The American Interest
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Georgia’s Lessons for Democratic Development
Published on March 22, 2013

The jury is still out on Georgia’s democracy. Despite its impressive parliamentary elections last October, in which Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition surged into power, it’s not altogether clear whether the turbulent Caucasian republic has cleared a major hurdle on the democratic road or is in the process once again of exchanging one strongman for another. Still, there’s no denying that by making its first peaceful transfer of power by means of the ballot box, Georgia has shattered a ceiling in its political development. It has also sketched out some lessons for would-be democratizers around the world to study.

The surprising strength of the Georgian opposition’s victory in the elections and the relatively smooth handover that followed President Mikheil Saakashvili’s concession are welcome news for a country that has long been lost in “transition”—the twilight zone of political development. A holdover from a headier time, so-called transitional regimes are often anything but. The recent elections notwithstanding, pre-election Georgia exhibited few signs of steady, identifiable progress on democratization. This was one reason why observers were largely confident of a solid victory for Saakashvili’s United National Movement.

Rather than truly transitional, Georgia’s model is probably better described with Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s qualifier: “competitive authoritarianism.” That is, the accouterments that one would normally find in a liberal democracy—oppositions parties, elections, even some vigorous debate—were grafted atop a comprehensive political and security apparatus that seemed to guarantee one-party rule. Such regimes are particularly nightmarish to democracy advocates and oppositions because they are hard to distinguish from mid-stream democratizing states. They can claim to be endlessly “in transition” but with no intention of ever surrendering power to political oppositions.

In Georgia, modernization programs and emphatically pro-Western rhetoric notwithstanding, competitive authoritarianism took the form of the regime’s flagrant misuse of administrative resources, a largely government-dominated media, and even instances of voter intimidation. Few serious observers could claim that the pre-election period was anything but heavily weighted against billionaire challenger Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition. As measured by Freedom House, Georgia’s 2012 score remained unchanged from 2005, and only improved after October’s shock result. Meanwhile, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s assessment actually showed a democratic decline from its inaugural 2006 report to its most recent in 2011.

If all this is true, then how did Georgian Dream achieve its breakthrough?

Embattled democrats in other competitive authoritarian systems could be forgiven for seeing few transferable lessons from a singular situation involving a free-spending billionaire political challenger and a relatively liberal, if ultimately undemocratic, government enamored of the West. But the elections ultimately did reveal a few important lessons about competitive authoritarian regimes and how to get around them.

Money matters, but leadership matters more. Ivanishvili, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes to be as much as $5.3 billion, is extraordinarily wealthy. But between restrictive campaign finance laws and a carpet-bombing of penalties imposed by the UNM, it is probable that relatively little of Ivanishvili’s wealth made it to the actual campaign.

“Ivanishvili’s money did not make it possible for him to buy the election,” notes Lincoln Mitchell, an associate at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute who served as an informal adviser to Ivanishvili during the campaign. “Rather it made it possible for him to compete with the UNM, which was able to use governmental assets for partisan political purposes.”

Another way to look at it is to compare Ivanishvili’s relatively brief career as an opposition front man and financier with his predecessor, the late Arkady “Badri” Patarkatsishvili. Worth about $12 billion around the time of his death in 2008, Patarkatsishvili was more than twice as rich as Ivanishvili but had nowhere near his success in the political realm. Until he died, Patarkatsishvili actively funded an opposition that was led by the likes Nino Burjanadze, Zurab Noghaideli and Levan Gachechiladze—a gaggle of disaffected former insiders and diminished nomenklatura who lacked policy vision, unity and, most crucially, popular support.

By contrast, when Ivanishvili announced his entry into politics in October 2011, he presented himself as the node of a new opposition and used the media fanfare to target not only the UNM but even certain elements of the old opposition. Surrounding himself with Westernized, policy-oriented leaders like former UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania and former Foreign Minister Tedo Japaridze, Georgian Dream sought to re-make the opposition into a credible governing alternative to the UNM. It was this sense of credibility that ultimately helped unify the opposition and mobilize an electorate that craved change. While Ivanishvili’s wealth certainly played a major role, it was the emphasis on unity through leadership that corralled a diversity of interests and political movements into a winning electoral bloc.

