“Something amazing happened in Georgia’s 1 October 2012 parliamentary elections. The government lost and it gave up power, aside from the now-weakened presidency that it will hold for another year,” say two leading analysts:
A new coalition known as Georgian Dream ran under the leadership of Georgia’s richest man, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (right), and won 85 seats in the unicameral, 150-member Parliament. Georgia’s post-Soviet background and circumstances make the 2012 opposition win and subsequent orderly handover of power truly remarkable. Indeed, among the “competitive authoritarian” regimes found in what used to be the USSR, it is nearly unheard of.
“Georgia is lucky to be getting a fourth chance at democracy, after the opportunities under Zviad Gamsakhurdia (1990–92), Eduard Shevardnadze (1992–2003), and Mikhail Saakashvili faded. But this chance remains a fragile one,” Charles Fairbanks and Alexi Gugushvili write in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy:
It is true that Saakashvili and his government respected the forms of democracy to a degree unusual in the former Soviet Union, and that this respect gradually went up over time. Yet the president and his camp also engaged in endless maneuvering designed to isolate, marginalize, and penetrate any sort of political opposition.….. When such tactics fell short, the National Movement resorted to ballot fraud. Media freedom declined progressively after 2007, when the government closed and later seized Imedi, the only independent television channel seen across the whole country. As OSCE Parliamentary Assembly president Riccardo Migliori put it, the National Movement showed “a little [bit] of Leninism . . . trying to destroy their enemies.”
In the authors’ view, only the emergence of Mr Ivanishvili stopped the UNM’s slide towards autocracy. His considerable wealth bound together a disparate coalition, tapped into deep public disaffection with the UNM, and enabled his Georgian Dream movement to withstand the UNM’s hard-line response. Indeed, the authors argue, likely evidence of inflated voter lists suggests that the UNM was ready to falsify the vote. But high voter turnout and extensive international scrutiny helped persuade Mr Saakashvili to cede defeat, paving the way for Georgia’s first constitutional transfer of power.
Ivanishvili’s successful challenge confirms Lucan Way’s argument that economic “oligarchs” are a threat to competitive authoritarian regimes,5 write Fairbanks, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a professor at Georgia’s Ilia State University, and Gugushvili is a researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, and an affiliated fellow at the Center for Social Sciences in Tbilisi:
For the bulk of the campaign, the government met Georgian Dream’s electoral challenge with costly public works and padded public payrolls, with boasts about the modern architecture with which it had graced the country, and with constant threats to fire any state employees who failed to support their elected masters. Previous actions suggested that the threats were not empty. “Do you personally know someone whom you believe was fired from a state/public job because of their political beliefs?” asked the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) in its August poll. Almost a fifth of respondents in Tbilisi (19 percent) said yes, while the figure across the country as a whole was 14 percent.7 These numbers are extraordinarily high. The government made no distinction between the state and the government in power: At the Rose Revolution, the National Movement’s party flag had become the flag of the country. The government identified the state with a political party in the Soviet manner.
In a further indicator of Georgia’s illiberal democracy, labor unions complained that Saakashvili undermined freedom of association.
“Alone among former Soviet Union member nations, only Georgia has seen its ex-official union federation democratically reform and emerge as the biggest civil-society voice in the country,” said the Washington-based Solidarity Center. “However, its efforts to promote worker rights and democracy have apparently rubbed the Georgian government the wrong way. Since 2008, the government has viciously attacked the Georgian Trade Union Confederation and its affiliates.”
While Soviet-era unions lacked genuine independence and collective bargaining rights, functioning as transmission belts for the ruling Communist parties and providers of members’ welfare facilities, Georgia’s unions have striven to remain autonomous.
“Georgian unions are politically involved but neutral toward both the ruling party and the opposition. This position is a break from past Soviet and post-Soviet practice, when unions were an extension of the ruling political party,” the Solidarity Center notes. “Georgia’s 2006 labor code was in many respects a step backward for workers, as it diminished unions’ bargaining rights and introduced a hire and fire policy that enables a worker’s dismissal without a valid reason.”
Saakashvili’s hostility to independent labor unions may be a reflection of the post-Soviet legacy in which, Fairbanks and Gugushvili observe, “there is still not much life in the yawning social space between the family and the government in Georgia”:
Citizens distrust one another, and even activists have an aversion to the realities of organization, leadership, planning, and funding. There are NGOs that have played brave and useful roles in the opening to democracy, but they depend on Western money and normally shun politics. Now, the urgent need is to nourish activism that explicitly presses demands on government. The Orthodox Church and the business community outweigh the slender NGO sector, but each is deeply flawed and some would say that neither should count as part of legitimate civil society.
The Journal of Democracy is published by the National Endowment for Democracy. NDI and the Solidarity Center are core institutes of the NED.