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Georgia: Is The Country Becoming Progressively Less Democratic?

Expectations of Saakashvili were high during the 2003 Rose Revolution Two developments in recent weeks have further tarnished Georgia's claim to be the trailblazer of liberal democracy within the CIS. The first was the launch of a process to staff the Central Election Commission and its lower-level equivalents with people known to be loyal to the ruling elite. That process also effectively excluded many Armenians and Azerbaijanis from southern and eastern Georgia from serving on such commissions. The second was the national legislature's initial backing of an amendment to empower the Tbilisi municipal council to elect the city mayor.

Together, they beg questions about the dedication to democracy of the "democrats" who came to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution.

The Georgian Example

The claim of Georgia's pioneering democratic role derives from the advent to power in the so-called Rose Revolution in November 2003 of a team of young, pro-Western politicians who proclaimed their shared determination to put an end to the corruption and graft that had been the hallmarks of the Shevardnadze era. The opposition movements that subsequently brought about the fall of the incumbent leaderships in Ukraine in December 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in March 2005 both acknowledged they were inspired and empowered by the Georgian example, and U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly hailed the Georgian example, most recently during his visit to Tbilisi in early May.

While the new Georgian leadership lost no time in dismissing and arresting -- sometimes in front of television cameras -- Shevardnadze-era officials suspected of corruption and mismanagement, skepticism swiftly surfaced over the depth of the new government's commitment to true democratization and far-reaching reform. In a lengthy and detailed analysis of the aftermath of the 2003 Rose Revolution published in December, one London-based analyst suggested that the transition from Eduard Shevardnadze to Mikheil Saakashvili (who was elected president in early January 2004 with 96 percent of the vote) was one from "democracy without democrats" to "democrats without democracy."

Contradictory Signals

The first development that supports that implicit contradiction was the selection by President Saakashvili of the 13 members of the new Central Election Commission from a shortlist of 30 compiled by his staffers. At its first session on 7 June, the new Central Election Commission solicited applications from persons wishing to serve on the 75 five-member district election commissions. Applicants must be over 21, have a higher education, and speak fluent Georgian. That latter requirement automatically excludes thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis who grew up in regions of southern and eastern Georgia where there are no schools with Georgian as the language of instruction. On 14 June, the parliamentary opposition accused deputy speaker Mikheil Machavariani and other leaders of the parliamentary majority of systematically summoning regional governors to Tbilisi and ordering them to ensure that local election commissions are dominated by members of the ruling National Movement, reported. Machavariani conceded that regional governors are being summoned to Tbilisi to discuss preparations for upcoming midterm elections, but he denied that the leadership is plotting to determine the outcome of that ballot to its own advantage. "We are all eager to hold free and fair elections," quoted Machavariani as saying.
Its apparent reluctance to promote top-down democratization is not the only perceived failing of the new Georgian leadership. Some of its senior members have been accused of criminal activities.

The second potentially troubling event was the approval by parliament in the first reading on 23 June of amendments to the law on Tbilisi that provide for the city's mayor to be chosen by members of the municipal council, rather than directly elected. Until now, the president has appointed the mayor of Tbilisi, just as in neighboring Armenia the president names the mayor of Yerevan. Armenia has for months been under considerable pressure from the Council of Europe to include in a package of proposed constitutional amendments provision for the direct election of the Yerevan mayor, and last week agreed to that demand.

Pro-Saakashvili legislators and Saakashvili himself have sought to rationalize that procedure by arguing that the election of a mayor whose political affiliation differs from that of the majority of municipal council members could paralyze the city legislature. But opposition politicians protested that the legislation would pave the way for the ruling party to dominate the city council on a permanent basis. Koba Davitashvili (Conservative) termed it the first step toward abolishing all mayoral elections in all towns and predicted that it could trigger a serious civic crisis. Even before that amendment was unveiled in parliament, the opposition Conservative party raised the possibility of seeking to impeach President Saakashvili on the grounds that he has violated the constitution by failing to introduce direct elections for the post of mayor in the towns of Batumi, Poti, and Zestafoni, Caucasus Press reported on 14 April.

Another protest situation stems from a recent decree promulgated by Saakashvili that strips Georgia's universities of their autonomy and augments the power of the rector, who is appointed by the president. Faculty members at Tbilisi State University launched a protest on 27 June against the decision by acting rector Rusudan Lortkipanidze to reduce the number of faculties from 22 to six and to dismiss 800 staff. Lortkipanidze responded to that protest action by declaring that anyone who dislikes her planned reforms is free to resign.

Top-Down Democratization?

It is unclear whether and to what extent Saakashvili's quasi-authoritarian approach has contributed to the growing perception that the level of democracy in Georgia is on the decline. On 27 June, Caucasus Press cited the findings of a recent poll of 500 people conducted by the weekly "Kviris palitra" in which 26.6 percent of respondents said they believe the level of democracy has declined over the past 12 months. By contrast, 49.4 percent of respondents considered that the level of democracy has not changed over that period.

Nor is its apparent reluctance to promote top-down democratization the only perceived failing of the new Georgian leadership. Some of its senior members have been accused of criminal activities. For example, Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and his protege, Mikheil Kareli, governor of the Shida Kartli region that encompasses the disputed unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, are both believed to be implicated in smuggling, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting's Caucasus Reporting Service on 21 April. On 24 June, the opposition New Conservative (aka New Rightist) parliamentary faction accused Kareli of creating obstacles to private business, reported. Okruashvili has further been accused of single-handedly determining how budget funds allocated for the Georgian armed forces should be spent, according to the daily "Rezonansi" on 13 May.

To date, the fractured Georgian opposition has not shown any readiness to close ranks and coalesce in a single, powerful antigovernment force. There have, however, been reports that some members of the present leadership might be considering switching to the opposition camp. On 24 June, quoted parliamentary speaker Burdjanadze as saying she is unaware whether some former close associates of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who died in February under circumstances that have still not been completely clarified, intend to join the Republican Party. At a congress on 27 June, that party elected as its new chairman legal expert David Usupashvili. Outgoing Chairman David Berdzenishvili told congress delegates that he believes Usupashvili is capable of transforming the party into a qualitatively new force with strong chances of emerging among the winners of the next elections.

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