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Roundtable: Arab protests and Georgia’s legacy

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Yesterday, February 10, embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak took to the airwaves to deliver a speech that, more or less, addressed and resolved approximately nothing. His speech, of course, was a response to the growing crescendo of protests and actions against him and his 30-year old vertical mukhabarat regime.

The Egypt protests, like the surprising Tunisia revolution that preceded it, are to some — like ex Spanish PM Jose Maria Aznar — an indication that the Arab world is experiencing its own Berlin Wall moment, where the gushes of liberty come suddenly and vigorously. Of course, the world may have seen this movie before: in 2005, the liberation of Iraq, relatively democratic elections there and in the Palestinian territories, and the onset of mass pro-West protests in Lebanon led many around the world to hail the moment an ‘Arab spring’ for democracy in the region. Walid Jumblatt, a prominent Lebanese Druze leader (and consummate opportunist), was even so bold as to claim that the “Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”

The parallel, however, is not particularly complimentary. Despite the outpouring of energy and the energetic blossoming of civil society in some of the modern world’s most unforgiving soils, the so-called ‘Arab spring’ died an ignoble death. Hezbollah, a well-known Iranian proxy with an extremist agenda, may have been dealt a setback in 2005, but managed to capitalize on Lebanon’s instability and consolidate its position as the [unelected] de facto nucleus of power in Lebanon. And though Iraq has thankfully made great strides since 2005, their Arab brethren in the Palestinian territories remain mired in a seemingly intractable situation while being led by an ineffectual Abu Mazen from Fatah and extremists from Hamas, an unrepentant terrorist organization.

But the Mideast is hardly the only home to such cycles of populism and autocracy (often blurring into one another), as the path was most prominently blazed by the series of ‘color revolutions’ in Eurasia, including Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, and Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 Tulip Revolution. Sadly, the experience in Eurasia hasn’t been much better. Kyrgyzstan’s post-Revolution president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was displaced by another revolution in 2010, which many say was partially orchestrated by Moscow. Ukraine, though hardly the Putin footstool that many have caricatured it to be, has still nonetheless rejected Orange Revolution heroes Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko in favor of Moscow’s favored vote rigger Viktor Yanukovych. And Georgia, despite being the only country of the ‘color revolutions’ that seems to have converted its populist explosion into semi-permanent democratic gains, in many ways remains a laggard in areas of transparency, political development, and media freedom.

The eventual outcome of Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine revolution,’ Egypt protests, and its effect on worldwide democratization remains an open question. However, the people power rallies that have made Al Jazeera watchers out of many of us do compel us to consider what this second Arab spring might do for Georgia’s own Rose Revolution legacy. Does it validate Georgia’s experiences? Or does it, as Ghia Nodia argues, provide a contrast to an increasingly autocratic political environment in Georgia? To get some thoughts, EVOLUTSIA.NET has brought together a roundtable of informed voices to give their thoughts.

Inge Snip, Evolutsia.Net and Uppsala University

With a ‘wave’ of protests flooding North Africa, the wish to draw a parallel between these calls for regime change and the color revolutions that took place between 2003 and 2005 in the post-communist area is understandably attractive. However, are the so-called revolutions really comparable? Why did the US treat the Egypt protest in a completely different manner than the color revolutions? And what will the outcome be? Moreover, not only should one wonder what the color revolutions have brought, but if one argues that they have brought democracy in some form, will this even be the case in North Africa? And why or why not? Do these calls for democracy validate the Georgian case?

First of all, let me argue that such generalizations are flawed. The Egyptian people have experienced a completely different system for more than 30 years, distinct from that of the post-communist countries that were once part of a socialist regime, transforming to chaotic independence without strong leaders for more than a decade. And while Georgian ex-president Eduard Shevernadze allowed corruption to flourish and the state to atrophy, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has been known for his strong control over the country. Furthermore, Egypt is currently in a much better economic state compared to Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Serbia (2000), and Georgia during their revolutions.

Still, one should wonder what the color revolutions really brought to the people? And as Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have shown, the aftermath does not always look pretty. Even when looking at Serbia and Georgia there are complaints, however, of ‘authoritarian’ problems. Though this could just be a temporary error (I am being optimistic here).

Therefore, the calls for democracy in North Africa are perhaps only comparable to the post-communist revolutions when you look at it from a major distance. Hence, they do not in any way validate the color revolutions or lend any guidance as to what the future might bring. The fact that Georgia’s revolution is considered marginally successful does not mean this will happen in Egypt, due to completely different situations. It might, or it might not. What is most important in this case is to carefully look at the individual country’s legacy and work to forge a democratic institution from there.

Inge Snip is an analyst with Evolutsia.Net and a consultant for the Coalition for Justice. She is currently completing graduate studies at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Nicholas Clayton, The Faster Times and Three Kings blog

In the light of new popular uprisings against authoritarianism and corruption, I think it is a good time to look back on the color revolutions and where they fell short. The Orange Revolutionists merely installed an equally corrupt, much less stable regime, and Bakiyev’s rise to power in Kyrgyzstan was no more than the handing of the autocratic baton from one despot to another (I sincerely hope that the demonstrators in Cairo and Tunis are aware of these case studies). Both are gone now, and Saakashvili probably owes his continued grip on power since the Rose Revolution more to luck than anything else. Still, Ghia Nodia is right to point out that these new popular movements around the world provoke an uncomfortable nostalgia for Georgians and the Saakshvili regime.

