Op-eds

The Withering of the Rose?

Georgia’s revolution has lost its bloom.

This article first appeared in: TRANSITIONS ONLINE: The Withering of the Rose? by Jaba Devdariani 13 April 2005

Does Saakashvili’s government have the nerve to continue pushing through vital reforms and the wisdom to pick the right battles?

For the past week, observers, both Georgian and foreign, have been musing on opinion polls that show that, in the space of just six months, Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili has lost at least a quarter of his supporters.

These figures may be disconcerting, but on one level there is little for the government to worry about. First, Saakashvili’s party has retained the support of around 38 percent of Georgians, close to the support it had garnered by the eve of the Rose Revolution in November 2003. And secondly, the opposition looks as feeble as ever, with most of the opposition parties’ ratings falling within the margin of statistical error (3 percent). So the polls paint no doomsday picture for Saakashvili and his National Movement.

But even a single glance at the latest newswires paints a picture of a country under stress. Of late, people have been protesting frequently, very frequently in Georgia. Some have taken to the streets with purely social demands: a lack of electricity in most provinces, social hardships in Armenian-populated Javakheti, and disruptions to the water supply in Imereti. Also linked to social issues are the “bazaar protests” by traders in Georgia’s near-ubiquitous open-air markets. They are up in arms at the prospect of being relocated from the center of Tbilisi and other cities to newly allocated suburban plots, a move that will, they fear, lose them customers.

Then there are the protests against reforms: Traders are refusing to comply with better-enforced safety, sanitary, and licensing requirements. Medical students have launched a hunger strike against new national examinations intended to replace university entry exams, a breeding ground for corruption that allegedly generates a $3 million market per year in bribes and kickbacks.

But how disturbing, how destabilizing is this stress? Most of the socially motivated protests were inherited from Shevardnadze’s administration. In fact, this is the very same wave of social discontent that propelled the Rose Revolution and brought down President Eduard Shevardnadze. So, seen against that backdrop, the government should worry lest this unrest turn into an explosion. But it may be that what we are hearing now is simply the bursting of a bubble that was bound to burst sooner or later, since the post-revolutionary hopes invested in Saakashvili’s new government were grossly inflated. And as for the protest against reforms, what reforms were ever pushed through without squeals?

Mother Nature also helps explain the current unrest. The government was lucky to have a rather warm winter in 2004, which reduced the impact of the power shortages that have been a commonplace of Georgian winters for the past 12 years. But its luck ran out in March 2005, when unprecedented snowfalls brought down the high-power transmission lines linking the country with Russia – and, with them, toppled the illusion that Georgia is solving its power problems.

Added to the feeling that things are not going right are the frequent government reshuffles, bickering between ministers and, lastly, the shock left by the death in February of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania.

AN OVERLY RATIONAL REVOLUTIONARY?

But a difficult legacy, the pain of reform, and bad luck cannot entirely account for the general sense of disappointment. Has something gone wrong with Georgia’s revolutionary government?

On one level, the answer is no. Georgians wanted nothing short of miracles, and Saakashvili and his government have indeed delivered some. Only a seriously deranged person would have argued in November 2003 that only several months later, Georgians would come to respect the country’s notoriously corrupt traffic policemen. Today, while the brutality of some police investigations is still a major problem, the completely re-shaped traffic police force without doubt rates as a success story. It would also have required an immense leap of faith to believe in a 64 percent increase in tax collection in just one year.

But on another level, the answer is yes. The reason can be found in the evolution of Saakashvili himself. He grabbed, and then consolidated power as a politician of passion and conviction. He was a revolutionary, so much so that some, if not most, foreign observers feared that “Misha” (as he was lovingly referred to on the streets) would rock the political boat too much once he assumed power.

That did not happen. Saakashvili has proved himself much more rational than one might have assumed. His fiery rhetoric is reserved for those policy areas where he is sure to score political points, such as cracking down on privileged Shevardnadze cronies or castigating Russia. And he claims political credit for ridding Ajaria of Aslan Abashidze’s authoritarian rule, for increased budgetary revenues, and even for the new roads under construction in Tbilisi.

But, strangely, he has failed personally and vocally to back the most significant, if socially controversial systemic reforms that his government has launched, in education, the criminal justice system, and the Justice Ministry, reforms needed to fulfill many of the hopes placed in the revolution.

