The demonstrations on the streets of Tbilisi in recent weeks have been a reminder of the enduring strengths and weaknesses of Georgian democracy. The born-free-stay-free generation that has been at the forefront of this movement has made it clear that it is present, engaged, and determined to remain in control, even against a police force that acted with excessive brutality. In sum, to the extent Georgian democracy is functional, it is because civil society is strong, the media reports, youth takes to the streets when checks and balances appear out of sync and the government, after a fashion, seeks to govern.
Clearly, calling out the Georgian government for allowing a Communist Russian legislator to address the Georgian parliament in Russian and in the name of Orthodox brotherhood is appropriate. In general, it is healthy for citizens to call the king naked, no matter how expensive his imaginary new clothes are.
These young demonstrators have made it more difficult to ignore larger structural problems with Georgian democracy. Georgia’s overpowering executive, which has been a more extreme problem in the past, nonetheless represents a challenge typically encountered in post-Soviet regimes, that have generally been characterized by top-down, executive-driven, strong-man kinds of political systems. However, this transitional system no longer serves us and is clearly out of sync with popular sentiment at this point in time.
The demonstrators view that the politically diverse Georgian Dream (GD) coalition has failed their expectations are accurate, but it is necessary to place these expectations in context. It is essential that we do not see in every protest movement a proverbial encounter between good and evil, East and West, democracy and dictatorship. That kind of bloviation is encouraged by the self-serving UNM opposition, which conveniently forgets its own illiberal and semi-authoritarian past. It may also be the self-serving fantasy of those political leaders abroad who are invested in their support for the former autocratic leader, with their selective memory, which holds on to brave reforms and forgets about a record of democratic rollback and human rights violations, including torture.
Georgia’s future depends on its ability to become, a “beacon of stability,” a regional pro-business outlier, the country that bridges continents, markets, and geopolitical cleavages. Georgia is the country in the region where human rights activists seek asylum, the essential connectivity launchpad – in transport, online infrastructure, and energy – as well as the important geopolitical broker in the region. That is Georgia’s legacy, one for which many worked for many years. This generation is stronger because of this legacy that it both deserves and is entitled to.
Because so much depends on this image, it is essential that the people work to hold the government accountable at every turn, but should not view every government misstep as a cataclysmic event. That attitude is not helpful, except to those who put political ambition over patriotism. Nor is it helpful when media figures, closely aligned with opposition political force, bait dangerous foreign adversaries with profane and petulant rants as we recently saw on Rustavi 2.
Georgia’s claim to global relevance rests on becoming a stronger constitutional democracy. This clearly requires more vigor and consistency in the interpretation of Georgia’s constitutional principles and, perhaps more significantly, a process that would require extended majorities for its revision. The constitution should be seen as a commonly accepted normative framework, not a tool for pursuing a winner-takes-all political game. Our victorious leaders should not feel they have the power to re-write the rules for the electoral cycle. Democracies do not begin with clean slates every few years and cannot work if every institution, tradition, identity, or source of pride has a four-to-eight year lifecycle.
While there are political cleavages, values, and beliefs that divide and at times polarize Georgian society, as a consolidating democracy that aspires to leave behind its post-Soviet or post-Communist legacy, Georgians must learn to define political movements in positive terms
While there are political cleavages, values, and beliefs that divide and at times polarize Georgian society, as a consolidating democracy that aspires to leave behind its post-Soviet or post-Communist legacy, Georgians must learn to define political movements in positive terms. Georgians should demand substantial policy debates that affect change rather than merely promise a new brave world. Not every opposition movement is a revolution, not every grievance bears testament to the failure of Georgian democracy. However, singling out the failures of the government and demanding ever-higher human rights standards is what citizens of a democracy should do.
Similarly, Georgia should not constantly renegotiate its free market economy, human rights standards, and our commitment to certain strategic projects – i.e. BTC pipeline, BTK railway, Anaklia Deep Sea Port – in every electoral cycle; nor should Georgia question its country’s fundamental commitment to a western trajectory in every single political dispute. That is not serious or constructive politics. We live in a world that is experiencing a new digital divide, a transition into a third industrial revolution of automation and AI, the global renegotiation of economic and military power, profound internal and external attacks on liberal democracy and accelerating climate change that threatens the future of this planet. At this historical conjuncture, Georgia must earn its place in the world through hard work and through struggling to maintain its freedom and relative prosperity. If Georgia is serious about bridging the income, technology, and governance gap with western powers, we cannot indulge in the anti-democratic fantasy of a clean slate where Georgia gets a mulligan every few years and ignores the accomplishments and setbacks of recent years.
Big projects, policies, capacity and democracy-building require a healthy balance between rejuvenation and continuity. And the future of this promising, engaged, and committed generation deserves so much better than the narcissist obsession of starting from scratch. A clean slate is a poor start. This generation has the right to a legacy of freedom.
Lincoln Mitchell is a writer, pundit and specialist in political development based in New York City and San Francisco. Lincoln has worked on democracy and governance related issues in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. He also works with businesses and NGOs globally, particularly in the former Soviet Union.
Tedo Japaridze was a member of the Georgian parliament and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee a former Foreign Minister of Georgia and a former Ambassador to the United States of America.