I haven't blogged much about Georgia.
Well, recent events have been kinda disappointing. Like a lot of people, I had high hopes for Saakashvili. Not so much because he was "pro-Western" -- that's a pretty meaningless metric, especially around here -- but because he seemed like the kind of leader who pushes my particular buttons: a sane, pragmatic, energetic problem-solver.
In retrospect, there were warning signs. He rehabilitated Zviad Gamsakhurdia, for starters. (If you don't know who Gamsakhurdia was, good for you. He was Georgia's first leader after independence, and was probably the most thoroughly incompetent leader of any post-Soviet republic.) His reforms were mostly good, but they were all top-down; the Caucasus is stony soil for participatory democracy and stakeholder input. And he was all too willing to play the nationalism card and whip up foreign threats to support his rule.
If Saakashvili resembles any other post-Soviet leader, it's Putin. Ironically enough.
Anyhow: I ran across a good short summary of recent events in Georgia, from the always worthwhile Transitions Online:
So, we could have reasonably concluded – even before they called out the riot police – that Saakashvili and the political elite clustered around him [were not] democrats. Should we be surprised? On the contrary: Saakashvili has always made it absolutely clear that he sees himself as a nation-builder first, and democrat second.
True enough! Most of us just weren't paying attention.
And the nation-building so far has been impressive. Large-scale corruption, especially in the police, is down; despite disgruntlement, most people when asked say they haven't given a bribe in the past year; educational reform has clamped down on pervasive graft in higher education... and competitively appointed secondary-school directors; public-private partnerships have been forged to revitalize the collapsed medical system; and despite Russia's embargo, the economy will grow at least 10 percent this year, the country's credit ratings have improved, and foreign direct investment is at 2 billion euros annually.
In a Caucasian context, these are astounding accomplishments. Making a serious dent in corruption and graft around here is, well, really hard. Even starting to fix the schools and the medical system is awesome. And 2 billion euros is something like 15% of Georgia's GDP.
Along the way many have lost out, both those we might pity and those we should not. Among the former are fired police workers; fired civil servants in a massive government downsizing; street vendors who were asked to professionalize their activities; an older generation that has been slow to adjust to the need for new skills; and the majority of people in the provinces. In time-honored post-Soviet fashion, the government preferred to condescendingly muscle reforms onto the people, rather than explain their validity.
Among the latter group of disgruntled, however, are also the very well-connected and influential bosses of academia, who lost thousands in income from university entry-exam bribes; the criminal networks that have flourished through all levels of society and had penetrated deep within state institutions (especially the police, the military, and the penal system); oligarchs such as Badri Patarkatsishvili, who is currently the chief bankroller of the opposition; and the very influential (and conservative) Orthodox Church, which has seen its political role wane under Saakashvili.
It's worth noting here that Georgians are pretty religious. More than Armenians, I think. The Orthodox Church there is at least as strong as in Russia (though, of course, it's not Russian! It's Georgian!) and plays a similar role... you might call it "reactionary", except that in a Georgian context that doesn't make much sense. "Conservative" doesn't seems strong enough, though. Anyway.
The net result was that those massed on the streets earlier this month and orchestrating the demonstrations from behind the scenes were a rather eclectic bunch... In fact, the opposition did not articulate economic or social demands, but focused the call on early elections and removing the government from office.
None of that should excuse the unexplainable use of force to stamp out the demonstrations (unexplainable partly because the protests seemed to be petering out on their own). But the current story is far more complicated than the easy one that the Rose Revolution offered up: the masses rising up to crush a corrupt regime and propel the state into Europe.
This time around we have a self-styled democrat not attuned to the fine points of democracy; a state-builder obsessed with bulldozing through reforms; and parts of society with legitimate grievances and others only bitter over the loss of illicit proceeds. All in all it’s a particularly convoluted tale that should make the heads of foreign commentators and diplomats spin as they try and come up with their own prescriptions to get Georgia back on track toward a consolidated democracy.
Is anyone trying to come up with prescriptions? The US and Europe are cautiously pro-Saakashvili; Russia hates his guts (though he's a convenient whipping boy).
AFAIK nobody is really engaging with political change in Georgia. Though of course I don't live there, and am probably missing a lot.