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  • Twenty Years of PostcommunismGeorgia's Soviet Legacy
  • Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. (bio)

Except for the three Baltic republics, the new states that burst from the carcass of the old Soviet Union have experienced severe difficulties in reaching democracy. An obvious but little used method for understanding these difficulties is to examine the legacy that seven decades of Soviet politics have left behind. Georgia makes a good case to start with because it was once judged such a promising candidate to consolidate democracy, and because (unlike Russia and several other post-Soviet states) it is free of many of those glaring vestiges of Soviet rule that "overdetermine" continuity with the Soviet period. The analysis here will be preliminary, yet its findings should be relevant to other post-Soviet states once allowances are made for the ways in which they differ.

The postcommunist countries of Eurasia distinguish themselves from Soviet times by reacting against those times. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) is gone, and the very word "party" is often shunned. All the institutional forms are democratic: There are presidents with limited terms, parliaments, judiciaries, privately owned economies, and mostly private media. Ordinary people display their newfound sense of freedom from Soviet pressure by doing everything from traveling abroad to refusing to wear seatbelts, as if they simply cannot endure the constraint. People see government as something alien, intrusive, and filthy.

Contempt and mistrust of government are common in noncommunist authoritarian regimes and even democracies, but almost nowhere are they as strong as what one finds in the former Soviet Union. Although the situation is seldom discussed, it is quite likely the case that not only postcommunist publics, but postcommunist rulers as well share this sense of reacting against the Soviet system. What constraint, like [End Page 144] a seatbelt, chafes an elected president beyond endurance? The rule of law comes first to mind, together with all the institutional frameworks, bureaucratic routines, and habits that are related to it.

In the former Soviet countries, crucial elements of Soviet politics have disappeared utterly, beginning with ideology. The names of the youth organizations that spearheaded the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia (Kmara, meaning "enough") and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine (Pora, meaning "it's time") reveal the discomfort with defining ideals that suffuses politics after communism. In Georgia, the ruling National Movement has something like the shadow of an ideology, a belief system marked by a vague aversion to tradition, confidence in Westernization, and a nominal trust in free markets, but the actual significance of these ideological or quasi-ideological commitments is hard to evaluate. The side of Soviet communism that stood for sacrifice on behalf of ideas, or for the future, has disappeared. So have the notions of personal salvation through the submergence of one's will within the party's, and of the infallible "party line." Politics is pervaded instead by an opportunism that suggests an utter lack of principles. The good side of this immense transformation is the disappearance of restrictions on liberty in people's private lives.

Across most of the former Soviet space, governments have changed a great deal since the days of the USSR, yet still resemble the Stalinist (and later Soviet) regime in concentrating power in the hands of a single man, who typically rules with the help of an obedient government party or parties plus a submissive legislature and judiciary. (Exceptions include Ukraine and Moldova, where no president has thus far been able to exert reliable control over parliament or a strong, longstanding opposition.) In Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili has excelled all his post-Soviet counterparts in attacking the problem of weak, corrupt governance. He has been outstandingly successful in rebuilding—or rather, building—a robust state for his people, and in eliminating low-level official corruption.

Georgian society and Georgians' personal lives are now immune to state interference, but one of Saakashvili's guiding principles seems to be that no major source of potential political power can be allowed to remain truly independent. (The media in the capital, the Georgian Orthodox Church, and the theater are exceptions.) From September through November 2007, the National Movement (NM) faced the first serious...