In the last five days of the conflict between Georgia and Russia, there have been innumerable opinions about which is right/wrong, which is the aggressor/victim. Confusion will reign on those questions for some time. One thing is clear, there is a true point of success for Georgia in communications.
At every turn, Georgia’s President Saakashvili has been live, at the top of the news hour in all forms of media, all around the globe. Journalists are being generously offered one on one interviews with Saakashvili, who appears with a slide show, updated for each appearance. He mobilized Presidents of neighboring nations to travel to Tblisi, and the rally of citizens was (succesfully) planned to maximize press coverage.
In contrast, Russia has relied primarily on unnamed spokepeople from the Kremlin and various Ministries. Russian President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have also made use of surrogates, such as France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Russia have may be the victor in the short term military conflict, but Georgia is the clear winner in the communciations battle, which may pay significant long term dividends.
I’ve been following events in Georgia with some interest over the past few days. Police chasing protesters, government shutting down independent media, opposition leaders summoned to prosecutors’ office – rarely do headlines and photos capturing such events are associated with democracy. Its been particularly puzzling to see attacks on media (both in terms of shutting down broadcasts and raiding offices) since it was that same media that propelled the current administration to power several years ago. Violent attacks on protesters are puzzling as well, since the current administration was swept into office through similar democratic protests over the actions and policies of the previous government.
We are re-learning the basics of democracy in Georgia today: democracies are not defined by elections alone – they are defined by government actions between elections. Is raiding media offices and shutting down broadcasts consistent with the values of democracy? What democratic values are there in using riot police to beat and dispurse peaceful protests? Does the opposition have the right to voice its opinions and be heard?
Much coverage of the crisis has focused on the battle playing out between the West and Russia in Georgia. Unfortunately, in thinking about who wins – Russia or the West – it seems that there is not enough thought put into the fate of Georgians themselves – the regular citizens who want to enjoy democracy, rule of law, and economic prosperity. This is not about Russia or the West – it is about Georgia and its own democratic values.
Simply put, democracy is not about everyone agreeing on economic policies or a social agenda. It is not about silencing the opposition. It is not even about winning elections. It is, however, about a democratic process, fundamental rights, and equal opportunities to be heard. Saakashvili had the opportunity to be heard four years ago. What happened since then?