In Larry Diamond’s recently published book The Spirit of Democracy, the author cautions against the temptation of accepting “thin democracy” – defined by a system that chooses its leaders through popular vote – as the standard for determining what constitutes a free society. Recent developments in Georgia have lent strong credence to Diamond’s argument. An article appearing in the Washington Post describes the democratic setbacks the small Caucasus republic has experienced since the 2003 Rose Revolution swept the Western-educated reformist Mikheil Saakashvili to the presidency. This development was greeted with much fanfare by western democracies, as Georgia joined the growing group of former Soviet republics to make a clear break with communist-era leadership.
Unfortunately, those who hoped Georgia would serve as a shining example of liberalism in a largely undemocratic region have been repeatedly disappointed by Saakashvili’s reluctance to lay aside the tools of Georgia’s authoritarian past. When opposition to the president’s policies began to mount, Saakashvili resorted to all-too-familiar tactics. First, the government responded to widespread, mostly peaceful protests by deploying riot police armed with truncheons and water cannons, followed by a declaration of a state of emergency. Next, Saakashvili called snap presidential elections just a few months after the week-long state of emergency had stripped opponents of the right to demonstrate or appear on television, leaving them ill-equipped to mount an effective campaign against him. The government has also been accused of applying pressure to silence or shut down media outlets critical of the president.
As the article notes, many Western governments, were quick to throw in with the new government and cut support for vital advocacy efforts. Many Georgian activists followed suit and joined the new government, leaving fewer dedicated to ensuring that the government implemented its democratic rhetoric. Georgian democrats have admitted that they were too quick to put their trust in the government’s reform agenda, and were too hesitant to criticize inaction on important issues such as corruption. This dearth in pro-democracy advocacy resulted in weak institutionalization of reforms, which in turn allowed Saakashvili to resort to authoritarian tactics when it became convenient.
In order to develop a democratic society in which vital components such as the rule of law and freedom of expression exist and are respected, private citizens must participate. In other formerly authoritarian countries making the transition to democracy – such as Serbia – civil society organizations have played a key role in demanding that the government develop institutions to protect basic rights, and in monitoring whether these institutions are functioning as they should. Such organizations exist in Georgia, and many have admirably persisted in calling for a return to the democratic process. It is vital that CIPE and other organizations that support the development of strong democracies continue to support civil society not only where free societies have yet to emerge, but also where they are in their formative stages. If the price of freedom, as is often stated, is eternal vigilance, then it is a price that all proponents of democracy must share.