Georgia's Quasi-Democracy

GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made news when she confirmed her belief that Georgia belonged in NATO, even if it meant that "perhaps" the United States would have to go to war with Russia. But largely overlooked was her rationale: Georgia, she said, is a "democracy"—a word thrown around casually by U.S. politicians on the left and the right. John McCain has called Georgia a "tiny little democracy" and declared "We are all Georgians now" after Russia moved in to South Ossetia, suggesting a threat to Georgia was a threat to all freedom. Joe Biden calls it a "young democracy," and Barack Obama's point man on Russia, Michael McFaul, also referred to it as a democracy in recent congressional testimony.

But things are viewed differently beyond the Beltway. The NGO Freedom House puts the country in the same category as Venezuela and Nigeria in its most recent study, rating Georgia less free and democratic than Moldova, Ukraine and every EU and NATO membership candidate. Lincoln Mitchell, a Georgia expert and Columbia University professor, says Georgian democracy suffers from having no real line between state and party, and while it has made great economic strides under President Mikheil Saakashvili, he has never created a meaningful judiciary, has weakened the legislature and has centralized executive power. If anything, the country is becoming less democratic, according to Freedom House. In November 2007, Saakashvili cracked down on antigovernment demonstrators in front of Parliament, declared martial law and shut down a private television network.

Yet while Washington think-tankers may be coming around to a more nuanced view, it has been largely ignored by the politicians. In part, says Mitchell, that's because Saakashvili—young and Western-educated—talks the language of liberty and freedom, which pushes the right buttons in Washington, and cultivates politicians and bureaucrats up and down the food chain. Also, the late 2003 Rose Revolution, which brought Saakashvili to power, came at a time when the Iraq War was going poorly, and Washington invoked Georgia as evidence that democracy was indeed in bloom.

This has policy implications. If the starting proposition is that Georgia is a tiny democracy under the thumb of the Evil Empire, it is easy for the United States to dismiss as cowardice much of Western Europe's concerns about its NATO prospects, historically a grouping of free democracies. But Europeans have never subscribed to this black-and-white narrative, a fact that would suggest another possibility about Georgia and NATO: it's just not ready.

Georgia's Quasi-Democracy | World