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Georgia’s pluralistic feudalism: a frontline report

The monitoring of democracy always involves the questionable belief that one has the political and moral credentials to judge how other people’s democracy operates. This is not how I found myself in Georgia. Nor is this article an assessment of how Georgian democracy ought to be; rather, this is a more a self-reflective exercise of a recovering “transitologist” questioning my theoretical certainties. Thus, in calling Georgia a system of pluralistic feudalism, my criticism mainly addresses those who prescribe democratic reform.

I made a first-ever visit to Tbilisi on 23-29 April 2009 as a member of a fact-finding mission organised by the European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity: an Amsterdam-based platform promoting cooperation between social-democratic parties, organisations, personalities and political think-tanks. In a privileged capacity, I had the opportunity to meet with all the main leaders of the opposition, a government spokeswoman, foreign think-tank operatives, a member of the European Union delegation and the few civic organisations of some consequence that exist.

In making personal preparations for this mission, I also met with an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) military observer; and with Tedo Japaridze, a respected career diplomat and academic, who is conveniently (for me) based in Athens. So, the following assessment comes from this limited-in-scope political experience rather than long-term area-studies expertise.

With my own share of academic engagement with “transitology” and “consolidology”, I am well versed in the practice of evaluating the degree of democratisation of a state. In fact, following traditional patterns of evaluation, Georgia may appear to be a country that is very close to what emerging democracies are expected to be. This is precisely the problem.

The context

Indeed, this is a country that has undergone its own difficult transition, coming up with its own brand of “colour revolution”, bringing to power a man who was not stained by attachment with the former Soviet nomenklatura, namely Mikheil Saakashvili; a leader who was furthermore a polyglot and cosmopolitan personality and, until recently, charmed western audiences and commanded “our” attention.

This is a political system that has undergone a significant alteration of political parties in power, removing from office a man who enjoyed significant prestige in the west, such as Eduard Shevardnadze. Indeed, despite small incidents of violence – not unknown in the streets of Athens and Paris – this is a country with relatively free expression of oppositional beliefs.

Moreover, Georgia has dramatically reduced micro-corruption, which is remarkable for the region’s standards, not to mention other regions more close to home. Indeed, this is a country with a glorious transition to a market economy, being heralded as such by the World Bank. This is a country that has also shown ample commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration, a choice that comes hand-in-hand with the strings of democracy-promoting conditionality. From the outside, some pardonable blemishes aside, it all looks kosher.

The system

A closer look gives rise to questions. This is a country where politics is about leadership and not representation. All parties are founded on a personality, which probably explains why there are more than 180 registered organisations. In addition, the most prominent members of the oppositions are themselves former ministers of the incumbent administration who “jumped off the boat” following the war with Russia in August 2008. Further, not one party that has been in power and has remained a viable organisation following defeat in elections. In fact, politics is so personalised that legitimate divergence in political opinion often goes unnoticed.

A case in point: the main opposition alliance is composed of one leader who wants presidential democracy, one who wants constitutional monarchy and one who wants a strong prime minister. If they require the incumbent president to resign placing on the table as their first and foremost requirement the revision of the constitution and, at the same time, they cannot agree on a basic constitutional-reform agenda, it seems that their lowest common denominator is merely their anti-presidential stand.

Clearly, this is a country that has not as yet developed substantial political cleavages. I addressed each and every party leader with the same type of questions: “Describe your constituency and the political nature of your opposition to the government.” The response was similar: each claims to represent the middle class, each finds the reforms implemented by the president in recent years progressive; but that apart, each finds him particularly incapable. What’s more, this criticism began in August 2008, following the war, since most of the leaders of the opposition were until that time serving in the president’s cabinet as ministers. In sum, this is a feudal-type political system, where hours of positive exposure on television and individual patron-client networks constitute the main vehicle to power.

The absence

A small detail that comes to mind is that in Georgia there is no such as thing as a middle class. How could there be a middle class in a country wih no social insurance, public health infrastructures, public education, public or “strategic” transport infrastructures? In Europe, from Otto von Bismarck to JM Keynes, these were the foundations of a middle-class society, which on the basis of public goods founded disposable incomes and gave each social formation a stake in the system.

On the contrary, Georgia appears to be a big free-trade zone, with no social cost on capital investment. Georgia is a society with no social partners: unions are forbidden by law to have any involvement in politics and, in any event, the absence of law on collecting bargaining makes unionism an obsolete concept; in a predominantly agricultural state, there is not a single cooperative movement; for some reason, the church is the only civic organisation of some consequence and can have its say on everything and anything.

The absence of social partners, the absence of interest-aggregation, historically translates to the absence of a European social model. Since 1989, transitologists have focused on the necessity to affirm individual rights, but in Georgia, it seems appropriate to ask whether the absence of universal social rights is the recipe for a de-substantiated pluralism. If politicians are individuals, if voters are individuals, and if society is the aggregation of individuals, why not turn the political system into a shareholding firm?

Critically, the absence of a social bearing for all political parties means that there are no alternative strategic visions for the future of the country. What happens if trade gates open between Armenia and Turkey? What precisely is the role this state wants to play as an energy-route in the region; and, in this context, is sterile anti-Russian rhetoric good for the country? Also, if the opposition’s best offer to Abkhazia and South Ossetia for a return to the status quo ante is “freezing the conflict” while making Georgia “a better option of citizenship” than that of a Russian protectorate, what are the tactical/mundane steps towards achieving this objective? How is it ever going to be better or worse to be Georgian?

The reality

There are no convincing answers to these questions from the present or any past administration. This is because the country is consistently run as a business environment rather than an entity with long-term objectives in its own right. It is all very well for President Saakashvili to claim that the “world learns from Georgia how to deal with the economic crisis”; but, if World Bank appreciation was in itself an adequate evaluating criterion, there would be no need for elections. What the president lacks at the moment is not the credentials of western approval but popular legitimacy, for he has carved for himself an office that would make Charles de Gaulle appear weak by comparison.

In Georgia, there is rule by law, but questionable rule. The government passes bills and goes forward to interpret them without any checks and certainly no balances. The fact that some of those accused of staging a Russian-inspired coup are now dead and unable to be tried is problematic; the fact that anyone who financially supports the opposition is blatantly threatened is problematic. But the biggest problem is that it is personalities rather than the people who make a stand against this abuse of power. Political experience across Europe and the world testifies to the fact that unless opposition is socially rooted, the only guarantee is of an alteration of people in power rather than the reform of power-structures as such.

There is no shortage of personal charisma or charm in Georgia; but, instead, politicians seem to find no strings attached to power, no social demands, no aggregated interest-articulation: in sum, a blank cheque for the duration of a presidential term. As in feudal times, the only problem at hand is that a king’s power is checked by the feudal lords of his court who aspire themselves to become kings.

In sum, Georgian democracy may be likened to “pluralistic feudalism” and it is sad to observe that “we” as transitologists are asking the wrong type of questions on what is the way forward. It is clear in my mind that we should first and foremost rethink how our reform agenda is impacting upon such post-Soviet societies. Perhaps, in the midst of this economic crisis, we should question our moral and political confidence when dictating reform; perhaps, it is precisely these reforms that are creating a type of individualism that is not conducive to democracy.

First Published with Open Democracy: