Caucasus Context: Lincoln Mitchell On Georgian Democracy


Caucasus Context will be Evolutsia.Net’s weekly interview brief, providing context  to newsworthy regional issues. Today, Caucasus Context speaks to Columbia University’s Lincoln Mitchell about Georgia’s democratic progress.

U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House has recently released its 2012 edition of Freedom in the World, an international assessment of global freedom. Georgia’s ratings remains unchanged from 2011 with scores of 4 for political rights and 3 for civil rights. The scores are based on a scale of 1-7, with 1 being most free.

Despite Georgia’s regional lead, being the best-performing South Caucasus state, Tbilisi’s scores have largely remained stagnant over the past decade. Having once enjoyed the FH-assigned status as an electoral democracy, Georgia lost this label in 2009 following the 2008 snap presidential elections and the August 2008 war against Russia.

Evolutsia.Net asked Columbia University’s Lincoln Mitchell, an expert on post-Soviet transitions and the former chief of party for the National Democratic Institute in Georgia, about what these scores mean about Georgian democracy today and down the line.

Evolutsia.Net: Georgia’s latest scores on the Freedom House assessment give it a status of “partly free” without the status as an “electoral democracy.” With visible successes in reducing crime and corruption, why is Georgia’s score largely stagnant?

Lincoln Mitchell: Freedom House seeks to measure freedom and democracy rather than governance. One of the defining characteristics of post-Rose Revolution Georgia is that while they have improved governance, reduced petty corruption, cut bureaucracy and the like, they have done little on meaningful democratic reform. The good work the Georgian government has done in the areas I mentioned should not be overlooked, but it is wrong to assume that those somehow make the country a freer and more democratic place. The consistent problems with media freedoms, abuse of state power and administrative resources, dominance by the executive branch, harassment of the opposition and the like have not changed in recent years. I would agree with Freedom House’s assessment that Georgia is neither a democracy or an authoritarian regime, but it is somewhere in the middle. That is why it earned the “Partly Free” rating.

Evolutsia.NetWith Parliamentary elections later this year and Presidential elections next year, how realistic are the chances that these numbers will improve over the short term?

L.M.: I am not optimistic that these numbers will improve over the short term. The Georgian government has become adept at running elections that are good enough to get a begrudging nod from OSCE/ODIHR and other international observers, but that are still unfair enough to ensure the ruling party wins. I suspect 2012 will be more of the same. Ivanishvili’s presence on the political scene brings the potential to change this as he is the strongest opposition figure against which the government has run and is the only opposition figure with the resources to compete with the government since the Rose Revolution.

On balance, I think a non-election year would be a year in which Georgia would be more likely to move up in the Freedom House ratings because the government might be more inclined to liberalize with less at stake.

Evolutsia.Net: What are some steps the Georgian government can take to put democracy-building back on the right path?

L.M.: The Georgian government could take democracy seriously and understand that greater democracy is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient, for Georgia to reach its foreign policy goals. Having these elections, including the pre-election period which has already begun, occur in a more democratic context would be a big step in the right path, but so far we we are not seeing signs of that happening.

Lincoln Mitchell is an Associate at the Harriman Institute and an Affiliate at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

Michael Cecire

Michael Hikari Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions.

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