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Georgia: Country At The Crossroads

(RFE/RL) The political crisis that rocked Georgia in November has left many questioning how -- if at all -- the country’s democratic development can get back on track – and what Western governments can do to help. David Kakabadze, the director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, spoke to Lincoln Mitchell, the Arnold A. Saltzman assistant professor in the practice of international politics at Columbia University.

RFE/RL: Your recent article, published in "National Interest" magazine, is titled: "Beacon of Democracy or Khachapuri Republic?" What's your short answer to that question?

Lincoln Mitchell: My short answer is that we'll see. I think Georgia is at a turning point. Obviously, all of us would like to see it become a beacon of democracy again. But there is a real danger that its democratic gains will be undermined.

RFE/RL: After the November crisis, President Mikheil Saakashvili claimed that Georgia passed the test of statehood. The president and other members of the Georgian government have repeatedly argued that state-building is the ultimate priority, meaning that issues of democracy come second. Do you think there has to be a dichotomy between the two?

Mitchell: Absolutely not. I think that's a very dangerous assertion, and it's very disturbing when it goes unquestioned. In the 21st century, if you really want to build a strong state, you do it with democracy. I believe that the Georgian state would have been stronger in the last few years under the Rose Revolution government had they gone about building democratic processes. It would have had more buy-in if it allowed more time for contestation, debate, discussion about issues. It would have had more buy-in from society. It might have come up with better policies as well. I think it's been a big mistake not to do that.

RFE/RL: In your article you wrote: "If democracy fails in Georgia, it will be hard to make the argument that democracy can succeed in any nondemocratic country." Why is that?

Of the remaining nondemocratic or semi-democratic countries in the world, Georgia is in many respects the best hope. For one thing, this is a country whose leadership has publicly -- in the international forum, but also in the domestic forum -- spoken constantly about its desire to become democratic. Secondly, there is no real competing ideology there. You don't have a kind of state corporatism like you see in Russia or even China. You don't have Islamic fundamentalism and calls for Shari'a, as you would see in some parts of the Muslim world. There is no really competing ideology.

Thirdly, I think it's relevant that you have a lot of Western-educated people -- who've been exposed to democracy, who claim to believe in it -- in government positions. And lastly, it is a country whose future clearly lies with the West because of the concerns about the aggressive neighbor to the north, that being Russia. Georgia understands that its future lies with the European Union and the close relations with the United States. And for that -- particularly the former -- you need to be democratic.

RFE/RL: What do you think the West -- and particularly the United States -- can do to help Georgian democracy get back on track?

Mitchell: The first thing would be to reinvigorate civil society; to really put money into technical support to help Georgia develop its civil society. They can act as a watchdog for the government, they can hold the government accountable, they can provide information. Another thing that the United States can do is to take a more firm position on Georgian democracy -- not to keep letting the government to get away with little things. Because if you get away with enough of the little things, soon you start thinking that you can get away with the big things by cutting corners on democracy, and you end up with the events of November.

I think that after the early presidential election on January 5, the United States has to take a much harder line with Georgian democracy. We have to tell our friends in the Georgian government, regardless of who the new president is, that we would like to see a democratic development, and that when we see things we have a problem with, we're not going to be quiet about them anymore. That silence has been very damaging for Georgia, for Georgian democracy, and frankly, for the Georgian government.

RFE/RL: How important are the results of the early presidential ballot?

Mitchell: Good elections on January 5 are necessary but not sufficient for the continued development of Georgian democracy. The real question is January 6, 7, 8, etc. What happens afterwards? If President Saakashvili gets reelected, and I think it’s likely, on January 6 he'll wake up and can move in one of two directions. The first -- and I fear, perhaps likely -- direction is to go in front of the people, and in front of the world, and say, "Look, I've laid my mandate down, I've been reelected, I have a true mandate, I am the true democrat and I don't really have to listen to anybody." That would be a very damaging approach.

The other possibility is -- and this becomes a humbling experience for the government, for the president -- that they say, "We’re not going to make these mistakes again." And then they redouble their efforts for real democratic reform. I think the job of the United States is to push them in that direction. But I don't think it's going to be easy. If we all focus our attention on Georgia on January 5, see a relatively good election, and then walk away and say, "Oh, democracy is back on track in Georgia," we would be really missing the point.

RFE/RL: One can argue that, between Russia’s military provocations and its continued economic sanctions, Georgia has reason to feel insecure. Do you think the West is sufficiently sensitive to Georgian security issues?

Mitchell: I think Western governments are aware of it. Obviously, you can't really talk about Georgia without talking about Russia. But at the same time you can’t use that as an excuse when it comes to talking about Georgian democracy. Having said that, Georgia is our friend but we really don't have a lot of options here. We're not going to go to war with Russia over Georgia. That wouldn't serve anybody's interest; it would be kind of crazy. And Russia is an increasingly big and powerful country because of the price of natural resources and all the wealth in that area. So it’s a very difficult situation for the United States, how best to help our ally. And I think we've tried to do a lot. We've supported the military by making equipment available, by training people, all of that… I'm not sure what else we can do. I think we'd like to do more.

RFE/RL: Perhaps greater financial support, or joining NATO, would help solve at least some of Georgia's problems.

Mitchell: I think joining NATO would be good for Georgia. More financial support at this point could maybe be good in some sense, but it would not solve the problem. The economic challenges, strategic challenges, facing Georgia and any Georgian government, are very difficult, there's no doubt about that. But I don't think those strategic problems can only be resolved by more support from the West. I wouldn't be against more support from the West, but I doubt that would solve the problem.

RFE/RL: Coming back to the November events: Some observers argue that one of the fundamental mistakes of the Georgian government was its lack of dialogue with society, its failure to communicate with the public. Do you agree with that?

Mitchell: I do. I think that one of the problems of this government is that they think they know best. And in many respects they do know best. If you look at the actual proposals, ideas, and solutions that this government has come up with over the last four years, many of them have been very good. But the process matters. Particularly when you're talking about democracy. I think had they engaged people more, had they been more respectful of people's opinions -- that you can oppose the position of the Georgian government and still be a Georgian patriot -- they would have been in a much different political climate.

I think people in Georgia are tired of being told how successful and how wonderful everything is, when in fact that's not true. And I think they're tired of a government that leaves no room for debate. That's a bad dynamic. And the government could have, through dialogue and other means, set a much better tone. And that's the kind of thing that they can learn from this experience and do in the future, if President Saakashvili is reelected.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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