Georgia, a Nation Stalled On the Road to Democracy

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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 9, 2009

TBILISI, Georgia -- Mikheil Saakashvili strode into Parliament like a returning hero, basking in applause. Five years earlier, he had burst into the same chamber with a rose in his hand and a crowd behind him, toppling the old autocratic regime. Now, as a second-term president, he was back for a debate, surrounded by cheering lawmakers.

The few opposition legislators in the room were less kind. One stormed out in protest. Others blamed him for Georgia's defeat in the August war with Russia. The minority leader, Georgi Targamadze, likened him to a hero who slays a monster only to turn into one himself, accusing his government of harassing opposition activists, intimidating private businessmen and bullying television stations and judges.

Nearly four years after President George W. Bush hailed this former Soviet republic as a "beacon of liberty," declaring it a success story in his campaign to promote democracy around the world, Georgia is neither the authoritarian state it once was nor the democracy it promised to become. Instead, it seems stuck in between, a nation where people enjoy more freedom but where democratic institutions -- the news media, the judiciary, electoral systems, political parties -- are dysfunctional and fragile.

Increasingly, Georgia's hybrid condition is typical. Over the past three decades, more countries have embraced free elections than ever before, but nearly half the world's democracies are so troubled by poor governance, corruption, or ethnic and religious conflict that they appear at risk of unraveling. More than a dozen have reverted to authoritarianism in the past 10 years.

Georgia offers insight into why. The experience of this nation of 4.5 million after Saakashvili came to power in the Rose Revolution illustrates how difficult and complex the task of building a lasting democracy can be, even with ample funding and high-level attention from the United States and Europe.

"You have to change cultures, institutions, norms," said Larry Diamond, a scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "It's a profound challenge. What you're talking about is changing the way people use power."

'We Made Compromises'

On May 10, 2005, a huge crowd assembled in Tbilisi's Freedom Square to see President George W. Bush. "You gathered here with nothing but roses and the power of your convictions and you claimed your liberty," he declared. "Because of that, Georgia is today a beacon of liberty for this region and the world."

At the time, some Georgians were already accusing Saakashvili of monopolizing power and undermining Parliament, the courts, the news media and civil society. But criticism from the United States was expressed in private, when expressed at all.

When Saakashvili pushed through a constitutional amendment giving him the power to dismiss Parliament, for example, many supporters of the Rose Revolution objected. But U.S. officials were reluctant to take a position or even host a public debate on the subject, recalled David Usupashvili, an opposition leader who at the time was a Saakashvili ally and worked for a U.S. aid organization.

Lincoln Mitchell, a scholar at Columbia University who served as the National Democratic Institute's chief of party in Tbilisi, said the Bush administration equated support for Saakashvili, who studied law at Columbia, with support for democracy in Georgia.

"The relationship got personalized," he said, noting that Saakashvili named a highway after Bush and sent Georgian troops to Iraq. "The idea was don't make problems for the English-speaking leader who is our best ally in the region."

U.S. support for Saakashvili resulted in a sharp increase in foreign aid to the Georgian government. But funding for the advocacy groups that had been at the heart of the Rose Revolution dried up, forcing organizations to shut down programs that could monitor and challenge his decisions.

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