Regime Change Processes in the Republic of Georgia: Challenges to Stability and Democracy

By Salvatore J. Freni
2013, Vol. 5 No. 02 | pg. 2/2 |

Gamsakhurdia assumed leadership through the Round Table/Free Georgia coalition of groups for Georgian independence from the Soviet Union. Already leader of the country, Gamsakhurdia used the position to his advantage during Georgia’s first presidential elections, in which certain opponents were restricted from running, allowing him to win with 85% of the vote (Minahan, 1998). However, given his previous experience as a Soviet dissident, he was unable to make compromises with his opponents, thus creating many enemies and eventually leading to his violent overthrow (Wheatley, 2005). Yet instead of relinquishing power, Gamsakhurdia and his fellow Zviadists engaged in violence in order to reinstate the deposed leader’s rule, leading to civil war and ultimately his death. Following this violent ordeal, Shevardnadze became leader of Georgia under the Citizens’ Union of Georgia (CUG), which according to King (2001, pp. 95) “was driven less by ties of ideology and class than by loyalty to Shevardnadze and a desire of local elites to secure their political and economic positions amid the turmoil of civil war and state collapse.” Once Shevardnadze consolidated power, some criticism was allowed, and political discourse became less polarized (Nodia & Scholtback 2006).

Despite the hegemonic position of the CUG in Georgian politics, some pluralism existed, both within and outside the ruling party. Within, the CUG contained former Communist Party members as well as members of the liberal intelligentsia. Externally, the dominant position of Aslan Abashidze’s Union of Democratic Revival (UDR) in Ajara provided minimal checks and balances against Shevardnadze. Only the CUG, UDR, and one other party were able pass the threshold to gain seats during the 1995 parliamentary elections (Wheatley, 2004). However, once it became clear prior to the 2000 presidential elections that Shevardnazde’s popularity was declining, the leader capitalized upon his ruling party’s fusion with the administrative and bureaucratic system to guarantee its predominance. Election fraud occurred more frequently but also became harder to hide, further adding to the government’s unpopularity and giving way to the Rose Revolution in 2003.

Despite the fact that democratization was a key element of the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has not allowed significant checks and balances on the executive, and his regime has used similar tactics of his predecessors to prevent regime change. The United National Movement (UNM) became the new ruling power, and Saakashvili increased centralization of the state through vertical power structures. The success and power of the UNM was primarily through its access to state resources, mobilizational capacity, its role as a key social and political organization, as well as its ability to penetrate a variety of other institutions (Timm, 2010). Furthermore, as Laverty (2008) has contended, the Rose Revolution may have been too successful, in that “all political opponents were effectively swept aside;” many within the opposition and civil society became part of the new regime. Because of this ‘decapitation’ of civil society, checks and balances of the regime’s power were severely diminished, giving it virtually carte blanche to rule (ibid.). While the 2004 presidential and parliamentary elections were seen to be the most democratic, there were still several critical pitfalls. Only one party besides the UNM was able to pass the threshold, giving the ruling party control over two-thirds of parliament (Nodia & Scholtback 2006). Evidence of electoral fraud was found in the 2008 presidential election when Saakashvili won the first round with 53.4%, while experts claimed he could not have done so without manipulation. But, as Fairbanks (2010, pp. 146) has stated, “no second round was going to be allowed. Eliminating all risk of losing power trumped any concern with retaining democratic legitimacy.”

