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Georgia: Analyst Ghia Nodia Assesses Saakashvili's Attempts To Transform Country

  • Robert Parsons

Ghia Nodia speaking at RFE/RL In an extensive interview last week with RFE/RL, Georgian political scientist Ghia Nodia evaluated the success of President Mikheil Saakashvili's efforts over the past 18 months to transform Georgia from a corrupt "failed state" into a flourishing democracy with a market economy. At the same time, Nodia admitted that Saakashvili's inconsistent and sometimes contradictory statements have given rise to confusion about his "real" agenda.

RFE/RL: [U.S. President] George [W.] Bush described Georgia when he was in Tbilisi [on 10 May] as a beacon of democracy in the region. In your view, is that a fair assessment of where Georgia is today?

NODIA: It may be fair in the sense that Georgia, an example, has an influence on other countries in the region. And so other countries often do see Georgia that way. But when we look from the inside, we see more problems about our democracy than just, you know, this rosy picture or beacon of democracy.

RFE/RL: But nevertheless, given the starting point, progress has been made.

NODIA: I think so. I think it was a very big boost, a very big impetus, it gave a very big impetus to Georgia's strive to democracy. First, it demonstrated the Georgian people are really committed to democracy and that the Georgian people can hold themselves to higher standards, they can demand of themselves more. And, of course that makes things difficult at the same time for the new government because it is held to higher standards than Shevardnadze government was held.

RFE/RL: If you were to put your finger on it, what would you say has been Saakashvili's greatest accomplishment in the last 1 1/2 years?

NODIA: I think it's quite clear for me that Adjara was his greatest accomplishment in terms of both nation building, because Adjara was kind of semi-separatist region, and in terms of democracy development, because Adjara was a local tyranny. And now Adjara is part of Georgia. It has, of course, many problems with democracy, but it's still a much, much freer region than it used to be.

RFE/RL: Saakashvili himself refers now -- although at the beginning, rather less so -- but now he refers to what has happened in Georgia as a revolution. But, in what sense can we really describe what's happened in Georgia as being a revolution?

NODIA: In some sense it may be described as a revolution. Of course it's not a classical revolution, like you know the French Revolution. But, [firstly] it was not just a change of regime, but it was a change of regime with the participation of a large amount of people who were really motivated by the idea of democracy. And they thought that what we had before was not democracy, and they wanted democracy. So this, I think, very broad level of public participation, of public commitment justifies the term revolution.
"I think the main difference [between Saakashvili and Shevardnadze] is that Shevardnadze did not have real trust in the ability of Georgia and the Georgian people to build [a] credible, sustainable state independently."


And secondly, I think I would call that kind of Pareto criteria, after Alfredo Pareto, an Italian sociologist [who] said revolution was in a way a change of elites. Some people contest that, saying that, you know, Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Noghaideli, other leaders, actually served the Shevardnadze government. But I think it's different elites that came to power, who are more allied to Western ways of thinking and acting, ways of thinking and acting, which is a new generation, which was not part of the former communist nomenklatura. So in that sense, our revolution in 2003 was reminding of [an] Eastern European revolution of 1989 when these new, noncommunist elites came to power.

RFE/RL: I suppose, in a sense too, it's also been a rejuvenation of elites as well.

NODIA: Yeah of course, new elites, and also in terms that they are much younger people. Some of them were kids when it was communism. Of course, it's a very juvenile government, probably the youngest in Europe and sometimes inexperience, sometimes it makes blunders, and sometimes its ineffective, but it's certainly extremely motivated, extremely impatient about changing their own country.

RFE/RL: You've put your finger on one of the problems there, the lack of experience, the lack of experienced cadres (i.e. personnel) at the disposal of the Georgian government. How much of a problem has this been and how much of a problem do you think it will continue to be for Georgia?

NODIA: I think its one of the key problems. It's not the key problem for this government because there is a very small pool of people whom the leadership actually trusts. And this also explains recurring reshufflings in the government, because there are scarce human resources and sometimes they turn out to be less successful than the president or prime minister hoped they would be. During the first year, we had these frequent reshuffles and this created some sense that this government is maybe well intentioned, but kind of messy.

RFE/RL: In many respects, Saakashvili defines himself or has defined himself in opposition to his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. But in what sense do you think he's different from Shevardnadze?

