Georgia’s Troubled Democracy

When I was in Tbilisi in 2013, a Georgian friend of mine told me that the city announced that it was going to begin enforcing traffic laws, and the people nearly rioted. The fact that the common people saw the laws as something that impeded them rather than protected them goes a long way in explaining why corruption has been so hard to root out of the successor states of the Soviet Union, including Georgia, which from time to time seemed as though it was going to break that model. Seventy-five years of Soviet authoritarian mismanagement and two decades of incompetent, corrupt leaders have left everyone in contempt of the authorities. The average citizen demonstrates this contempt by ignoring traffic laws; the politicians demonstrate it by perpetuating government corruption, thus reinforcing contempt for the government in the common people.

Now we’re seeing another potential overthrow of a corrupt Georgian regime, and one has to wonder how the cycle can ever be broken. Shevardnadze promised to end corruption, and was run out of office because corruption had strangled the economy and left the people behind. Saakashvili–same promises, same failures. Economic stagnation because of corruption on every level. Now, with the Georgian Parliament making a very controversial decision to reject calls to reform the electoral system, primarily because of the Georgian Dream Party’s reversal of its previous stance, protesters have been disrupting Tbilisi and plan a major demonstration on November 25. While it’s doubtful that it’s going to be a “final showdown,” the situation in Georgia is highly unstable.

A decade ago, Per Gahrton wrote a pretty objective account of Georgia’s post-Soviet struggles, and he comes to the same conclusion I have: the “opposition” parties rarely have any concrete agenda and run primarily on the platform “the government is corrupt.” Without a concrete agenda, the many problems Georgia faces just get more entrenched and the endemic corruption continues unabated.

Adding to this situation is the issue of the breakaway territories. Georgia has virtually paralyzed itself by a monolithic approach to solving the problem: complete reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as soon as possible, and by any means. Since there’s really nothing Georgia can do at present, we see appeals to Abkhazia to “rejoin the fold,” so to speak, as a government representative more or less put it. Of course, there will be no result from such attempts.

There is a lot of bad blood between the Abkhazians and Georgians. When I was at a conference in Georgia once, there were Georgians who refused to shake hands with certain Circassian participants who had taken part in the Georgian-Abkhazian war at the fall of the Soviet Union because they considered them “war criminals.” And without a doubt, war crimes were committed on both sides of the conflict.

As a result, anyone who hasn’t been completely deprived of common sense should easily see that under such circumstances cajoling the Abkhazians into re-integrating into the Georgian state can’t possibly work. Georgia’s best option is to pursue open, close relations with Abkhazia, neither recognizing its independence nor insisting it rejoin Georgia. The establishment of friendly, profitable relations between the two nations is an essential prerequisite to finding a political solution to a problem that’s extremely complicated and may require generations to solve.

I haven’t said anything about South Ossetia because, frankly, I’ve never studied the Ossetians in as much depth, but I would imagine a similar approach would ultimately yield good results. Unfortunately, it’s politically beneficial in Georgia to project a hard line on the two regions, and so a solution is not forthcoming.

What the various Georgian governments are doing by pursuing this course is exactly what Russia wants of them: they’re paralyzing Georgia’s development by focusing their entire foreign policy on what is in effect an impacted issue with no solution on the horizon. This being the case, I can’t imagine the current protests in Tbilisi bringing any substantial change or improvement in the lives of ordinary Georgians.

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