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The still fragile state of democracy

08.05.2013

The Economist

GEORGIAN democracy took a major step forward last October following the country’s first ever constitutional transfer of power. After nearly six month in power, a first assessment of the new government is due: Has it restored democracy and the rule of law, or is it backsliding on its democratic commitments?

Last month provided two reasons for cautious optimism. The first is related to a letter sent by twenty-three members of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European parliament to Bidzina Ivanishvili (pictured above), the prime minister, on March 6th. Egged on by Mikheil Saakashvili, the president, whose United National Movement (UNM) is an observer member of the EPP, the authors cited “ongoing public pressure on MPs and local legislators”, “pressure on the judiciary, the Georgian Public Broadcaster” and mob justice, and warned against “burying the European future for Georgia”.

It was not a good letter. Although vocal in their criticism of the new government, few of Georgia’s non-governmental organisations would go as far as the MEPs. Far from adding anything new, the letter’s unsubstantiated allegations continued the mud-slinging that has polarised Georgian politics over the last eighteen months.

More interesting was the response. Mr Ivanishvili’s first instinct was to fight fire with fire, calling the letter “shameful”  and accusing the authors of “living on Saakashvili’s lies”. Yet perhaps influenced by the foreign lobbyists whom the government recently re-hired, he grew more measured. In an open letter  to the EPP on March 14th, he insisted that the Georgian people, and his government, share Europe’s democratic values. Far from reversing democratic gains made under the UNM, he argued, his government is trying to redress the problems created by the UNM’s slide towards autocracy.

As important as what he said was the way he said it. In highlighting a range of civil society sources to support his claims, and inviting closer scrutiny from his foreign critics, he injected a degree of objectivity into the debate that Georgian politics has lacked. Nor are these just words: upon the government’s invitation, the EU nominated a special envoy to support Georgia’s work on reforming the justice sector in early March.

The Swiss ambassador called it “an excellent answer” that “perfectly expresses the grievances of the Georgian people”. Georgia, he contended, “is much freer than it ever was and much freer than any country in the neighbourhood”, citing Mr Ivanishvili’s desire for dialogue with civil society as particularly important.

Yet real democratic progress depends on more than a leader’s personal disposition. The second reason for optimism lies in the way parliament is working. On March 25th parliamentarians unanimously passed their first “constitutional amendment”removing the presidential power to appoint a new government without parliament’s approval. After much objection, the Georgian Dream coalition agreed to UNM’s request for a test vote beforehand, allowing the UNM to prove its indispensable role in the democratic process. That came after a bipartisan declaration on the country’s foreign policy orientation, which parliament adopted on March 7th.

Mr Saakashvili and Mr Ivanishvili have dominated Georgian politics over the last eighteen months. But their public posturing can hinder progress within parliament. Following the constitutional amendment on March 21st, one UNM MP, Archil Bobokhidze,, publicly criticised both men. That may be significant: until recently, no UNM MP would have criticised Mr Saakashvili so openly. In that light, Mr Bobokhidze’s emphasis on parliament as the legitimate representative of the Georgian people is welcome.

To fulfill that role, parliament needs better people. On March 27th Mr Ivanishvili criticised the quality of many of his own Georgian Dream parliamentarians, and quoted Davit Usupashvili, the parliamentary speaker, as saying “there are not even three persons” who could help him. 

That matters. While parliament’s recent habit of forging consensus is admirable, the real challenge lies where both parties deeply disagree. Planned reforms to thejudiciary, jury trials, and local governmentare highly contentious. Changes in each area could deepen Georgian democracy, but could also reinforce single-party rule. As ever, the devil lies in the detail.

Meanwhile, a recent  power struggle within Tbilisi city council has renewed allegations of government arm-twisting. The UNM plans an outdoor rally on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi on April 19th, and promises “lots of surprises and news”. By the end of the year it will be clearer whether democracy is really making progress in Georgia.

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