Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Georgian Politics since the August 2008 War

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Georgian Politics since the August 2008 War

Article excerpt

Abstract: Georgian politics since late 2007 has attracted interest mainly because of its highly polarized political climate. The leadership of Mikheil Saakashvili, widely heralded as a beacon of democracy in the post-Soviet space following the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003, is pitted against an array of determined opposition forces that seek his removal and accuse his government of authoritarian tendencies. Yet a closer study of Georgian politics since the August 2008 Russian invasion suggests that the polarization of its politics is not reflected in society, which overwhelmingly supports conciliation and dialogue rather than another round of revolutionary change. By mid-2009, the overheated Georgian political scene showed signs of adapting to this reality.

Keywords: Georgian political development, Rose Revolution, Russia-Georgia War

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Few events affect a society as war does. Likewise, war can alter a country's political landscape, and an unsuccessful war can be irreparably damaging to a political leader. It is therefore natural to assume that the controversial and (for Georgia) devastating war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 would have important implications for the political balances of such a young and immature democracy as Georgia. In particular, in a political system as personality-focused as Georgia, one could logically conclude that the country's controversial head of state, Mikheil Saakashvili, would fare badly from this event. A considerable portion of world opinion concluded that Saakashvili at best stumbled into the war, and several high-ranking Saakashvili associates moved into opposition; both of these occurrences tend to strengthen such an argument. However, this interpretation is only partially true in Georgia, where public opinion polls from 2008 and 2009 do not fully support such a conclusion. Public trust in the government markedly increased between October 2007 and November 2008, after which it decreased only gradually. Georgian politics are intensely polarized, with a deadlock between a government strong enough to stay in power and an opposition unable to muster enough public support to unseat the government or force new elections but capable of disrupting the government's work. However, Georgia's polarization does not appear to be reflected in public opinion, which appears much more interested in dialogue among political leaders and economic development. Georgia presents a complex political situation that does not lend itself to easy interpretation.

From Roses to Guns

During 1993-97, Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze succeeded in stabilizing the country following the debilitating first years of independence, during which Georgia came close to disintegration, experiencing two ethnic separatist conflicts with foreign meddling and two brief civil wars. (1) However, Shevardnadze failed to build a modern, functioning state. Instead, the Georgian government became notoriously corrupt and inefficient. As Vladimer Papava writes, from 1999, Shevardnadze "began disregarding common sense and expert advice," and the country lagged seriously, in terms of both governance and economy, unable to meet even the requirements for IMF loans. (2) Widespread corruption is endemic to the former Soviet Union, but the Georgian variant under Shevardnadze was more chaotic and unregulated--not systematic and hierarchical--implying that it posed a much greater threat to economic development than the forms of corruption prevalent in Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan. That does not mean that high-level Georgian officials (and members of Shevardnadze's family) did not engage in corruption, but there was no orderly, predictable system of corruption, meaning that firms could not operate with any confidence in Georiga.

Moreover, the Georgian government stood out in comparison to other post-Soviet countries (excluding Tajikistan and perhaps Kyrgyzstan) in its failure to assert control over either the country's bureaucracy or territory, preventing the government's authority from extending much beyond Tbilisi. …

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