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

By Salvatore J. Freni
2013, Vol. 5 No. 02 | pg. 1/2 |

Of the three states in the South Caucasus, Georgia has experienced the most political instability since the collapse of the USSR. Some scholars even described the country in the immediate aftermath of independence as a failed state. Despite the political elites’ denunciation of the Soviet authoritarian regime, it seems that the nature of political power in the Republic of Georgia still closely resembles that of its predecessor. In its twenty years of existence, Georgia has experienced three regime changes. The first was the struggle for independence, led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia who in turn became the first president. The second was the ousting of Gamsakhurdia and the ensuing civil war, eventually bringing Eduard Shevardnadze to power. The third was the so-called ‘Rose Revolution,’ resulting in Shevardnazde’s forced resignation and Mikheil Saakashvili becoming president.

The fact that there has not been both a peaceful and constitutional transfer of power since 1990 when the Communist Party surrendered authority does not bode well for future stability. In Georgia, regimes change through the use of force, not elections and a voluntary handover of power. Social processes can either make or break a leader’s legitimacy, and many individuals have attempted to ride the ideology of the day in order to retain power. However, public opinion in Georgia tends to fluctuate fairly rapidly, meaning that a well-liked leader today can be utterly despised tomorrow. While some of these issues are also found in Azerbaijan and Armenia, Georgia will be singled out because it has undergone the most political insecurity in the region. This paper identifies several elements that have hindered a peaceful and constitutional transfer of power in Georgia in order to understand why regime change has occurred there in such a disorderly fashion.

Paternal Presidentialism

One characteristic of the executive branch must be explored when examining regime change in Georgia. Patronal presidentialism, is described by Hale (2005, pp. 137-8) as containing two elements: (I) “a directly elected presidency is invested with great formal powers relative to other state organs,” and (II) “the president also wields a high degree of informal power based on widespread patron-client relationships at the intersection of the state and the economy.” The first element allows for the strong personalization of politics, elaborated by (Kríz & Shevchuk 2011) as when “the power of institutions tend to be contingent with the personal standing of their heads/executives, and not really having lives of their own.” The legislative and judicial branches, as well as institutions for local governance, are oftentimes rubber stamps and it is rare that they contradict the president.

In Georgia, an individual’s personality and charisma is key and the main criteria influencing whom one should vote for. As Timm (2010) has suggested, in non-democratic regimes with a weak rule of law and ineffective conflict-processing institutions, the state is reliant on the personality of the leader and his informal, often arbitrary decision-making power. The strong nature of the president allows him to wield a large amount of informal power among clientelistic networks, as the second element of paternal presidentialism suggests. The patron-client relationship between the president and elites can be used to fulfil policy goals, as well as either reward or punish political allies. Essentially however, this creates the illusion of regime stability. Muskhelishvili (2011) has referred to this state as a ‘frozen balance of power,’ because in a country with weak institutions, regime stability is based on a fragile equilibrium. When this equilibrium is consolidated, the state structure exhibits a façade of stability. However, when the possibility for regime change arises, this equilibrium can suddenly and violently collapse as elite calculations change, shifting the balance of power in the patron-client relationship. Thus, regimes in states with weak institutions can topple when calculations within the patron-client relationship change.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s experience in the Soviet era as a dissident, his father being a renowned writer, as well as his leadership in Georgia’s independence movement were all characteristics earning him immense popularity in the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. While due to the strong regionalism of Georgian politics, Gamsakhurdia found a solid base of support from fellow Mingrelians, his nationalist rhetoric also resounded well with the feelings of the Georgian population in light of the growing ethnic issue. Loyalty to him was so profound that his supporters were dubbed ‘Zviadists.’ Such loyalty and devotion to Gamsakhurdia explains why a brief putsch was not possible in Georgia and that civil war was unavoidable (Kaufman 2001). Gamsakhurdia’s rule was solidified by his relationships with Jaba Ioseliani, Tengiz Sigua, and Tengiz Kitovani. However, these three eventually came to disagree with the policies of Gamsakhurdia, thus loosing key allies (Wheatley 2005).