Why? There can be only one answer: Saakashvili acts like a politician who is running for re-election. After assuming the presidency, he steered to the middle of the political spectrum, to gather momentum for a second term. And when the anti-corruption drive trickled down to ordinary traders and ordinary students, he passed the buck to his cabinet, in an effort to preserve his own popularity.

Prudent as that might look, the policy is no longer sustainable. The government can no longer be separated so conveniently from the president. When Zhvania died, the government lost its center of gravity – and the center of gravity now lies squarely with the presidency. The new prime minister, Zurab Nogaideli, may be perceived as competent, but he lacks Zhvania’s gravitas.

Secondly, as Saakashvili’s honeymoon with the public wears off and the government’s moves no longer seem self-evident to Georgians, Saakashvili needs a style that depends less on populism. In the honeymoon period, his failure to explain the government’s policies looked like determination; now it comes across as arrogance and deafness to the needs of ordinary citizens. His populism is turning into a liability.

Could it be, in fact, that Saakashvili is too rational for his own good? Could it be that, in becoming a party-political populist, he has lost too much of his revolutionary passion?

t may be that he would do better if he were to put the national agenda front and center, and back the reforms that really are crucial to the success of the country’s agenda.

Recent polls show that more than 40 percent of the voters are undecided. To transform uncommitted voters into committed supporters, it would be better if he provided committed support to clear policies. Such a stance would perhaps also create passionate opponents, but, for Georgia, an issue-based opposition would be much better than the rather pathetic collection of Saakashvili-bashers that now claim the space across the chamber from the National Movement.

AN AGENDA FOR A POPULIST REFORMER

Saakashvili should consider throwing his political weight behind two specific policies: meaningful reform of local government, and reform of the judiciary. Both are reforms with a popular spin and both would also help to address the root causes of the public protests.

Saakashvili’s administration inherited a fundamental problem: an over-centralized political system that places responsibility exclusively on the president. In his first days and weeks in power, Saakashvili even strengthened the presidency.

But while people may be happy with the government’s policies, they are sometimes unhappy at how those policies are implemented. It is in lower-level public services and government departments in the provinces that officials “go wrong.” For as long as these officials continue to be appointees, the president will continue to be held personally responsible. In keeping with post-Soviet tradition, Georgians continue to go over the top of local officials and ask “Misha” to help them repair their road and fix their water supply. This is politically damaging and saps support from both Saakashvili’s reforms and his administration.

This problem could be solved – without sacrificing control – by handing greater responsibility to local government. Local leaders should have both the power and the money to tackle infrastructure problems. Yes, many of them would become corrupt. There would be protests and maybe even recalls and re-elections in the provinces, but the central authorities would have their hands free to arbitrate the disputes. Over the years, a core government elite would emerge in the regions, something that Georgia desperately lacks. And, to avoid a meltdown in governance (as happened when Abashidze carved out a little fiefdom for himself in Ajaria), the courts need to be reformed to create a judiciary that is above local political haggles.

A NATION IN NEED OF A LEADER

What the Georgian government currently faces is, in short, a transition from its passionate adolescence towards political maturity. The government and ordinary Georgians must come to realize that the revolution they backed in November 2003 is not an event, but a process of gradual, institutional change.

It takes political maturity for Georgians to give Saakashvili’s government credit where it is due but, at the same time, to argue for policy alternatives where changes have been slow to show through.

Maturity also requires a change of attitude from Saakashvili, some re-thinking of the presidency itself, and some modification of his revolutionary spirit so that he replaces populism with the moral leadership that he currently shies away from.

Saakashvili now comes across as not enough as a leader of the nation, and too much as a party leader. This locks him into relatively insignificant political skirmishes with his opponents. That is not how to lead Georgia forward. The Georgian nation remains divided along ethnic lines, but it is also more and more divided between the haves and have-nots. It is hard but necessary to lead a nation like that towards painful change, and simultaneously to keep its confidence. Without confidence, Georgian society will return to apathy, and apathy tolerates and breeds corruption.

As the adrenalin of the revolution wears off, the new Georgian administration now has to wake up to the challenges of political maturity: good governance and sustainable social change.

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