“The steepest drop in democratic quality in Eastern Europe”: Georgian democracy downgraded6 min read

Democracy in Georgia declined sharply according to the most recent democracy index by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Based on indicators measuring electoral processes and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties, Georgia dropped from 78th to 89th place out of 167 between 2017 and 2018.  Though Georgia remains a “hybrid regime” , i.e. placed between “authoritarian regimes” and “flawed a democracies” in terms of categories, its decline amounts to “the steepest drop in democratic quality in eastern Europe”. It is time we ask ourselves, what went wrong in 2018?

Democratic credentials are extremely important for Georgia. The country is facing an ongoing occupation of 20 percent of its territories and is highly dependent on western support in its attempts to defend its territorial integrity. A decline in the quality of democracy is harmful not only for the political process and the ability of the population to influence it, but it might be detrimental for foreign policy goals and possibly harmful for the country’s security as well.

Becoming a member of NATO and the European Union (EU) has long been Georgia’s main foreign policy goal. There are several reasons why this has not been achieved, and those reasons have little to do with level of democracy in Georgia. However, it is well known that being a democratic country is important for those aspiring to membership.

At the moment, decline of Georgian democracy has not been critical enough to undermine the potential for integration with NATO and the EU. However, considering that external factors such as strong opposition from Russia have complicated this task, Georgia has to do its best to at least keep its democratic record unblemished. If the quality of democracy in Georgia rivaled some NATO and EU counterparts, Georgian politicians would have a much stronger argument for further integration.

Regional importance of Georgian democracy

Success of Georgian democracy is important for the EU as well. The EU has consistently supported democratic development in Georgia. Spreading democracy in its neighborhood is one of the explicit aims of EU’s neighborhood policy. It is no accident that among the countries of the Eastern Partnership, those who are more democratic are ahead in their degree of integration with the EU.

Leaving the normative aspect of the issue aside, it can be argued that the more a country tries to build a democracy in the region, the more leverage the EU has over it. This is one of the reasons why Russia tries to obstruct democratic processes in its shared neighborhood with the EU. Autocratic governments have less potential for cordial relations and eventual integration with the EU. This, together with the lack of legitimacy of these regimes, makes them easier for Russia to influence.

For these reasons, it is important not just for Georgian citizens but also for Georgia’s western partners, media and expert community to keep a close eye on democratic developments in the country. As shown by EIU, the main factors for decline of Georgia’s score were billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s return to politics and the circumstances around the presidential elections in the country.  

Democracy of a billionaire

Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man and a founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, was Prime Minister of Georgia from October 2012 to November 2013. His decision to return to politics was publicly announced by then-Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. He claimed that he had personally asked Mr. Ivanishvili to take a position of a chairman of the party and was “glad that Bidzina Ivanishvili agreed.” Kvirikashvili mentioned a “need to strengthen… the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party against the backdrop of new challenges facing the country” as a cause for Ivanishvili’s return.

In June, Prime Minister Kvirikashvili resigned in response to mass protests in Tbilisi. As an explanation for his decision, he stated that his “opinion differed from the party chairman’s opinion on a number of fundamental issues.”

As for the presidential elections, although the process was recognized as free and fair, it was also criticized by the OSCE for the “negative character of the campaign” from both opposition and the ruling party’s side.

Moreover, nine days before the second round of the elections, Prime Minister Bakhtadze stated that the government, with the financial assistance of Ivanishvili’s Cartu Foundation, would write off the debts of 600,000 individuals. It was emphasized in the statement that the initiative came from Mr. Ivanishvili himself.

Georgian NGOs were understandably critical of the initiative considering its timing. A Transparency International Georgia representative said the initiative “contains elements of voter bribery, and the prosecutor’s office should address this issue.”

Future challenges  

The expert community was not surprised by the country’s decline in the democracy index. As Ilia State University professor Ghia Nodia put it, “after these elections it was absolutely predictable that Georgia’s score would be downgraded in the democracy index… Similarly, indicators of democracy in Georgia will worsen in other existing indices as well.”

Judging by the 2018 presidential elections, prospects for 2020 parliamentary elections seem to be worrying. The stakes during the parliamentary elections will be higher. Currently, there is no indication that the ruling party will shy away from using the huge wealth of its chairman. 2020 might be an even tougher test for Georgian democracy.

The downgrade by the EIU should be taken as a warning by the political elite of the country. It should be understood that undemocratic practices are easily observed and cause huge harm for a country that already finds itself in a highly uncertain situation. As for foreign supporters of Georgian democracy, they should be active in giving credit where it’s due and rewarding Georgia’s efforts decisively. They also have to stay vigilant and critical of the less than positive developments for the good of Georgia and of Europe as a whole.

Elsewhere in the region, Armenia boasted the biggest improvement of its score among the hybrid regimes in Eastern Europe from 4.11 to 4.79, allowing the country to rise from 111th to 103rd place. The gain was explained by the successful velvet revolution and the anti-corruption campaign led by Nikol Pashinyan.

Georgia’s other neighbors, Russia and Azerbaijan, find themselves in the “authoritarian regime” category on 144th and 149th places respectively. Similarly with Georgia, Turkey’s score fell rather significantly from 4.88 to 4.37. Turkey likewise belongs to the “hybrid regime” category.

No country in Eastern Europe qualified for “full democracy” status, with Estonia leading in the region with a score of 7.97 putting it in the category of “flawed democracy”.

On a positive note, global decline of democracy stopped in 2018 with the overall global score remaining “stable for the first time in three years.”

Luka Jorbenadze holds a BA in International Relations and a Master’s degree in Diplomacy and International Politics from Tbilisi State University, Georgia. He is currently a student in the EU-Russia program at University of Tartu, Estonia. His research interests include foreign policy of Russian Federation, foreign policy of Belarus and political regime types.