By Sean Alexander, Guest Contributor
Mikheil Saakashvili’s rise to power is the stuff of legends, and even includes the amusingly true tale of how he (peacefully) stormed into the Georgian Parliament building and drank from then-President Shevardnadze’s tea cup. Saakashvili, Georgia’s third post-independence president was billed as the answer to Georgians’ prayers, promising to rid the country of the rampant corruption that brought down Shevardnadze. In just four years, however, Saakashvili was under fire. He took the promise of a better, brighter future for Georgia and threw it away by lashing out at independent media in November 2007, prompting mass protests. Thereafter, the promise of true democratic reform was thrust into the hands of the Georgian people-or rather, the opposition. Within a year, however, even the opposition squandered the opportunity, leaving Georgia just as fragile as ever. It should also be pointed out that a coup d’état deposed the first Georgian president and could, theoretically, be responsible for taking down the third.
So what happened to democracy in Georgia? And more importantly, what will happen?
Georgia seems to have fallen into a pattern of proclaiming democracy and adherence to democratic principles only to have its administrations twist the concept beyond all recognition in order to enhance their own power. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first president did so by dumping democracy in favor of nationalism, alienating Georgia’s ethnic minorities. Shevardnadze, the second president, did not fare much better-although he lasted longer-by subverting democracy for corruption and cronyism. In both cases, however, there were “democratic forces” waiting in the wings to steer Georgia back on its path. Saakashvili-once heralded as Georgia’s best hope for a democratic future-has stumbled. Like Gamsakhurdia before him, Saakashvili favors nationalism, promising to bring Georgia’s wayward republics back into the fold. And then there is the troubling matter of shutting down critical media outlets. And yet the West continues to throw its support behind Saakashvili.
To be fair, there’s not really a lot the West can do at this point beyond voicing concern for internal developments. This is because the opposition in its current guise is still too weak and fragmented to mount to any real challenge to the Saakashvili regime. To illustrate this point, one need only recall that in November 2008, on the fifth anniversary of the Rose Revolution, a massive rally was planned in support of Imedi TV, the main media outlet shut down by the Saakashvili regime. In the end, only “a couple hundred” people showed up, according to the Civil Georgia website. I was in Tbilisi that day, and wouldn’t have known that anything was up if I hadn’t read about it beforehand. It seems that at the popular level, the public has reached a level of complacency about change. They may want things to improve, but they’re no longer likely to take to the streets for just any old protest, which seems to be about all the opposition can muster.
Of course, things could change. Within the past few weeks, a prominent opposition voice-Nino Burjanadze-set up a new opposition party and is widely seen as the best person to unseat Saakashvili. Her image as savior, however, doesn’t seem to be all that much different from that of Saakashvili back in 2003 when he took over the presidency, leaving one to wonder what really would change. Of course, it is possible that the masses will unite behind Burjanadze and she will guide Georgia into a new era of peace and prosperity. I see nothing wrong in eating crow over that, but I remain skeptical. It is going to take a lot more than hope and hype regarding one individual before I start acknowledging a better and brighter future for Georgia. What is tragic is that, until that day comes, Georgia will continue to be stuck between a rock and a hard place as it tries to squeeze into the already-bloated concept of Europe as well as stand on its own against its Russian neighbor to the north.