After the Russia-Georgia crisis, one thing is clear: besides the devastating consequences for the civilian population, the Georgian leadership has failed to represent a clear change in the legacy of post-Soviet elites.
There are two main reasons that President Saakashvili has failed to represent this change. First, he has done little to alleviate the abuse of executive power. Second, he has insisted on adopting a nationalist strategy to establish Tbilisi’s power over the breakaway regions. Subsequently, the consequences of a malfunctioning leadership have played a major part in the eruption of the current crisis.
Although the August crisis is not entirely the fault of any one person or administration, the aftermath may prove that Saakashvili has made it more difficult to cling to his fading legitimacy – especially in question following the November 2007 crackdown.
It has weakened his ability to generate further progress in Georgia’s democratic transition; the prospects of which are still so promising in the wake of the color revolution, or part of what Vazguen Manoukian (former Armenian prime minister) calls the “second revolutionary wave.”
The first wave of change (disavowing communism as a form of governance) is less complicated than the second: overcoming the entrenched institutional and personal traits of political actors in the post-Soviet space. Without modifying these characteristics, democratization is locked in a “hybrid status,” whereby reform remains caught between different forms of government.
This type of post-Soviet, Georgian leadership existed under Saakashvili’s predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze, who was invited back in 1992 to assume the presidency after the coup d’état by the “Military Council” that ousted chauvinist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
Shevardnadze was seen as a statesman (like Saakashvili in 2003) who would initiate change and stabilize the country. Shevardnadze’s relations were also strained with Moscow, as he initiated the strategic relations with the west that Saakashvili continues. However, Shevardnadze failed because of endemic corruption and the abuse of executive power that led to the Rose Revolution and his resignation.
Five years later the abuse of power remains, particularly seen in the measures taken to quell the November 2007 demonstrations. The brutal crackdown authorized by Saakashvili and his clamp down on independent media – including the Imedi and Kavkasia stations – were antithesis to the Rose Revolution’s values. Even Shevardnadze did not go so far on the eve of his downfall.
Next, while Saakashvili’s measures were successful in establishing Tbilisi’s authority over Ajara, his decision to undertake maneuvers in South Ossetia should not have been made based on this achievement, where the Kremlin did not support de facto leader Aslan Abashidze. Instead, the Georgian offensive on Tskhinvali is reminiscent of Gamsakhurdia’s 1991 incursions into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and leaves minimal opportunity for future reconciliation.
Thus, a combination of Shevardnadze’s surfeit of executive power and Gamsakhurdia’s nationalist fervor are still brought to bear on the Georgian population by the incumbent president. These lingering trends are unfortunate when contrasted with the successful reforms Saakashvili has made and his cooperation with western institutions.
The west can hardly be blamed for the mixed signals sent to Saakashvili, whose quasi-democracy has made it difficult for its leaders to assume a unified stance. With western leaders divided in their view of Saakashvili’s commitment to democracy, membership in these international institutions will be more difficult for Georgia to gain. However, without western integration, the choice of democracy becomes more confusing.
Even NATO’s establishment of a Georgia Council for damage assessment, humanitarian aid brought by US troops, and a large sum of IMF re-construction money are not clear signs of endorsement by the west. While they show some solidarity, they are not progressive in nature; instead, they are bandages on what could be called self-inflicted wounds.
It is insufficient for Saakashvili to give press conferences in perfect English or French while EU flags hang behind him. He should redouble his efforts by engaging in dialogue with the opposition, alleviating Georgia’s widespread poverty, and allowing the breakaway regions to choose their own destiny (provided the safety of ethnic Georgians in the areas is guaranteed). A destiny where Tbilisi can play an important role – if not as leader, then as a strong economic/political partner.
Saakashvili has made it clear that Moscow will not dictate the form of government in Tbilisi. He should now make clear his intentions to break with his predecessors’ style of governance. It is not a question of communism versus democracy, or even Moscow versus Tbilisi. Instead, it is one of Saakashvili and his administration, albeit in the face of great challenges, choosing to uphold the rights of Georgia’s citizens despite past mistakes.
Jesse Tatum is a recent MSc graduate from Heriot-Watt University and is currently finishing an internship with the GSPE at Robert Schuman University in Strasbourg
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Jeffrey Mankoff: Georgia and Ukraine: Circumnavigating the MAP
- Anna Nadgrodkiewicz: Stop the Wishful Thinking about Russia
- Mark Brzezinksi: Shared Interests