated by American consultants and financed independent vote monitoring. It was also vital that the US finally turned on Saakashvili: The Obama administration clearly played a key role in preventing fraud and forcing Saakashvii to accept his defeat.
The collapse of Saakashvili’s system creates a narrow window of opportunity for democracy in Georgia. Diversity in Ivanishvili’s political coalition makes it harder for him to try to consolidate his powers for an indefinite term, if he were to be tempted by authoritarianism. While important constitutional changes are mandatory to prevent concentration of power, it appears that Ivanishvili understands this. In addition, Georgia needs to take several other practical steps that can help nurture this democratic moment.
First, rule of law must replace rule by fear. The all-powerful Ministry of Interior must be broken up into small and controllable components. Its successors must be put under the supervision of an independent board not influenced by the executive office. It is incumbent on the US to push for demolishing this Ministry and weakening other “police” structures.
Rule of law also requires investigation and equitable adjudication of the most egregious charges against the Saakashvili regime, such as numerous accusations of torture and confiscation of private property. A truth and reconciliation commission, like that of South Africa after apartheid, could help bring this about. It is critical that all Georgians see this process as fair, unlike what sources describe as extra-legal processes used by Saakashvili in 2003-4 to punish alleged offenders from the era of Eduard Shevardnadze – the former Soviet foreign affairs minister under Mikhail Gorbachev who served as post-independent Georgia’s second president until he was forced to resign in 2003.
Second, the new government must liberate the media. It can start by returning Imedi TV to the family of billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili. The family alleges, with credible evidence, that after his death they were forced by Saakashvii to hand over ownership to unknown pro-government figures. The new government must also resolve the claims of the previous owners of Rustavi 2 TV and Mze TV, who allege that they sold the station to Saakashvili’s supporters under duress. Concurrently, the new government must not prevent Saakashvili’s National Movement – now the opposition – from having access to the media.
Third, putting the country on the path of economic growth requires restoring property rights; freeing business from state control and banning state-sanctioned monopolies; developing an innovative future for agriculture and organic farming; and creating an investment program to nurture small enterprises. Ivanishvili could use his vast personal resources to help jumpstart such investments. However, given that Georgia is completely broke, it will also need foreign aid and loans to implement growth policies.
Fourth, Georgia requires a real civil society to serve as a check on state power. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, in America, citizens organize themselves through private associations to defend their interests. This civil society creates an independent private sphere in which mediating institutions can check the authority of the state. The most important elements of civil society in Western history have been the church and private enterprise.
Yet instead of following the American example, US foreign aid often incorrectly associates civil society not with religious, business, and other indigenous organizations of citizens, but with nonprofit organizations and nongovernmental organizations run by policy experts and funded by international donors. These NGOs are frequently disconnected from ordinary citizens and can neither channel the interests nor harness the civic spirit of the people.
To help nurture the Georgian democratic transition, American policymakers should seek to strengthen indigenous and local elements of civil society that already exist in Georgia, such as the Georgian Orthodox church. The church’s recent work to encourage a fair campaign and clean elections has shown that it can play a key role in curbing authoritarianism.
Irakly George Arison Areshidze works in Silicon Valley and is the co-creator of the popular travel technology Taxi Magic. He is the author of “Democracy and Autocracy in Eurasia: Georgia in Transition” (Michigan State University Press). Giorgi Areshidze is an assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. They were both born in Georgia.