Eduard Shevardnadze was a politician from the Soviet era especially respected in the West, serving as the First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party and Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union. During the civil war, recognizing that their state was on the verge of collapse, leaders of the interim Military Council Tengiz Kitovani, Jaba Ioseliani, and Tengiz Sigua called upon Shevardnadze in 1993 to come to Georgia and help resolve the crisis, the only individual they knew who could offset the influence of the ‘entrepreneurs of violence’ (Timm 2012). Only being elected in 1995 after having served as the de facto leader of the country since 1993, under his rule a strong executive developed fluid alliances and patron-client networks (King 2001; Jawad 2006). According to Timm (2010, pp. 4) “the double structure of the formal state administration and corruption pyramids became the backbone of Shevardnadze’s stabilizing strategy.” Such a strategy essentially entailed bringing the clients into the framework of the political elite where Shevardnadze could balance their influence. These clients included actors from his Soviet-era network, such as administrative personnel, factory managers, and former party bosses (King 2001). While his role as arbiter between varying forces made his personal leadership critical to state stability, it also diminished his power (Nodia & Scholtback 2006). Overall, the combination of formal and informal power created a regime capable of withstanding minor political shocks. However, it highlighted the danger of placing immense power in the hands of the president; once the balance of power shifted out of his favour, regime change would cause unrest and loosen the patron-client relationship equilibrium.

The personalization of politics has remained in Georgia with the election of the young western-educated Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the Rose Revolution. Saakashvili has tried to mould his image to that of the founding father of post-Communist Georgia, comparing himself with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Charles de Gaulle, and David Ben-Gurion (de Waal 2010). Jawad (2006, pp. 36) has stated that Saakashivili’s ‘vague popular support’ primarily originates from his charismatic legitimacy, which to solidify political stability, should be utilized to create a stable power base as well as checks and balances on the executive branch. However, despite his stated commitment to Western-style democracy, he continued the tradition in Georgia of strong presidentialism; it is Saakashivili and his inner circle who have been the main actors drafting legislation (Jawad 2012). While during the Shevardnadze regime, informal power in arbitrating influence between clientelistic networks clearly outweighed formal power, Saakashvili has balanced both these formal and informal aspects of his rule. However, as Timm (2010, pp. 12) has acknowledged, the stated commitment to the rule of law in combination with unspoken norms when integrating clientelistic networks creates uncertainty as to “how a certain situation is to be judged and which consequences certain behaviour may cause.”

Political Parties, Oppositions, & Elections

In democratic countries where individuals no longer agree with the leader’s policies, citizens will seek regime change by forming political parties and oppositions, and then competing in elections, after which the incumbent voluntarily relinquishes his power to the newly elected leader. In Georgia however, regime change has not occurred through elections and leaders do not voluntarily leave office if they no longer maintain a majority. As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, political parties are weak, unstable, short-lived, and dominated by charismatic leaders (who are oftentimes the primary financers). They lack a clear ideology and agenda, while often becoming a means to further a politician’s personal goals (Jawad 2012). Very few have experienced a change of leadership and been able to remain in existence (Bader 2009). While ideological differences of political parties are relatively low, they seldom are able to form a coalition in opposition to the government, and in instances where they have been successful in doing so, they often collapse after elections.

According to Bader (2009), this is primarily because leaders do not want to sacrifice their parties. Despite the lack of organization on the part of opposition parties, the government seeks to limit and control the activities of such actors, especially during elections. While fully knowing that to maintain its positive image in the West, Georgia needs to display that it has an opposition, it is widely known that “the opposition can never threaten to assume power and there can be no power sharing with genuine opposition elements” (Fairbanks 2010, pp. 147). Georgia’s political system, along with that of Armenia, has usually been referred to by academics as competitive authoritarianism, in that pluralism is allowed, but highly regulated. Presidential elections are the least competitive, as there has almost always been a frontrunner undoubtedly expected to win, whereas parliamentary elections see multiple political parties compete (Nodia & Scholtback 2006). Because of the high level of fragmentation however, with as many as 180 parties first registered in 1990, a threshold was established in order to exclude marginal parties1. The result of this has been that very few parties have made it past the threshold, and political pluralism is limited. Similarly, when looking at ‘presidential,’ or ‘ruling’ parties, to use the political science term, one finds that they are “light on ideology and strong on loyalty” (King 2001). The ruling party is fused with the administrative system and becomes a mechanism for capturing the state, as well as keeping the regime in power (ibid.). This fusion of bureaucracy and state is fully exploited during elections in order to protect the ruling regime from being voted out of office. Ultimately, this means that regime change in a constitutional and legal manner is virtually impossible, forcing the opposition to seek other, often violent means.

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