Eurasianet organization
July 4 2005

IS GEORGIA BECOMING PROGRESSIVELY LESS DEMOCRATIC?

Liz Fuller 7/04/05

Two developments in recent weeks have further tarnished Georgia's
claim to be the trailblazer of liberal democracy within the CIS. The
first was the launch of a process to staff the Central Election
Commission and its lower-level equivalents with people known to be
loyal to the ruling elite. That process also effectively excluded
many Armenians and Azerbaijanis from southern and eastern Georgia
from serving on such commissions. The second was the national
legislature's initial backing of an amendment to empower the Tbilisi
municipal council to elect the city mayor.

Together, they beg questions about the dedication to democracy of the
"democrats" who came to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution.

The Georgian Example

The claim of Georgia's pioneering democratic role derives from the
advent to power in the so-called Rose Revolution in November 2003 of
a team of young, pro-Western politicians who proclaimed their shared
determination to put an end to the corruption and graft that had been
the hallmarks of the Shevardnadze era. The opposition movements that
subsequently brought about the fall of the incumbent leaderships in
Ukraine in December 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in March 2005 both
acknowledged they were inspired and empowered by the Georgian
example, and US President George W. Bush has repeatedly hailed the
Georgian example, most recently during his visit to Tbilisi in early
May.

While the new Georgian leadership lost no time in dismissing and
arresting -- sometimes in front of television cameras --
Shevardnadze-era officials suspected of corruption and mismanagement,
skepticism swiftly surfaced over the depth of the new government's
commitment to true democratization and far-reaching reform. In a
lengthy and detailed analysis of the aftermath of the 2003 Rose
Revolution published in December, one London-based analyst suggested
that the transition from Eduard Shevardnadze to Mikheil Saakashvili
(who was elected president in early January 2004 with 96 percent of
the vote) was one from "democracy without democrats" to "democrats
without democracy."

Contradictory Signals

The first development that supports that implicit contradiction was
the selection by President Saakashvili of the 13 members of the new
Central Election Commission from a shortlist of 30 compiled by his
staffers. At its first session on June 7, the new Central Election
Commission solicited applications from persons wishing to serve on
the 75 five-member district election commissions. Applicants must be
over 21, have a higher education, and speak fluent Georgian. That
latter requirement automatically excludes thousands of Armenians and
Azerbaijanis who grew up in regions of southern and eastern Georgia
where there are no schools with Georgian as the language of
instruction. On June 14, the parliamentary opposition accused deputy
speaker Mikheil Machavariani and other leaders of the parliamentary
majority of systematically summoning regional governors to Tbilisi
and ordering them to ensure that local election commissions are
dominated by members of the ruling National Movement, rustavi2.com
reported. Machavariani conceded that regional governors are being
summoned to Tbilisi to discuss preparations for upcoming midterm
elections, but he denied that the leadership is plotting to determine
the outcome of that ballot to its own advantage. "We are all eager to
hold free and fair elections," rustavi2.com quoted Machavariani as
saying.

The second potentially troubling event was the approval by parliament
in the first reading on June 23 of amendments to the law on Tbilisi
that provide for the city's mayor to be chosen by members of the
municipal council, rather than directly elected. Until now, the
president has appointed the mayor of Tbilisi, just as in neighboring
Armenia the president names the mayor of Yerevan. Armenia has for
months been under considerable pressure from the Council of Europe to
include in a package of proposed constitutional amendments provision
for the direct election of the Yerevan mayor, and last week agreed to
that demand.

Pro-Saakashvili legislators and Saakashvili himself have sought to
rationalize that procedure by arguing that the election of a mayor
whose political affiliation differs from that of the majority of
municipal council members could paralyze the city legislature. But
opposition politicians protested that the legislation would pave the
way for the ruling party to dominate the city council on a permanent
basis. Koba Davitashvili (Conservative) termed it the first step
toward abolishing all mayoral elections in all towns and predicted
that it could trigger a serious civic crisis. Even before that
amendment was unveiled in parliament, the opposition Conservative
party raised the possibility of seeking to impeach President
Saakashvili on the grounds that he has violated the constitution by
failing to introduce direct elections for the post of mayor in the
towns of Batumi, Poti, and Zestafoni, Caucasus Press reported on
April 14.

Another protest situation stems from a recent decree promulgated by
Saakashvili that strips Georgia's universities of their autonomy and
augments the power of the rector, who is appointed by the president.
Faculty members at Tbilisi State University launched a protest on
June 27 against the decision by acting rector Rusudan Lortkipanidze
to reduce the number of faculties from 22 to six and to dismiss 800
staff. Lortkipanidze responded to that protest action by declaring
that anyone who dislikes her planned reforms is free to resign.

Top-Down Democratization?

It is unclear whether and to what extent Saakashvili's
quasi-authoritarian approach has contributed to the growing
perception that the level of democracy in Georgia is on the decline.
On June 27, Caucasus Press cited the findings of a recent poll of 500
people conducted by the weekly "Kviris palitra" in which 26.6 percent
of respondents said they believe the level of democracy has declined
over the past 12 months. By contrast, 49.4 percent of respondents
considered that the level of democracy has not changed over that
period.

Nor is its apparent reluctance to promote top-down democratization
the only perceived failing of the new Georgian leadership. Some of
its senior members have been accused of criminal activities. For
example, Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and his protege, Mikheil
Kareli, governor of the Shida Kartli region that encompasses the
disputed unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, are both believed to
be implicated in smuggling, according to the Institute for War and
Peace Reporting's Caucasus Reporting Service on April 21. On June 24,
the opposition New Conservative (a.k.a. New Rightist) parliamentary
faction accused Kareli of creating obstacles to private business,
rustavi2.com reported. Okruashvili has further been accused of
single-handedly determining how budget funds allocated for the
Georgian armed forces should be spent, according to the daily
"Rezonansi" on May 13.

To date, the fractured Georgian opposition has not shown any
readiness to close ranks and coalesce in a single, powerful
antigovernment force. There have, however, been reports that some
members of the present leadership might be considering switching to
the opposition camp. On June 24, rustavi2.com quoted parliamentary
speaker Burdjanadze as saying she is unaware whether some former
close associates of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who died in
February under circumstances that have still not been completely
clarified, intend to join the Republican Party. At a congress on June
27, that party elected as its new chairman legal expert David
Usupashvili. Outgoing Chairman David Berdzenishvili told congress
delegates that he believes Usupashvili is capable of transforming the
party into a qualitatively new force with strong chances of emerging
among the winners of the next elections.