In the days right after the Rose Revolution, I talked to very many journalists (as I have also done lately). I remember a Reuter’s correspondent asking me: “What, in your opinion, will prove to be the best indicator of Saakashvili’s achievements? What would enable us to say later that the Rose Revolution brought about real progress?” Back then, I responded that would be the moment when Mikheil Saakashvili transfers power to his successor peacefully, with a smile on his face.
Elementary Test of Democracy
On 2 October 2012, the President of Georgia was not actually all smiles. Nor did he congratulate rival Bidzina Ivanishvili and his political coalition on their election victory. Still, what Saakashvili did then marked a breakthrough in the history of Georgia. On the very day after the parliamentary elections, as soon as it became clear what the final result would be, the Georgian President calmly and graciously conceded his party’s defeat. No less importantly, he expressed his commitment not to obstruct the new parliamentary majority from forming a cabinet of ministers even though the existing Constitution provides him with such a possibility. On that day, we saw a statesman and a true Western-style democratic leader.
Does that mean that now we are a real democracy? Unfortunately, it does not. According to formal criterion established by American political scientist Samuel Huntington and applied by his adherents, democracy can be regarded as “stable” only after it undergoes two peaceful democratic turnovers of ruling parties without any intervening coup or revolution. Thus, to achieve democratic stability, we must wait for that moment when the Georgian Dream loses elections and transfers power to an opposition force (be that a revived United National Movement or some other opposition party).
What has happened in Georgia enables us to say that the achievements of the Rose Revolution are not only measured in collected tax revenues, combated massive corruption, constructed new roads, etcetera, but also in terms of significant advancement of democratic development.
Has Democracy Fallen Victim to Modernization?
A little while ago, the majority of serious researchers reckoned that the Rose Revolution was a breakthrough in modernization though not necessarily in democracy. Or, to formulate that equation in a more radical way, democracy was seen as having been sacrificed to modernization. Modernization is a rather general and vague term which implies many things: the creation of a viable state machinery in which employees work for salaries and not for bribes and perform their functions for the welfare of citizens rather than to perpetuate institutionalized corruption; the spread of meritocracy whereby a person is rewarded for individual performance and not because of ancestry or political connections; a civil understanding of the nation whereby people of various ethnicities and religious beliefs are assimilated equally into the society; the establishment of a liberal free market economy, and so on and so forth.
That does not mean that the achievements of the government formed out of the Rose Revolution are not subject to criticism, but rather that the Georgian government has made a qualitative leap. Saakashvili took over Georgia when it still resembled a medieval-era or African-type state (depending on whether described by time or spatial metaphor) and turned it into a modern Western-style political entity.
And still, did he turn the country into a democracy? The key argument of opponents has been that a Western-style state must be fully democratic and that Georgia did not meet all democratic criteria. Even more, Georgian opponents and some Western political analysts too claimed that the greater concentration of power in the hands of Saakashvili and his team than, say, in the hands of peacefully deposed Eduard Shevardnadze, was actually a step backward for democracy.
The immediate aftermath of the 2012 elections seriously altered that opinion. That is not to say that no one will remind Saakashvili of such past “sins” as the concentration of too-much power in too-few people; the too-frequent and too-easy amendment of the Constitution; selective justice; the use of public service as a political resource, etcetera. True, Saakashvili’s Georgia was far from the democratic ideal. But democratic progress is gauged by relative measures, not by absolute values. Progress, in this case, is proved by one measurable and unmistakable indicator: the difference between the 2003 Rose Revolution and the October 2012 parliamentary elections – in other words, the difference between revolutionary change and constitutional transition.
Who Has Changed - Government or People?
What, specifically, has conditioned that difference? The Shevardnadze government in 2003 was far weaker and more unpopular than the Saakashvili government in 2012. Aggression toward the government was palpable both in 2003 and in 2012, but public demands to settle scores and calls for retaliation have been heard far more distinctly in 2012 than they ever were in 2003. Consequently, the Saakashvili government’s motive to defend its position was, at least, no weaker than that of its predecessor in 2003. What the 2012 government has that did not exist in 2003 are effective, honest and loyal law enforcement bodies. Thus, objectively, the 2012 government did not have greater grounds to yield voluntarily to the majority of the society.
We might assume that the difference lies in the government itself. During the past nine years, criticism has been repeatedly voiced in terms of democratic standards – and I was among those voicing such criticism. But it also is a fact that at that critical moment when the Saakashvili government saw the will of the majority, it acted according to the rules of democracy. Certainly members of this government are no less fond of power than others, yet the political elite that the Rose Revolution swept to power with promises of integrating Georgia into Europe could not deviate from those principles of democracy.
Or perhaps society itself has changed and that explains the difference? That effect is more difficult to gauge, although I can single out two moments: In 2003, the people who took to the street to protest poll rigging were greatly concerned about other things too, such as chronic shortages of electricity, unpaid pensions, rampant corruption and general government inefficiency; the fate of the 2012 elections was ultimately decided by one overarching issue – the torture of prisoners. In those intervening years, democratic values and human rights had shifted to the center of society’s interests. That shift apparently was not reflected adequately in recent sociological surveys which the government, as it turns out, trusted more than it should have.
Problems in the penitentiary system were, of course, the government’s fault. And we could say that the government was punished fairly for ignoring systemic problems. But the very fact that issue played a decisive role in the replacement of power means that societal priorities have changed since 2003. Perhaps that is because the government already tackled those Rose Revolution-vintage problems and even irritated many people by its frequent references to those successes. Poverty and unemployment may have been problematic enough for the opposition and government to compete with lavish social-populist campaign promises, but, at the end of the day, the fate of the Saakashvili government was decided on the issue of human rights.
Another difference between 2003 and 2012 is that the society this year clearly stepped up its activity owing to the largesse of a single person – billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. In 2003, there was also talk about the half-mystical role of another billionaire – George Soros, but the conspicuous money roles then and now are incomparable. Maybe money cannot buy everything, but this year financial manipulations helped to create a societal emotional powder keg.
The contrastingly calm election aftermath has recast the image of Mikheil Saakashvili as a true democratic leader and has reinforced the reputation of Georgia as the regional leader in the development of democracy. But will that make the country more democratic for the long-term? One need only look to Ukraine for a sobering reality check: President Viktor Yuschenko proved that he was a democrat by conceding the elections rather than risking violence, but his successor Viktor Yanukovich has taken the country toward authoritarianism. Will that happen in Georgia? We do not know that yet.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 117, published 8 October 2012.