‘Revolutionary Justice’ & Winner-take-all Politics

As this paper has demonstrated so far, the president in Georgia wields enormous formal and informal power, which is in turn used to consolidate his rule, prevent shocks to the stability of the regime, and ensure its long-term survival. This makes regime change extremely difficult via constitutional and legal means. In the situation where a leader does indeed lose office, it is not only the loss of access to state resources that the regime fears, but what actions the new leader will take against the ancien régime, what Nodia & Scholtback (2006) refer to as ‘revolutionary justice.’ Concurring and speaking generally of the region, de Waal (2010, pp. 194) explains that “in the Caucasus, loosing office carries the risk of exile or persecution; in October 2003 in Azerbaijan and February 2008 in Armenia, official leaders violently suppressed opposition to disputed election results with this in mind.” This applies not only to the leader, but to many of his supports in government as well; the new authorities will seek to confiscate the power and assets of the old, purging them from the government. This regional and national precedent only makes leaders hold on to their rule even further, limiting the risk of regime change as much as possible. Under Shevardnadze, Gamsakhurdia became “an official figure out hate” (de Waal, 2010, pp. 135). When Saakashvili came to power, he sought to remove as many personnel from the previous regime as possible; up to 70% of ministries and departments experienced reemployment. In the regions, the vertical power structure was strengthened as local leaders were replaced with loyal cadres (Timm 2010). However, the fact that Saakashvili was Shevardnadze’s former protégé allowed for an understanding between the two men that the former would be able to stay in Georgia and have a peaceful retirement.

The Role of Social Processes

In Georgia, social processes have been quite significant in mobilizing the population around a certain cause. According to Tatum (2009), there have been two waves of revolutionary change. The first was the movement for independence and national reawakening, while the second being the movement to restructure the political structure and correct the mistakes of the first. Within this second wave, democratization, Europeanization, and westernization have been particularly strong. Such movements provide the momentum needed for political elites to gain power, as they often have done. However, Jawad (2006, pp. 35) has observed that “Georgia remains vulnerable to destabilization by a sudden shift in popular attitudes.” Georgia is most likely the only country where a president can win an election with over three-quarters of the vote, and then undergo a violent coup d’état to remove him. The popularity of politicians can change very quickly if they become detached from public opinion. In this first wave, threatened with the collapse of their newly independent state, Georgians were initially very much supportive of Gamsakhurdia’s nationalist movement. The movement was extremely influential, and “very few people were able to stand against the current” (de Waal 2010, pp. 135).

However, Gamsakhurdia’s policies and behaviour very quickly caused a shift in public attitudes and he caused many supports to become opponents. Regarding the second wave, the main aim of the Rose Revolution was to oust the Shevardnadze regime in order to allow Georgia to become a modern and democratic state. The revolution was a combination of many different political and independent forces, one of which being the student group Kmara (“enough”), significant to a certain extent in mobilizing the population (Laverty 2008). However, despite all of Saakashvili’s rhetoric for democratization, the role of the president remains the most important and powerful position with meager checks and balances. Laverty (2006) predicted that Saakashvili would, similarly to his predecessors, become victim to public opinion if he were unable to establish institutions which gave him procedural and legal legitimacy, rather than that based solely on formal and informal power. Indeed, Saakashvili experienced his first key political crisis in 2007 when the ‘Silver Revolution’ unsuccessfully tried to force him out of office.


Having analyzed the nature of political power in Georgia, it is evident that there are several hindrances to regime change to take place in a constitutional manner. In times when the leader has consolidated his power, some pluralism is allowed. However, in times where the legitimacy of the president is in question, criticism of the government is severely restricted, and the ruling party uses its hegemonic status to prevent any attempts of the opposition to acquire power. Due to the inability of the opposition to vote the incumbent out of office, political conflict is not resolved in a constitutional manner, but channelled into a disorderly, unorganized process, resulting in revolutions and violent take-overs of the state. In fearing removal from power, with its lack of access to state resources and attempts to seek justice against the regime’s faults, the leader will cling to power. However, once both the equilibrium of the patron-client relationship changes and public opinion turns against the leader, a coup d’état or revolution is likely to take place if the incumbent refuses to give up power, as Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze experienced. While some institutions have become more democratic under Saakashvili, when he faced significant opposition, he engaged in the same tactics as his predecessors to prevent the risk of a loss of power. Ultimately, Georgia’s weak state institutions mean that high political polarization will continue, and the opposition will seek undemocratic means to diminish the influence of the president and/or come to power.


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1.) 4% in 1990, 5% in 1995, 7% in 1999, 7% in 2004

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