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In Russia’s Shadow

The surprising resilience of Georgian democracy

Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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In Russia’s Shadow

Credit: David Mdzinarishvili, Reuters

It’s hard building a house when your neighbor has annexed the front lawn. Since November 2003, when the Rose Revolution brought Mikhail Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) to power, the Republic of Georgia has been trying to build a modern liberal democracy in the middle of the Caucasus. It hasn’t been easy—thanks mainly to the influence of Russia, which even invaded Georgia in August 2008. Today, almost two years after that war, Vladimir Putin’s troops still occupy the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in contravention of international law. The Russians control more than 20 percent of the country. They have about 10,000 soldiers and FSB agents in the occupied territories. Their forces are only 30 miles from the Georgian capital. They could crush the independence and democratic aspirations of 4.6 million Georgians in a matter of hours.

Yet none of that seemed to matter on May 27, as Tbilisi mayor Giorgi Ugulava stood in the hot sun outside the Kopala hotel. The Kopala, situated on a hilltop overlooking the old city, is one of Tbilisi’s most fashionable spots, and its owners had invited the 34-year-old Ugulava to help them celebrate the opening of a new wing. It was a typical photo-op: a glad-handing politician, a crowd of local actors, businessmen, and other V.I.P.s, half a dozen TV cameramen, and a slightly anxious proprietor who barked “Ashi! Ashi!” whenever he wanted the crowd to applaud.

A handler carried a pillow, on which sat a pair of scissors. The mayor cut the red ribbon hanging over the entrance to the hotel, everyone cheered, and the gaggle took a tour of the facility. Then they broke for lunch. It was one of the quickest, most painless campaign events I’ve ever covered. Not bad for a democracy that hasn’t yet reached its seventh birthday.

A few days later, on May 30, Ugulava beat eight rivals to win a second term. A member of Saakashvili’s UNM, Ugulava took 55 percent of the vote. It was the first time the mayor of Tbilisi had been directly elected. But that wasn’t what made the campaign special. What made it special was that Ugulava had done something new in Georgian politics. He had run on his record. As recently as 2004, there were only two hours of electricity in Tbilisi per day, crime was rampant, and the police were often no better than the crooks. Now the city has power at all times. It’s safe. The roads are paved. Street life bustles. The place is filled with restaurants and casinos. As you walk around Tbilisi, you’re reminded that economic progress and democratic governance go hand in hand.

This was the theme of municipal elections throughout the country. In the days before May 30, international observers flooded Georgia to observe 14 political parties and 3 political blocs participate in 64 municipal council elections, spread over 73 election districts, divided into 3,624 precincts. Saakashvili’s party was the big winner. But the larger story was that the elections proceeded peacefully and fairly. In a preliminary report, the OSCE observer delegation said the elections “marked evident progress” in Georgia’s political, social, and economic development.

These elections appear to signal that Saakashvili’s reforms are taking root. Georgia wants to join Western institutions such as NATO and the EU. But it first must demonstrate that it can function as a Western-oriented nation-state. This is easier said than done. Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, all political change in Georgia has been driven by street protest. In 1992, armed clashes brought down the government of nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia and resulted in civil war. In 2003, the Rose Revolution demonstrations outside the parliament brought down the government of Gamsakhurdia’s successor, Eduard Shevardnadze. In November 2007, street confrontations forced Saakashvili to call early elections.

When Saakashvili was reelected in 2008, part of the opposition refused to recognize the result. They launched another round of protests in April 2009. Those demonstrations lasted several months, but they ended in failure. The opposition splintered, and the “Georgian Street” has been relatively quiet ever since. “Standing in the street outside parliament is no longer enough to deliver change,” says a high-ranking member of the government. Slowly, participation in the electoral process is becoming the only legitimate option.

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