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  • Political Developments in Georgia
  • Svante E. Cornell (bio)

In 2009, Niklas Nilsson and I wrote an analysis of Georgian politics after the 2008 war for Demokratizatsiya. While it is both healthy and daunting to go back in time and read one's analysis, most of all it is a sobering experience. The article expressed cautious optimism about Georgia's democratic trajectory. It noted that radicalism, for the first time, had not paid off, and expressed a modest expectation that Georgia could evolve toward "a more conciliatory and issue-oriented political climate."1 In this respect, we were wrong. Much has changed in Georgia since 2009, but one factor has remained constant: the personality-oriented and radical nature of the country's politics. Politicians that have sought to overcome polarization and seek common ground have largely been forced out of the political system; polarization between a haughty government and a radical opposition remains.

Aside from this, however, the country has experienced tumultuous political developments, none of which we predicted with any level of accuracy. We did foresee a level of democratic consolidation that allowed the first democratic transfer of power anywhere in Central Asia and the Caucasus since independence, a feat that remains unparalleled. But we did not foresee the emergence only two years later of a political force led by a reclusive business tycoon—nor that this force would remain in power for a decade and preside over a gradual backtracking of Georgia's political development. This culminated in an awkward moment in the summer of 2022, when the EU granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova but not to Georgia—which only a few years prior had been considered the frontrunner of the three states. How this came to be, and its implications, is the subject of this essay. [End Page 501]

Transfer of Power

In 2009, the strengths and weaknesses of the government led by Mikheil Saakashvili were well known. Saakashvili, a truly transformative figure, had come to power during the Rose Revolution of 2003 and embarked on a furious process of reform that largely succeeded in rooting out the pervasive low-level corruption that was endemic and shockingly visible to any visitor to Georgia in the early 2000s. Saakashvili and his associates concluded that the country's soft authoritarian, clientelistic post-Soviet form of government could not be reformed; it had to be cut down at the root and a modern state rebuilt in its place. This analysis was in principle correct; however, revolutionary changes of government in Eurasia and the Middle East in the past two decades have a remarkably poor track record of bringing about sustainable democratic development—and Georgia is no exception.

Still, under Saakashvili, Georgia's accomplishments were many and drew considerable attention. The country's police was reformed and professionalized, the education system underwent thorough reform, and, most dramatically, the government mobilized new technologies to cut out the widespread opportunities for corruption that had existed whenever citizens came into contact with government agencies. Georgia's "Justice Houses," a one-stop shop where citizens could conduct much of their official business, from renewing drivers licenses to obtaining land titles, were revolutionary—they provided a level of service that would amaze many Americans and Europeans. These service centers were adopted in nearby Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and attracted attention as far afield as Africa and Asia.

But there was a considerable internal contradiction in Saakashvili's government. Coming to power just as President George W. Bush was launching his "Freedom Agenda," the Georgian revolutionaries positioned themselves as a "beacon of liberty" in the region. This secured considerable U.S. support and the first—and, to date, only—U.S. presidential visit to any country in the Caucasus or Central Asia. But in so doing, they also created expectations that they were neither willing nor able to live up to. The reality is that the Rose Revolution was not a revolution against authoritarian rule per se: it was primarily a revolution against corruption and mismanagement. Georgians wanted a government that delivered services more than they cared about the niceties of constitutional democracy. And to make the government work, Saakashvili soon found he needed to consolidate power...