Potemkin Democracy

Article excerpt

Four Myths about Post-Soviet Georgia

IT IS AN old culture squeezed into a tiny new state. That is the way visitors to post-Soviet Georgia often describe the place. Resting on the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, hemmed in by the Black Sea, Turkey and its south Caucasus neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the roots of Georgia's history wind back for millennia. As ancient Colchis, Georgia was the endpoint of Jason's epic quest for the golden fleece and the homeland of Medea. Its alphabet has been around since perhaps the fifth century A.D. As a country of mainly Orthodox Christians, Georgia has long been linked with the magnificent art and culture of eastern Christianity, from Byzantium to Moscow. Beyond that, the country's natural beauty, from the Black Sea coastline to the magnificent churches nestled in lush mountains, and the blend of European and Near Eastern influences in its music, cuisine and architecture have all made it an attractive spot for American and Eur opean expatriates.

Partly for these reasons, there are few countries in the former Soviet Union that get better press than Georgia. On a per capita basis, it is one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid in the world--since 1992 over $850 million for a population of five million. It is headed by an internationally acclaimed statesman, President Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who was a key player in the peaceful reunification of Germany. It has a cabinet and governing party, the Citizens' Union of Georgia (CUG), peppered with urbane, thirtysomething, English-speaking politicians, several of whom hold degrees from Columbia, Georgetown and other prestigious American universities. In its 2000 Human Development report, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) praised Georgia's success:

Of the former Soviet republics, Georgia has been one of the leading countries in providing its population with access to human rights. Georgia is to be given recognition for its achievements in the democratization process of the political, social, and economic aspects of its development. The country's commitment to a free press and respect of political rights have been remarkable in a region of the world not yet known for ensuring respect of such rights to their full extent. [1]

The picture on the ground, however, is sorely at odds with such assessments.

Indeed, whether because of Georgia's importance to Western strategic interests in the south Caucasus or because of the Georgian government's talent in public relations, the United States and international organizations continue to cast the country's corrupt economy, its bloated state apparatus and its increasingly authoritarian politics in the best possible light.

During the 1999 parliamentary elections and the 2000 presidential election in which Shevardnadze won another five-year term as president, observers reported multiple irregularities. Recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have chronicled a host of abuses, including extrajudicial killing, police torture and state-condoned violence against religious minorities. All of this, moreover, seems to have increased since Georgia's admission to the Council of Europe in April 1999. The economy has continued to slide downward, and the government is unable even to ensure electricity and water supplies to the capital, Tbilisi, much less pay state pensions and salaries. Illegal commerce pouring through the many areas of the state outside Tbilisi's control--the separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the autonomous republic of Achara--have deepened the culture of impunity that has placed Georgia among the world's most corrupt countries.

Georgia is not, of course, the worst of the lot in the former Soviet Union. For all its problems, it is not a raw autocracy. There is no cult of personality (although Shevardnadze does loom far larger in public life than presidents such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine). …