6.07.2009

The sinister clannishness of Caucasian politics

The American Conservative notices that Georgia is not the democratic paradise it was imagined to be by some during last year's fighting with Russia:
The country’s political history in the 17 years since the collapse of the USSR has been almost exclusively violent. The Georgian nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia was overthrown in 1992 after a civil war with the two separatist regions. He was replaced by James Baker’s old friend Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister and long-time Communist Party boss in Georgia, who returned to his native land after the collapse of the USSR to take up his old job. Shevardnadze was showered with praise by Western leaders, Left and Right alike, up until the moment when he was overthrown in the Western-orchestrated “Rose Revolution” at the end of 2003, after which he was denounced as a corrupt dictator.

More Western praise was immediately lavished on the new tough man in Tbilisi when he was confirmed in office after winning over 95 percent of the vote in the presidential election, a tally of which Saddam Hussein would have been proud. This applause came in spite of the fact that Saakashvili obviously had a penchant for violence. On Jan. 12, 2004, shortly after the Rose Revolution but before he officially became president, Saakashvili said that he had given orders to the police to open fire on any prisoners who started disturbances. He also said, “We shall liquidate all bandits, as a class.” Later that year, in August, he announced that he had given orders to his navy to shoot at all ships that violated Georgia’s territorial waters, including cruise ships carrying tourists to Abkhazia. (The Black Sea is a popular holiday destination for Russians.)

As soon as he seized power, Saakashvili’s regime unleashed an orgy of arrests of officials. In the name of that old Communist chestnut, an “anti-corruption campaign,” hundreds were rounded up. For months, Georgians were treated daily to live broadcasts of ministers, officials, and judges being bundled into police cars in the middle of the night. No doubt some Georgians relished the sight of the mighty falling, but many probably feared that one day they might get the 3 a.m. knock on the door themselves.

This is all true, and needs to be said. But as with a lot of things, it needs nuance. Georgia has always been a clannish mess -- The Tbilisi Blues has an excellent chronicle of the country's current politics, and Simon Sebag-Montefiore's Young Stalin is a really good look into pre-Communist Georgia. But what are we comparing Georgia to, exactly? Russia? Azerbaijan? Armenia? Georgia is top of the stack in the region -- that may not be much, but it is something.

Edit: Russia Blog, which is one of the more authoritative of the blogospheric Russia-watchers, has some pretty harsh criticism for the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, the organization that John Laughland, who wrote the linked piece, works for. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine who is the pot and who the kettle.

Edit 2: The linked piece shows up on the front page of the American Conservative's website today, but seems to have run in the September 2008 print edition. But the piece still invites pushback by dint of showing up as it does now. Given the still-ongoing opposition street blockades (which, unlike some previous protests, has not been put down by riot police), possible ascension to NATO, and upset over a possible mutiny, Georgia's status as a Western-looking democracy is a very salient point.