Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Georgian Politics since the August 2008 War

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Georgian Politics since the August 2008 War

Article excerpt

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. Leaving aside the secessionist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the state was practically absent in areas like Adjara, the Armenianpopulated Javakheti, or the mountainous areas near the Russian border. The most vivid illustration was the Pankisi Gorge in northern Georgia, which the country's corrupt security and interior ministers effectively allowed to become a criminal haven until 2001.3 The government's weakness, coupled with Shevardnadze's liberal inclinations, also meant an inability and a degree of unwillingness to exert repression. That, in turn, allowed Georgian society to freely debate the shortcomings of the government-an essential factor in paving the way for the Rose Revolution, which occurred following the Shevardnadze government's blatant attempt to falsify a parliamentary election. …

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