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.
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.â€¨ 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.