NODIA: I think the main difference is that Shevardnadze did not have real trust in the ability of Georgia and the Georgian people to build [a] credible, sustainable state independently. He thought that Georgia always needed some kind of external patron. It had to be Russia. If it's not Russia then it had to be America, the West, somebody else. But he thought that Georgians would always be corrupt people, that the Georgians on their own can only enforce some kind of very basic level of security, very basic level of order. But when it comes to strategic direction, Georgia should take some guidance from abroad. Therefore, he thought that his mission was mainly to ensure some kind of protection for Georgia from the outside, from NATO maybe. He thought the Baku-[Tbilisi-]Ceyhan [pipeline] project is the project of his lifetime and the main project for Georgia because that brings Western interest to the country.

While this new bunch of people have this kind of candle approach. They think that we Georgians may be inexperienced, we may have problems, but eventually we can do things, we can accomplish things on our own, they're also very strongly attached to the West, to the idea of trans-Atlantic and European cooperation. But they believe that the main decisions should be made by Georgians, and the main job has to be done by Georgians.

RFE/RL: What you're saying then is that for Saakashvili the main thing in his first year or so in government has been to inject a sense of self-belief into the population?

NODIA: Yes, yes. And he is very high on trying to inject this national pride without making it ethnic pride. He is very big on state symbols, he changed the flag, the hymn, the state seal, everything, and he is very proud that the Georgian people have started to love their hymn and sing their hymn, which was not the case before. And you know, everybody loves the new Georgian flag, and so he tried very hard. And it is certainly his priority to instill, somehow to fill this gap between the state and the citizen because Georgians, especially after their 200 years in the Russian Empire, are used to treating the state as a kind of adversary, enemy, somebody you have to cheat, somebody whose control you have to avoid and not have a really positive relationship with the state. But Saakashvili sees, I think rightly, his important mission to somehow create a connection between citizens and the state.

RFE/RL: You're saying it's important, or he sees it as being important, to instill as sense of loyalty to the state. But the dividing line between patriotism and nationalism, particularly in a multiethnic state like Georgia, can often be a very narrow one.

NODIA: I think he tries hard to make that line and he's aware of the necessity, so he makes this message of inclusiveness, sends this message of inclusiveness to both Abkhazians and Ossetians and he send messages to the Armenian or Azeri population who are the largest minorities in Georgia, as well as to other minorities, please be active, please take part in state governments and so on. His critics say, probably with good reason, that it is largely rhetoric, and not that much has been done actually, but I think rhetoric is also important. The consensus about Saakashvili's nationalism in [an]other sense, that he considers, you know, the restoration of the territorial integrity of Georgia, that is solving Abkhazian and South Ossetian issues and his priority as he should do, but he is kind of impatient about solving those problems very fast, and he makes people think that he may revert to force at some point, or at least he certainly uses the demonstration of force. He somehow combines this message of inclusiveness and demonstration of force.

RFE/RL: Sometimes he doesn't seem clear what his message is towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On occasions he'll emphasize military force, particularly on National Day last year, with this huge parade through Tbilisi, unprecedented in Georgia's history. And then on other occasions he starts talking about the need to build democracy in Georgia, to build the economy as a way of demonstrating to the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians that this is a state that they should want to be part of. He doesn't seem clear in his own mind sometimes what it is he wants to say to them.

NODIA: I myself am confused about what he thinks. Sometimes I think that he is just really confused himself and he cannot make up his mind, which is not difficult to understand because if you only divert to confidence-building measures in hopes that eventually one day it will be solved, it's very hard to believe in that because no such conflicts were solved like that. But on the other hand, you may think sometimes that some kind of quick action may solve the problem. I think he may entertain those ideas and somehow oscillate between different ideas.
"Civil society does not look as strong as it used to be under Shevardnadze in part because many people in the civil society just moved to government personally and Georgian civil society as a social actor was really a relatively small network of people. Half of that network is now in the government."


But sometimes I think this contradictory combination may be intentional. That on the one hand, he sends a message to the separatist governments, that they cannot just relax, cannot think that Georgians have contented themselves with the status quo and will not do anything. But parallel to that, he sends a message to the population, to the people that this Georgia is a different Georgia from Zviad Gamsakhurdia's Georgia, that we are building democracy, that we are going to join Europe, that we are inclusive, open-minded people. It's not kind of a ethnocracy and you Abkhaz and Ossetians are welcome somehow to take part in making Georgia a better place to be.

