Is Georgia's New Leader as Undemocratic as Its Last One?

Despite what a number of western news outlets have argued, the answer isn't so clear.

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Supporters of the opposition Georgian Dream coalition celebrate exit poll results in Tbilisi on October 1st, 2012. (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

On October 1, Georgia had an election. To everyone's surprise, the ruling United National Movement party, led by President Mikhail Saakashvili, was routed by a newly organized coalition, Georgian Dream, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili. This, in spite of a highly unfair election environment, much intimidation, and a history of revolutionary upheaval in the country.

The Democracy ReportGeorgians turned out in massive numbers. The government was so overwhelmingly defeated at the polls that what had become an increasingly authoritarian government had to yield power. Miraculously for this part of the world, Saakashvili surrendered most of the power he had tenaciously hoarded for nine years. The election was heralded as a sudden, successful democratic breakthrough -- something that had been a central objective of U.S. foreign policy since the 1980s. Democracy has changed the face of Mediterranean Europe, East Asia, and even Africa--but has never emerged in the former Soviet space, except the Baltic republics.

But less than two months after democracy's victory, some are wringing their hands. NATO and E.U. dignitaries, amplified by prestigious newspapers, are scolding the new government for its allegedly undemocratic behavior. The Washington Post suggests we are seeing "a slide back toward Russian-style autocracy," and concludes that, unless he mends his ways, "Georgia's new leader should not be welcome in Washington." As The Economist has written, "Ivanishvili is behaving as badly as he claims Mr. Saakashvili did."

It looks like the world is using a double standard -- judging a new, democratically elected government more harshly than the hardened human rights violator Georgians just replaced.

At issue are the arrests by Ivanishvili's government of National Movement officials, which look to some outsiders like unilateral political reprisals unbefitting a democratic state. But consider this: Ivanishvili has not murdered anyone, as Saakashvili's interior ministry did Sandro Girgvliani, in 2006. He has not tortured or raped anyone, as was shown to be a regular practice in Georgian jails under Saakashvili. He has not confiscated property from anyone without legal warrant. He has not blackmailed anyone. not kidnapped anyone, and not planted drugs on anyone. The new prime minister has not attacked peaceful demonstrators, as Saakashvili did November 2007, or sent riot police to beat independent television journalists and their equipment. He hasn't seized broadcasting stations from their owners, like Saakashvili did, by pseudo-legal maneuvers. Ivanishvili never ordered an 11-month campaign to crush his electoral opposition, a move by Saakashvili that involved cyberspying on the old prime minister's enemies and slapping them with $125 million in fines. Rather, Ivanishvili was the victim of these "dirty tricks," to use the language of the Post.

It looks like the world is using a double standard -- judging a new, democratically elected government more harshly than the hardened human rights violator Georgians just replaced.

In fact, viewed differently, Ivanishvili's government has actually begun with a naive desire to do things the Western democratic way. Arrests have been accompanied by the reading of rights, the calling of lawyers, and the posting of testimony -- procedural standards that had been previously omitted. It used to be that Saakashvili insisted all public employees work for his party, down to village schoolteachers. The new Georgian Dream government is allowing officials below the deputy-minister level to remain, even though many are probably still loyal to the old government. Ivanishvili vowed to clean up government and leave in 18 months, and Georgian Dream dismissed its army of well-paid lobbyists soon after forming a government. Saakashvili never did the same, and his lobbyists are responsible for much of the current tempest.

Presented by

Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He was formerly a research professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins' Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and a director of the Central Asia/Caucasus Institute. More

Fairbanks has served as a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of State and as member of the department's policy-planning staff. He was a foreign-policy adviser to the Reagan campaign in 1980 and the Bush campaign in 1988. Fairbanks has also served on the political science faculty of Yale University and the University of Toronto.

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