Sunday 30 December 2007

Georgia: Going off Script

The Guardian ran this on 30 December 2007.


It is almost certain that the first serious international media story in 2008 will be Georgia's early presidential election on 5 January. Incumbent Mikhail Saakashvili and his western supporters hope the results are equally predictable.

Because Saakashvili seriously tarnished his international image as a pro-western democratic reformer in November when he authorised violence against peaceful protesters and independent journalists, the upcoming vote is more than an exercise in domestic legitimacy. It is a show targeting a world audience, and for those who uncritically support Saakashvili, the script is plain. The world's media will arrive just after New Year's Day. They will report a relatively free and fair election. Then, everyone will get back on the plane amid a buzz of, "Georgia is back on track."

Indeed, election observers may give the poll an overall clean bill of health. The conduct of the vote will not be as ideal as some heavyweight western parliamentary observers will boldly claim in front of the TV cameras in the days immediately afterward. Already the opposition has cried foul, and non-governmental organisations following the process are claiming irregularities in the campaign. But even the less spotlighted and more technocratic Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which has enormous experience in observing elections within the 56-country zone of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, will probably not find too many grave shortcomings on election day. However, one decent election is not enough to get this country "back on track", because Georgia has been sliding off the rails towards authoritarianism for several years.

The Rose Revolution of 2003 seemed a fairy tale made for western television. As the cameras filmed, demonstrators gathered and stormed the parliament in Tbilisi, toppling a tired post-Soviet state using little but pro-democracy slogans and youthful charismatic leadership. After that, Saakashvili was unquestioningly supported as the plucky easternmost flag-bearer of liberal democracy, under siege by revanchist Moscow. Like all good political myths, this one contains some elements of truth.

Saakashvili came to power with enormous public support, and his declared intention to join Nato and the EU established his international leanings. His sweeping reforms have reshaped the failing state institutions and rejuvenated the dysfunctional economy, attracting foreign direct investment and enhancing state revenues. Small-scale corruption, which used to cripple Georgian society before the Rose Revolution, is down dramatically.

In this context, it may be possible to overlook the occasional excess of decisiveness, especially in a country that feels itself under attack. Resurgent Russia has, after all, applied economic embargoes and supported secessionists in Georgia's conflict regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Trying to stitch together a state torn apart by war and economic collapse in a poor and hostile neighbourhood requires enormous force of will. Unfortunately, however, admirable resolve has too often turned into disturbing heavy-handedness. The November 7 crackdown and the imposition of a state of emergency was a symptom of a much deeper problem.

Over the past four years, Saakashvili and a small circle around him have concentrated power in their own few hands, and they have been unwilling to accept criticism. Cronyism, the bane of pre-Rose Georgia, is again said to be flourishing in the senior level of the administration. The leadership elite has worn down fundamental checks and balances to enhance its own power, and it has curtailed basic human rights such as freedom of expression.

In fact, it was the government's repeated lack of responsiveness to the demands of the opposition, civil society and ordinary citizens for transparency, accountability and credible investigations into high-profile cases of official abuse that led to mass public protests in autumn. The leadership's violent crackdown was a depressingly magnified continuation of this overall trend.

International journalists covering the elections at the beginning of this year would be well advised to avoid the scripted show. Election observers will report what they see on the day of the vote and in the weeks leading up to it. Visiting western parliamentarians will likely clutch at any straw to give a boost to Saakashvili, who retains enough revolutionary charm to keep them smiling for the cameras.

The press can look deeper, however, and bring out what has been going on in the country over the past four years. If they ask the right questions, perhaps western policy-makers will too. Saakashvili should not expect to remain in the west's good books if his administration continues along its increasingly illiberal path.

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