RFE/RL: But the big stick still has to be there.

NODIA: Yeah, yeah. I think it is a stick-and-carrot approach. I rather think it's kind of calculated.

RFE/RL: One of the things that Saakashvili always spoke about when he was in opposition to Shevardnadze was the need to root out corruption, which he saw as being the one thing which was doing more than anything else to undermine Georgian society. Is he winning the battle against corruption?

NODIA: Oh, it is too early to say that. His resolve is still strong on that. He thinks that it was kind of a cultural revolution that they saw in Georgia because corruption is the way Georgians used to solve their problems, through the last two centuries at least and that part of kind of endemic practices, lets say, in Georgia. Sometimes, in private, people say that this revolution continues and this is a fight between government and society, if you wish, a large part of society. And there, they think that what matters here is continued resolve.

Many people in the former elite think that this is kind of, you know, a fresh new government. You know, they're young, naive, they will try to do that for a couple of years, maybe you know, arrest somebody, but then everything will fall back to tested ways to solve problems and they should just wait out this storm. And the government thinks that they should break this kind of cultural pattern, and they should do that by continuous efforts, and continuous showing and very strong nerve, that OK, we arrest somebody, then we appoint somebody else, and we arrest him too if breaks a law, etc., etc.

RFE/RL: Do you think that the government, and in particular Saakashvili, are approaching this in the right way, because you sometimes get the impression with Saakashvili that he wants to defeat corruption, reunite the country, reinvigorate the economy, do all these things through the force of his own personality, through that massive energy that he seems to have, forgetting that these things need institutions as well?

NODIA: Exactly, I think that's certainly the greatest weakness of this government that they depend on this kind of Jacobean government, which relies on the kind of strong revolutionary spirit. And they know this, they understand that institutions are important, but that's not their culture in a way, it's not their culture to define long-term strategies and action plans and believe that, you know, this now we are doing that, but maybe in five or 10 years time, maybe we'll do something else. They have some sort of general guidelines, a sense of general direction, more than Shevardnadze had. But I think they are more attached to, committed to ad hoc measures and following some comprehensive plan.

I wrote, myself I wrote an article last fall, that now what the government should do is to end the revolution and somehow return to more or less normal governance, you know, through institutions rather than through, kind of, willpower, sheer willpower one would say. And I think many people in the government somehow resist that message. They think that's unrealistic because the institutions are still not there, so they cannot rely on institutions yet. So at this point, they should rely on this willpower.

RFE/RL: In this process, how important is the role of the European Union and the United States in putting pressure on the Georgian government?

NODIA: I think they are extremely important. I think if we had not the context of Europe and NATO and Georgia's very strong will to integrate themselves, this government would have constraints. Saakashvili understands that he has to balance his modernizing authoritarian instincts against these values and procedures and practices which are demanded from Georgia by the European Union and NATO and demanded exactly because Georgia wants to be part of both organizations. Georgia now has an individual partnership plan with NATO and Georgia is going to have an action plan within [the] European Neighborhood Policy. Those are very important constraining factors.

RFE/RL: I suppose to one could say that it's also up to the Georgian people themselves. To what extent can Georgian civil society create the sort of society in Georgia that people want?

NODIA: Civil society does not look as strong as it used to be under Shevardnadze in part because many people in the civil society just moved to government personally and Georgian civil society as a social actor was really a relatively small network of people. Half of that network is now in the government. So of course it was weakened in that sense, but also it was much easier to look strong when you had, you know, this weak Shevardnadze government, which did not have real conviction, did not have the nerve. And now you have this very strong-willed government, which basically shares the same values as the civil society, although they cut corners sometimes in a way that is unacceptable to civil society.

So, civil society tries to be persistent in its message, but it does not have its own independent social base, so that it is difficult for it to make its voice heard. So for the civil society it's still, in the short run at least, to work in coordination with Western institutions, although at the same time trying to reach out more to a broader social base.

RFE/RL: Does civil society in Georgia have the oxygen to breathe? Does it have the access to the media that is required to be successful?

