Post-Soviet Democracy: What Happens After Elections Matters Even More

Georgia's outgoing President Mikhail Saakashvili has been a darling in the West. Now that his opponents are in power, his fate will tell us much about the nation's young democracy.

"The bigger test for Georgian democracy is what happens now, after the election."
"The bigger test for Georgian democracy is what happens now, after the election."
Aleksei Tokarev

MOSCOW – Compared to the totalitarian governments in the East and the European democracies in the West, post-Soviet countries are like a young girl trying to decide between a modest traditional dress that will hide her flaws and a fashionable skirt that will require hours at the gym.

Even among themselves, the post-Soviet nations run the gamut along the continuum between bona fide democracy and absolutist authoritarianism. The recent election of Giorgi Margvelashvili from the Georgian Dream party, the party founded by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in opposition to outgoing president Mikhail Saakashvili, was not particularly notable in itself. The bigger test for Georgian democracy is what happens now, after the election; and in particular, what happens to Saakashvili.

Only a small minority of the independent states have successfully navigated the route from their Soviet past to full-fledged democracy. A slightly larger number of countries turned sharply away from democracy, built the familiar statues to “father of the country” figures and used armed repression as the final argument in deciding the course of the country.

Russian political scientist Boris Makarenko wrote a decade ago about the “childhood illnesses of young democracy.” He considered Samuel Huntington’s “Two Turnover Test,” the best gauge of the successful establishment of democracy. According to the test, a country could be considered democratic if it could change political power twice through democratic means.

In the worldwide historical trend known as the “fourth wave of democracy” (the fall of the Soviet Union), political scientists have focused on the role of the government in a successful transition to democracy.

All the same, there have only been two successful “colored revolutions” in post-Soviet states: in Georgia and Ukraine. Some erroneously include Moldova, where protesters torched the parliament, and Kirghizistan, where the two sides shot each other; but those are quite different than the respective rose and orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine.

After those two successful revolutions, there were no consolidations of democratic institutions, and the new democratically-elected leaders started to fill the role of dictators, confirming the argument that democratic elections are not enough to ensure democracy itself.

The Post-Soviet reality met Huntington’s criteria: The governing party changed places with the opposition, sometimes frequently. Ukraine was the leader in “musical chairs.” But each change in political power there brought politically-motivated criminal investigations of the opposition.

Georgia has strengthened its political system much more successfully than Ukraine. It has been serious in battling corruption, increased the effectiveness of tax collection, improved infrastructure and strengthened government regulation.

Nonetheless, it has not avoided election-related judicial proceedings.
 For example: a former Minister of Defense, and then Economics, was convicted of taking bribes only after he switched to the opposition party in 2007 and accused President Saakashvili of corruption and arranging the murder of a political opponent.

In 2012 the President’s team used another resource against the latest opponent - Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire businessman and the current prime minister of Georgia. Saakashvili personally issued an order to strip Ivanishvili of his citizenship. But this time the government compromised with the opposition, reversing its own decision.

Then after Ivanishvili won last year’s election, members of Saakashvili’s party faced a scandal involving prison torture. Regardless of the real violations involved, the timing and way the investigation was carried out resembled the use of the courts and police against political opponents in Ukraine.

Just like Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine, Mikhail Saakashvili tried to change laws in his favor after arriving in office on a wave of democracy. In 2010, the Georgian constitution was changed to give the Prime Minister more power and the President less power. Saakashvili, who was barred from running for president again due to term limits, clearly did not plan to ride into retirement having surrendered both seats to the opposition, but the Georgian voters decided for him.

Georgia is the darling of Western democracies and some Russian liberals — and it has moved alongside Ukraine up the ladder of global rankings for democratic values and civic freedoms. The American democracy rating institute Freedom House considers Russia an authoritarian regime, but both Georgia and Ukraine are considered “hybrids.”

Regardless of who is doing the analysis, these kinds of ratings are all very complex. The time when political scientists thought that democracy was nothing more than freedom of speech and majority rule has long gone the way of Ancient Greece.

Now, the better indications of democracy’s grip are the things that come with any change in power – and high among these is resisting the temptation to use the courts and jails to settle old scores with political opponents who have been beaten in legitimate elections. If nothing else, these hybrid post-Soviet regimes have taught us that excessive use of the courts to go after the losers of an election leads to government crises and ultimately, the fall of the government. Whoever understands that — and chooses not to use an election win to target their political opponents — will be squarely on the road to successful democratization.

For this, and other reasons, the fate of Mikhail Saakashvili is more important than ever for Georgia’s future.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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