In the early years of the Rose Revolution, the world was right to look upon Saakashvili (nudged along by his Western advisors) as a visionary reformer in a region that has been devoid of such figures since Ataturk. The impact of his policies could be felt from the street level up to Georgia’s rankings by international governance and pro-democracy groups. Then it began to splinter, and Saakashvili suddenly transitioned from revolutionary to reactionary through the 2007 Mubarak-esque crackdown and subsequent rollbacks of civil liberties and election competitiveness.

To observers in Georgia today, the exuberance of the Rose Revolution seems like an event of a distant era. Now the conversation swirls around who will take the empowered post of prime minister created by Georgia’s new constitution, and there is little doubt that Saakashvili will refrain from following in Putin’s footsteps and create a cynical “tandemocracy” come 2013. In fact, having lived in Russia earlier in this decade, it’s hard to miss the similarities. Putin was also welcomed as a fresh young face with a plan for needed reform, tackling oligarchs and boosting Russia’s national prestige (thanks largely to Putin’s best friend, global oil prices). Now, just as Russia dismisses the opposition and restive neighbors as tools of NATO expansionism, dissent and internal discord in Georgia are all chalked up to the invisible hands of Russian imperialism.

It is telling that Saakashvili no longer compares Georgia’s path to prosperity as one mirroring the United States or Europe, but rather autocratic Singapore saying that “democracy does not mean instability.” It also bears noting that while he openly congratulated Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko for battering the opposition into defeat in Belarus’ December elections, he gave a tepid reaction to the events in Egypt saying he hoped that the situation would be “defused” through “peaceful means and dialogue.” Not exactly an endorsement for the same type of popular uprising that brought himself to power less than 8 years ago.

Nicholas Clayton is the Caucasus Editor for The Faster Times and a freelance journalist living in Tbilisi. He blogs at Three Kings.

Dr. Kornely Kakachia, Tbilisi State University and the Georgian Institute of Politics

The success of the Tunisian revolution has led a lot of smart people  to suggest that this might be the catalyst for a new wave of democratization throughout the world, especially in Middle East. While Tunisia and Egypt is an obvious warning sign to other authoritarian regimes in the region, I don’t think  it might have any effect on Georgia. Though geographically quite close, Georgia is not part of the Arab or Muslim world, so it has nothing to do with it. If Georgians decide to follow any democracy path, it will be an Eastern European model and not the Middle East version. Secondly, Georgian  people based on their experience of the Rose Revolution have developed what I call “Revolution fatigue,” and are unlikely to support any non-evolutionary scenario.

Political developments of the last few years is good example of this fact. While understanding shortcomings of the Georgian government and some of its internal policies, people still recall the dire consequences of the debilitating civil wars of the 1990s. They simply prefer whatever they have now to what was essentially no government at all. However, it does not mean that Georgia as well as other developing nations are immune from social and political unrest. With a tight central budget, increasing social problems might spark some discontent, but it is not likely to result in a popular mood for major regime change. Overall, the general public  just wishes to witness the first-ever constitutionally confirmed handover of political power in Georgia.  I guess if things move that direction I don’t see any reason to worry about the fate of Georgian democracy.

Kornely Kakachia is a political scientist with Tbilisi State University and the founding director of the Georgian Institute of Politics. He is currently a visiting fellow at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Michael Cecire, Evolutsia.Net and the Georgian Institute of Politics

Recent political unrest in the Arab world has managed to highlight both the accomplishments and the limitations of revolution in Georgia. While it’s safe to say that there is plenty that separates the experiences of Rose Revolutionary Georgia and today’s Egypt — culture and geography not being the least of them — its unsurprising that the protests in the Arab world are compelling some to take a peek back in Georgia’s recent history and reflect on how the Rose Revolution will stand the test of time.

There are many differences between Georgia and Egypt, but the sense that Georgia has been through a similar period of rapid change as has happened in Tunisia and is happening in Egypt is nonetheless unmistakable. A few things might strike those taking that walk. First, it is almost unimaginable that Georgia managed to have a power change of such tumult and energy almost entirely peacefully. While Georgia’s previous government had a reputation for its selective scrupulousness, credit should be given that former president Shevardnadze and his ilk did not rush to the ramparts, lower the barricades, and unleash thugs on the protesters as Mubarak has clearly done. More importantly, though Georgia’s development has often seemed tedious, it remains remarkable for its relative durability without the wholesale jettisoning of the values which brought it to power in the first place.

At the same time, Ghia Nodia makes a strong point when he points to the juxtaposition of Egyptians calling for freedom in Tahrir Square and contemporary Georgia’s autocratic contours. It’s not comfortable to point out, but despite progress, Georgia remains a highly imperfect country with many of the promises of the Rose Revolution still unmet. Media freedom, persisting elite corruption, and a deeply-flawed judiciary are just a few of the issues that haunt the Rose Revolution’s once-limitless promises — especially in light of similar actions elsewhere. Nonetheless, the apparent lack of mutual solidarity between Georgia and protesters abroad may not just be a sign of a Tbilisi political class out of touch with its roots, but perhaps also a gradual acceptance of the realities of responsible statecraft.

Michael Hikari Cecire is the publisher of Evolutsia.Net and is a founding board member in the Georgian Institute of Politics.


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Evolutsia

Evolutsia.Net a news and analysis blogozine covering the political landscape of Georgia republic. Evolutsia.Net aims to provide the public with an objective and international perspective on Georgia’s work-in-progress transition to a modern, pluralistic democracy. Evolutsia.Net is led by three independent analysts with experience in and pertaining to Georgia. Evolutsia.Net has no political affiliations and endeavors to provide information and analysis without bias or prejudice.

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