For years democratization is seen as a top down process of constitutional engineering, nation-building, and market reforms. Until the early 2000s, states in former Eastern Europe saw their membership of NATO and the European Union as the final stage of consolidating their democracy. Today, this notion may be seen as unhelpful. First of all, with the crisis of multilateralism, states are not expected to “progress” or “backtrack” simultaneously or “in waves.” Secondly, no one expects big bang expansions of NATO or the EU in their near future. That does not mean Georgia is a “post-Soviet” or “transition” polity.
Criticizing Georgia as a regime
It is still common to see countries like Georgia through the shallow and frightfully uninformed lens of an exotic “post-Soviet” state. That kind of reporting does little to advance our knowledge of the country, the region, or democracy. But, even more insightful analyses suffer from a “transitional” bias. In his recent article for Carnegie Europe, Thomas De Waal regrets that in granting Visa-free travel to Georgian citizens, the EU has been lost its most significant “carrot” that could induce Georgia to reform.
At this point in time, that “transition” reflex is counterproductive for two reasons. First, the US government is abandoning democracy promotion while the EU is focusing on transactional rather than transformational politics. Focusing on extending “sticks and carrots” to Georgia is politically futile. Secondly, this process understates the significance of what has been achieved beyond sticks and carrots.
When the Georgian Dream movement came to power in 2012 there was a sense of regime change. The new government halved the prison population and ended a despicable legacy of using criminal prosecution as a means of political blackmail. And for the first time in Georgian politics there are powerful and critical opposition media.
De Waal looks at the political evolution of Georgia since the reelection of the Georgian Dream coalition with an electoral landslide in 2015. While he recognizes “progress,” he takes issue with a series of electoral reforms that he finds are self-serving for the Georgian Dream administration. His criticism focuses on three measures: first, granting a parliamentary seat bonus for the leading party; secondly, a demand that only coalitions that run on the same electoral ticket can form a government; thirdly, the fact that these reforms are enshrined in the constitution rather than common legislation.
Learning to celebrate political cleavages
In reality, Georgia’s electoral law has little to do with the balance between the government and the opposition. On the one hand, the opposition exhausts its criticism on vehement and personalized vitriolic attacks, but when it comes to policy there are few substantive differences.
The notion that Georgian politics is divided between an open and cosmopolitan Georgia and a closed and nationalist Georgia has little grounding in political reality. Tbilisi volunteered to receive Syrian and Iraqi refugees more willingly than many affluent governments in Europe. And while it is true that the Georgian government did call for the regulation of foreign land ownership, Tbilisi has merely followed on the footsteps of Austria, Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Finland.
Paradoxically, Georgia is praised for its reformist tempo and criticized for it majoritarian system. Since 2012, the government has reduced unemployment, signed a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU, a Free Trade Agreement with China, and maintained a healthy pace of foreign direct investment, whilst cutting red tape and proceeding with major infrastructural projects such as the port of Anaklia. Maintaining such a pace of policy development would be difficult without a strong executive.
In striking a balance between representation in parliament and effectiveness in governance there is no European “golden standard.” Quotas to enter the parliament (Germany, Italy, Greece) and various majoritarian systems (UK) discourage political fragmentation and favour strong executives. Other political systems place a premium on representation over effectiveness by encouraging coalition politics, such as the Netherlands or Israel.
However, De Waal makes one significant point as regards to Georgia’s political system that is worth highlighting. Georgian analysts view the project of democratization as a series of policy commitments to its allies. That is why many of Georgia’s policy commitments — electoral, economic, and diplomatic – have been “constitutionalized.” By widening the scope of the constitution to include a series of policy commitments, Georgia essentially says that a series of policies will remain uncontested. For a democracy that is in transition that may be necessary. But, for a democracy that is gaining confidence in its institutions, parties, and structures that may no longer be necessary. Georgia should celebrate its political cleavages, which lie at the heart of a democracy.
Dr Ilia Roubanis is a lecturer at the National School of Public Administration in Athens, Greece.