Messaging matters. If the campaign refrain from the UNM and its allies was “Russia, Russia, Russia,” then Georgian Dream’s answer was “jobs, jobs, jobs.” While the UNM sought to portray the election as a contest between a Moscow-backed proxy and pro-West incumbents, Georgian Dream did not allow itself to be drawn into a downward spiral of refutations of these largely unsubstantiated accusations. Unlike previous iterations of the opposition, Georgian Dream’s campaign hewed to a relatively coherent message of economic development, freedom from state impunity and, all-importantly, jobs.

Meanwhile, allegations of Ivanishvili’s ties to the Kremlin never really stuck. Though Ivanishvili had made his fortune in Russia (a not uncommon occurrence for wealthy Georgians, including several rich individuals allied with Saakashvili), Ivanishvili’s background was actually exceptional for its lack of tarnish compared to many of the tycoons that grew rich in the freewheeling days of Yeltsin’s 1990s. But perhaps more importantly, the motivating issue for the electorate wasn’t Ivanishvili’s relationship with Russia but the UNM’s domestic record. Though the government had made great strides in modernizing infrastructure and institutions, and in eliminating petty corruption, the fruits of the new Georgia largely benefited a narrow elite that advocated for laissez-faire domestic policies in the morning and lobbied for foreign aid in the afternoon.

Helpfully, Georgian Dream also made sure its side of the story was getting out internationally. A major upgrade over the old opposition’s more tentative sojourns into international media, Georgian Dream regularly issued statements, policies and commentaries in clear English, ensuring that its version of events was heard abroad. Though Georgian Dream was able to hire its own cadre of lobbyists to counter the UNM and get its own message out, its deployment of lower-cost platforms like blogs and social media was particularly impressive.

International attention matters. This capacity to draw international attention to the elections played a major role in the country’s transition. While Georgian Dream’s ability to broadcast a message countering the UNM narrative provided some balance and much-needed context for international observers, international engagement in the form of direct contact and election observer missions was critical in ensuring a mostly smooth and somewhat clean election.

Although many countries cannot rely on the same level of outsized attention that Georgia has attracted, the force multiplier of the internet and the proliferation of English as a global lingua franca makes international attention an increasingly inexpensive commodity. Given that competitive authoritarian states are particularly vulnerable to scrutiny that wouldn’t normally concern classically autocratic regimes, international watchfulness and pressure can help to preserve a measure of competitiveness, if not balance.

The fiction of popular representation and electoral pluralism are the lifeblood of competitive authoritarian regimes. From Potemkin ballots to parliamentary theatrics, competitive authoritarian regimes thrive on a narrative of relative openness, giving them a pass in the West even as they hold tightly to the means to maintain power—the best of both worlds. But straddling the blurry regions between autocracy and democracy also makes such regimes uniquely susceptible to disruption.

Such regimes’ grudging allowance of a token opposition and civil society (leavened by frequent harassment and the odd imprisonment) may provide just enough space for an opposition to unify and lure the ruling party into a miscalculation. In Georgia, the ruling UNM incorrectly bought into its own narrative of popularity and thought their position largely safe. But the jarring prison abuse scandal that erupted only weeks before the elections revealed a very different picture: the events ignited a preference cascade, Georgian Dream rallies swelled, and the UNM was revealed as far less popular than its supporters had believed it was.

As in Georgia, opposition movements in other competitive authoritarian countries can exploit their regime’s simulated openness to their advantage. Oppositions can take some measure of refuge in those institutional spaces erected as token nods to pluralism, from which they can help turn an election from a de facto one-sided affair into a genuinely competitive contest.

Though it is too early to call it a democracy, Georgia has nonetheless taken a major step that could turn out to be a watershed in its political development. Of course, while the success of Georgian Dream is worth studying, it’s hardly a formula. And despite the opposition’s ability to beat the odds and score a major victory, the fate of Georgian political development remains far from certain.

Democracy does have a chance in Georgia. For many oppositions in competitive authoritarian regimes, a chance is all they can ask for.

Michael Cecire is a Black Sea-Eurasia regional analyst and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where he contributes to the Project on Democratic Transitions. This commentary is an adaptation of his new article in the spring 2013 issue of Orbis.