A test of democracy

Jan 5th 2008
>From Economist.com

A big election in Georgia


THE presidential election in Georgia on Saturday January 5th is a
landmark in the history of the ex-communist world. Mikheil Saakishvili,
a charismatic figure who has by turns dazzled and disappointed his many
admirers at home and abroad, is battling both to be re-elected and to
shore up his credibility as a reformer and friend of the West.

The conduct of the election will be an important bellwether for another
embattled cause: the principle of fair, pluralist democracy in a part
of the world where it has suffered. Last month's parliamentary
elections in Russia were denounced as grossly unfair by the few
international observers who were allowed to watch. The parliamentary
elections in Kazakhstan, last August, disappointed even those who wish
the country well. Georgia's neighbours present a dismal spectacle: in
Azerbaijan, to raise a voice against the regime, especially in the
media, is to risk a long jail term; in Armenia, the opposition has
little access to the airwaves.

As leader of the `rose revolution' which overthrew an incompetent
regime in 2003, Mr Saakishvili had presented himself as a shining
alternative to authoritarianism. But his Western friends were bitterly
disappointed in November, when harsh force was used to break up a
peaceful demonstration. Mr Saakashvili attempted to restore his good
name by calling a swift election, with a pledge to conduct it fairly
and openly. He is, on balance, the favourite to prevail over his six
rivals, and he may do so in the first round. (If no candidate gets more
than 50% there will be a run-off on January 19th.) But in this
paradoxical poll, a strong showing by the opposition'proving that Mr
Saakashvili really is prepared to buck the authoritarian trend'would
provide badly-needed reassurance about the state of Georgian democracy,
and a boost to the president's moral authority.

Insiders in the Saakashvili camp insist that they have made the contest
as open as possible by inviting 1,000 foreign observers, and by giving
the opposition far more air time than it could expect in most
post-Soviet states. But the days after the polls close will be tense as
the opposition considers its reaction to the declared results.

Mr Saakashvili's leading adversary is Levan Gachechiladze, a
businessman representing nine opposition parties, who will certainly do
well in Tbilisi. In the capital disappointment with Mr Saakashvili's
high-handed personal style is especially keen'and was so even before
the November crackdown. But the campaign's biggest dramas have been
provided by a flashy tycoon, Badri Patarkatsishvili, who'like his
erstwhile associate, the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky'spends a lot
of time in Britain. Mr Patarkatsishvili pulled out of the race after
the government released video and audio material that seemed to show
him offering massive rewards to a Georgian bureaucrat for overturning
the election result and `neutralising' the interior minister, Vano
Merabishvili.

But on January 3rd, Mr Patarkatsishvili'who claims that his life is at
risk from Georgia's current masters'insisted that he was re-entering
the race. The president's camp says it expects a narrow victory for Mr
Saakashvili in the first round, with at least one poll showing that 46%
of those sure to vote were backing the incumbent, with more votes to
come from the undecided. For the president, winning on the first round
would be an extraordinarily good result.

Whoever wins will face some tricky problems. The spring summit of NATO
is likely to dash Georgia's hopes for a `membership action plan'
leading to full participation in the defence club. With presidential
election fever raging in Moscow, the risk of fresh provocations from
the Kremlin (such as trouble in the Russian-backed statelets which are
legally part of Georgia) will be great. And the feud between Mr
Patarkatsishvili's business empire and the government is bound to rage
on. Salford, a private-equity firm which has invested around $750m in
the ex-communist world, has threatened to haul Georgia before an
international commercial court following the seizure of assets during
the events of last November. These included a broadcasting station, a
bank, a beverage company and an amusement park, all associated with Mr
Patarkatsishvili. Only about 40% of the money which Salford has
invested in Georgia belonged to the tycoon, the fund's managers insist;
they complain that good-faith investment has been snarled up in a local
political vendetta.

As Georgia's young democracy is discovering, open economies and open
political systems can have all kinds of inconvenient consequences. But
as the experience of many other post-Soviet states can demonstrate,
abandoning those principles can have pretty bad effects too.