Georgia: Sliding towards Authoritarianism?
Georgia: Sliding towards Authoritarianism?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 189 / Europe & Central Asia

Georgia: Sliding towards Authoritarianism?

The government’s repressive and disproportionate response to peaceful protests in November 2007 shocked Western capitals, which had viewed Georgia as a beacon of democracy in a region of illiberal regimes. Since the Rose Revolution, however, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration has become increasingly intolerant of dissent as it has sought to reform inefficient post-Soviet institutions, stimulate a deeply dysfunctional economy, regain the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and deal with its meddling Russian neighbour.

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Executive Summary

The government’s repressive and disproportionate response to peaceful protests in November 2007 shocked Western capitals, which had viewed Georgia as a beacon of democracy in a region of illiberal regimes. Since the Rose Revolution, however, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration has become increasingly intolerant of dissent as it has sought to reform inefficient post-Soviet institutions, stimulate a deeply dysfunctional economy, regain the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and deal with its meddling Russian neighbour. In an attempt to restore his democratic credentials, Saakashvili has called an early presidential election for 5 January 2008, which he is expected to win, but a free and fair election will not be enough to repair the damage. The West should press the government to abandon its increasingly authoritarian behaviour, engage in a genuine dialogue with political opponents and make the ongoing reform process transparent and accountable.

Georgia’s young and dynamic leadership came to power in 2003 with great Western goodwill and some tangible support. Having inherited a failing state, the government committed itself to democratic governance and liberal reforms, and actively pursued membership in the European Union (EU) and NATO. It has had significant success in rebuilding moribund institutions and implementing sweeping reforms that have transformed the economy.

Saakashvili’s administration quickly found itself dealing with a resurgent Russian neighbour flush with oil money. The Putin government reacted with increasing hostility to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic orientation, particularly its NATO membership aspirations. It has sought to bludgeon Georgia into submission through economic embargoes and supported Abkhaz and South Ossetian secession ambitions. Saakashvili has responded with confrontational nationalistic rhetoric, while seeking to rally Western backing. Many of Tbilisi’s repeated accusations of Russian meddling are warranted, particularly with regard to the conflict regions, but claims of Russian involvement in domestic politics, which have been used to justify some of the infringements of civil liberties, are less credible.

The leadership has also cut too many corners. In particular, the concentration of power in a small, like-minded elite and unwillingness to countenance criticism have undermined its democratic standing. Cronyism is increasingly evident within the senior level of the administration. Checks and balances have been stripped back, justice arbitrarily applied, human rights too often violated and freedom of expression curtailed.

The government’s failure to engage constructively with demands of the opposition, civil society and ordinary citizens for transparency, accountability and credible investigations into disturbing cases of official abuse resulted in public protests throughout the country in late October and early November. These culminated in large rallies over six days in Tbilisi and a violent government crackdown on 7 November. Disproportionate use of force against peaceful demonstrators, the violent closure of a private television station and the imposition of emergency rule brought a halt to hitherto unquestioning Western support of the Georgian leadership.

Saakashvili sought to justify his response by labelling the protests as a Russia-inspired attempt to overthrow the government. The authorities charged several opposition leaders with conspiracy and subversive activities and aired television footage which they claimed proved links to Russian espionage. This and subsequent pressure tactics have deepened the rift in society.

Conscious of the damage done to his standing in the West, Saakashvili called a presidential election months before it was due. Seeking to suggest business as usual, he declared that Georgia “passed a very difficult test” and managed to “avert massive bloodshed and civil confrontation”, while warning that its foes – read Russia – would try to undermine the election. The government’s actions, however, remain troublingly authoritarian: the private Imedi TV was allowed to re-open only the day media campaigning officially started and was not on the air for several more days due to equipment damage; November protesters were arrested or fined; opposition activists continue to be targeted, state resources are being used for Saakashvili’s campaign, and the line between the governing party and the state is blurred.

Western friends of Georgia, notably the U.S., the EU and NATO, need to apply concerted pressure on Saakashvili and his administration to correct their increasingly authoritarian course. The U.S. in particular should make clear it supports democratic principles, not a particular regime. It is not enough to say that if the elections are free and fair, Georgia will be back on track. Deeper problems relating to the rule of law, corruption, lack of media freedoms, weak checks and balances and growing economic disparities can no longer be overlooked. Georgia does not face a choice between genuine reform or democratic openness, it must embrace both.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 19 December 2007

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