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Why Is Georgia So Quiet About Tunisia’s Revolution?

  • Ghia Nodia

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili: Busy with everyday problems

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili: Busy with everyday problems

When I asked several Georgian politicians from the ruling party what the country’s position on the recent events in Tunisia is, they were caught by surprise. There is no position. And this goes not only for the government: the events in Tunisia have evoked little interest in Georgia generally. They have been discussed a little bit in social networks, but only a little.

Maybe this isn’t very surprising. After all, Tunisia is far away and the two countries don’t have any particular relations. Events there are not going to have any impact on Georgia.

Nonetheless, it is worth saying a few things about this Georgian indifference to the so-called Jasmine Revolution.

First, let’s take the general context.

We are living in a world that views the idea of political liberty with considerable cynicism. Since the departure of U.S. President George W. Bush, it has become somehow unfashionable to talk about the universal spread of democracy. Either the concept is viewed as an expression of a hidden (or not very well hidden) American imperialism or of American naivete bordering on idiocy. In either case, demanding democracy for economically underdeveloped countries, particularly in the Arab world, has somehow become indecorous.

Spirit Of Democracy

The Tunisian revolution, which clearly began from the bottom and came to express a popular desire to replace the government, has roused the downcast advocates of political liberty around the world. Despite the ascendency of realpolitik, the spirit of democracy is alive and making itself felt in the most unexpected places, including the Maghreb.

The hope has been expressed that the events in Tunis will inspire a wave of democracy movements in the Arab world. On the other hand, everyone remembers the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which definitely didn’t bring freedom, or the mixed results of the so-called colored revolutions in the post-Soviet realm at the beginning of this century. The Jasmine Revolution is an essentially democratic action, but that does not guarantee that the result will be the establishment of a democratic regime in Tunis.

And how does Georgia fit into this picture? It is likely that if the Tunisian events had happened in 2004 or 2005, then Mikheil Saakashvili would have proclaimed boldly that the Tunisian people, like people everywhere, deserve freedom. And there would have been obvious hints to the effect that Georgia’s Rose Revolution was one of the inspirations of the Tunisian democrats. It is possible that a delegation of Rose Revolution veterans would have set off for Tunis to express moral support and, perhaps, give some useful advice to the revolutionary masses.

But today, it is hard to imagine such a thing.

For one thing, after the 2008 war with Russia, Georgia decided to follow the general trend for pragmatism. For Tbilisi now, the most important thing is to have good relations with the countries of its region and not to annoy their regimes by offering support to local revolutionaries. Relations with Belarus -- Saakashvili was one of the first to offer his congratulations on the reelection of the dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- is probably the clearest (but by no means only) example.

Second, after the mass protests of 2007-09, the Georgian government and its supporters have lost their instinctive identification with colored revolutions in various countries. The lack of reaction to the events in Tunis merely underscores once again that the revolutionary phase of Saakashvili’s rule is over. Now it is an ordinary government that is busy with everyday problems. Whether it handles them well or poorly, democratically or not very democratically, is another matter.

Bases For Comparison

It is more logical, in fact, for Saakashvili’s opponents to identify him with the defeated Tunisian ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, particularly since there are definite bases for comparison. Georgia, unlike Tunisia, is not a dictatorship, but its political system does have a clearly authoritarian hue. Ben Ali’s regime was a dictatorship, but it was distinctly softer than those found in the majority of Arab countries.

Until recently, Tunisia was considered a relatively successful example of authoritarian modernization that maintained a comparatively high level of civil rights. Saakashvili’s opponents gleefully emphasize that Ben Ali was able to do things that his Georgian colleague is still striving for: he turned his country into a paradise for tourists and one of the most prosperous countries of its region. Still, it ended up in a revolution. That means that no matter how many tourists Saakashvili draws to Ajara or Svanetia, it won’t help him.

However, as I’ve already mentioned, even the Georgian opposition isn’t really focused on discussing the Tunisia precedent. Apparently, they are too busy with their own infighting and the people have lost their taste for revolutions. In this sense, the Tunis events have simply emphasized the absence of a revolutionary atmosphere in Georgia.

But the authorities shouldn’t take too much delight in this. The Jasmine Revolution has reminded us of an important political law: Authoritarian modernization, particularly when it is relatively successful, is fraught with revolution. As it succeeds, it creates a middle class that, sooner or later, is going to demand full political liberty. Without a consensus concerning the rules of the political game, there can be no stability. This is a lesson that all reformers and modernizers should keep in mind.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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