NODIA: It has less of an access to the media, both because the media thinks it's less important now, the civil society organizations are less important than they used to be before and they were seen as kind of informal partners of the opposition. And also, because many public faces moved to government. And also, the media, especially TV, which is most influential, has become, for different reasons, some kind of reluctant to upset the government too much. But that does not mean of course that civil society has lost access to the media. And I think there is this sense that civil society and independent media's interests are related, that they are in the same boat.

RFE/RL: One of the criticisms of the present government has been that it has interfered in the media, perhaps even more so than the Shevardnadze government did, particularly as regards television.

NODIA: Shevardnadze tried to interfere in the media in 2001 when [the government] made some kind of raid on Rustavi-2, the most popular television station. But it almost got a revolution as a response. I think it was kind of the first attempt at revolution, which we had in the fall of 2001. So afterward, he was scared. I think Saakashvili's government is much more skillful in that. He does openly attack the media, so international organizations, for instance, when they assess the situation in the media, they can trace any specific facts of interference, they speak about self-censorship. So people think that there is some direct pressure behind the scenes, mainly on the owners, because the owners have usually other businesses to take care of and they are afraid if they have bad relations with the government then their other businesses will be affected. And then they exercise pressure themselves on the journalists. I think that's [the] more major mechanism for influencing the media.

There is pluralist opinion in the media and you know, the opposition and people critical of the government speaking in the media, you cannot just say that it's sterile, of course. But when it comes to very sensitive issues, then that the government wants somehow to block, then it has some leverage to avoid those very sensitive issues being publicized. One example was last year's events in South Ossetia, when the government really succeeded in maintaining certain control on the media. The second was the very controversial issue of the death of Zurab Zhvania. And until very recently the whole media, I mean electronic media, not printed media, was basically silent, kept silent on this issue, and so it was very controversial in the society. Whether it was really an accident, or he was murdered. And only recently, that kind of blockade was lifted.

RFE/RL: And yet the government itself says it is firmly committed to free media, that it has introduced this concept of public television, through which you are associated yourself now.

NODIA: I think also, one has to say that within the government, you have different trends. On the one hand it has also introduced, even before that new law on media, which is on freedom of expression, which is maybe more liberal than many European legislations. Some people in the government are really committed to the principle of free media, but what they say is that the main problem is the media itself, that it does not have economic foundations of independence and every government or every political actor can make a phone call to the media and say that you are wrong and probably the White House also calls on ABC or CBS when they think they are wrong, but it's just the function of the media not to cave in to political demands. So they cannot just restrain themselves from trying to promote their own views.

RFE/RL: Turning aside from domestic policy, one of the things that Saakashvili said when he became president was that it was absolutely critical for Georgia to normalize its relations with Russia. We've seen Georgia and Russia reach agreement now on the withdrawal of the bases. Does this signal, do you think, the beginning of that normalization that Saakashvili was talking about?

NODIA: I think of course it is a step in the right direction. And it removes one very important obstacle in Russian-Georgian relations. Of course, provided that this agreement will be actually implemented. But the biggest obstacle is still there, which is South Abkhazia, South Ossetia. So until that obstacle is really removed, I think we'll have these very bumpy relations with Russia continued.

I think in the beginning Saakashvili proposed to Russia some kind of rational pact, that, you know, you accept our strive to join NATO and the European Union, our kind of Westernization direction, but we will welcome Russian business to be, you know, as active in Georgia as it wants to. And he thought it's rational, I also think it's rational. But the Russians don't think it's rational because they want political domination, or at least very strong political influence, and they think the European Union and NATO being active in the South Caucasus is contrary to their interests so that pact that Saakashvili proposed to them is at this point unacceptable to Russian political elite.

RFE/RL: eighteen months into Saakashvili's presidency, what do you think he most needs to do or the Georgian government most needs to do to strengthen Georgian democracy?

NODIA: I think he has to, as we already said, institutionalize his achievements. I think without that, we'll have this continuing sense of uncertainty about his government, about the ability of this government to somehow keep its act together. And, somehow, this government is seen, I mean many people appreciate certain achievements, specific achievements of this government, but they still don't think, don't see this government as somehow having a comprehensive policy in general. And I think that's the main problem that Saakashvili has to solve. He should convince the Georgian people, and the international community for that matter, that he is a stable leader, which can continue this comprehensive reform for the long term. He is not just a revolutionary that has to make some changes in the short term.
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