As America focuses on the start of the U.S. presidential election process, another election half a world away offers important insights into the nature of democracy and the shortcomings of George W. Bush’s democracy promotion in other countries.

In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, citizens go to the polls today for the first time since the widely celebrated Rose Revolution of 2003. Then, Georgia was hailed by Western governments as a beacon of democracy in a region beset by authoritarianism.

Yet, there is mounting evidence that the Georgian government is sliding back toward authoritarianism.

Two recent reports criticize the Georgian government for human rights abuses and corruption, warning that the democratic advances of the Rose Revolution may already be falling by the wayside.

In one report, Human Rights Watch asserted that “the fragility of Georgia’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law was revealed on Nov. 7, 2007, when government forces used violent and excessive force to disperse a series of largely peaceful demonstrations in the capital, Tbilisi.”

In the other report, the highly regarded International Crisis Group warned of a creeping authoritarianism in Georgia and urged Western governments to pressure the regime in Tbilisi to respect democratic principles.

The ICG report, “Georgia: Sliding Towards Authoritarianism?,” was prompted by that violent crackdown on opposition protesters in November. Disproportionate force was used against peaceful demonstrators, and a private television station was violently shut down, the ICG wrote.

The imposition of emergency rule “brought a halt to hitherto unquestioning Western support of the Georgian leadership,” the ICG said.

In response to these troubling developments, the ICG called on Western friends of Georgia and especially Washington to pressure the Georgian government to correct its “increasingly authoritarian course.”

The United States “in particular” needs to “make clear it supports democratic principles” in Georgia and not a particular regime, the ICG said.

But even as these calls are made for the U.S. to support democratic principles abroad, democratic principles at home continue to be undermined, a reality which makes it increasingly unlikely that Washington can apply any meaningful pressure on a fragile democracy in the Caucasus.

This is an argument that has long been made by world leaders, human rights campaigners and international organizations – specifically, that by ignoring international norms and standards in its prosecution of the “war on terror,” the Bush administration would end up emboldening authoritarian governments and weakening the ability of the West to uphold human rights worldwide.

Diminished Moral Authority

Indeed, although the Georgian government has heeded some of the demands from Washington, such as its calls to lift the emergency rule put in place in November, and reopen the television station Imedi, which was closed during the crisis, it is apparent that many of the areas cited by the ICG as evidence of authoritarianism in Georgia could just as easily be applied to the United States.

For instance, the ICG frets that in Georgia, “the concentration of power in a small, like-minded elite and unwillingness to countenance criticism have undermined its democratic standing.” Also, “cronyism is increasingly evident” and “checks and balances have been stripped back, justice arbitrarily applied, human rights too often violated and freedom of expression curtailed.”

On each of these counts, it could be argued, the Bush administration is just as culpable as the government of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili.

The neo-conservatives in the administration are notoriously like-minded and hostile to outside criticism, and with President Bush’s signing statements and executive orders, checks and balances have been eroded to the point that they’re almost non-existent.

And when it comes to applying justice arbitrarily, again, this is an issue for which the U.S. has been heavily criticized dating back to the earliest days of the “war on terror.”

In July 2002, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Terrorism and Human Rights issued a report stating that many of the anti-terrorism measures the Bush administration enacted after 9/11 failed to conform to the principles of international human rights law, particularly the arbitrary detention of more than 750 people in the U.S., primarily of Middle Eastern descent.

The mass arrest of immigrants was an apparent attempt by the government to capture those responsible for the terrorist attacks, but there was little evidence that any of the detainees had connections to terrorism.

Despite this lack of evidence, they remained in custody for months without proper access to counsel or basic due process rights. [By contrast, the Bush administration cleared the way for well-connected Saudis, including members of Osama bin Laden’s family, to leave the United States on special flights only days after the 9/11 attacks.]

Over the next few years, it became increasingly evident that the “war on terror” was leading to a steady erosion worldwide of human rights standards. Equally troubling, it looked as though Western governments that had long championed human rights were losing the moral credibility they needed to pressure authoritarian regimes on human rights practices.

In December 2005, for example, Louise Arbour, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, openly criticized the U.S. for its human rights practices in the “war on terror” and directly made the connection between U.S. practices and a deteriorating human rights situation worldwide.

American “moves to water down or question the absolute ban on torture, as well as on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” are “particularly insidious,” in that they are contributing to an erosion of human rights standards across the world, Arbour said. “Governments in a number of countries are claiming that established rules do not apply anymore.”

These authoritarian regimes cite the U.S., she said, in claiming “that we live in a changed world and that there is a ‘new normal.’” [Washington Post, Dec. 8, 2005]

Amnesty International also weighed in on the issue. In May 2006, it released a report criticizing Western governments and the UN Security Council for turning a blind eye to the excesses of the “war on terror” and inadvertently enabling human rights abuses worldwide.

“When the U.K. remains muted on arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in Guantánamo,” said Amnesty’s secretary general Irene Khan, “when the U.S. ignores prohibition on torture, when European governments are mute about their record on renditions, racism or refugees, they undermine their own moral authority to champion human rights elsewhere in the world.“

This diminished moral authority may be partially responsible for the slide to authoritarianism in places like Georgia, which had once been seen as “a beacon of democracy in a region of illiberal regimes,” as the ICG put it.

There is also the possibility that Saakashvili felt that he had at least tacit U.S. support for his recent crackdown.

U.S. Backing

Georgia’s Rose Revolution, which brought down President Eduard Shevardnadze and led to Saakashvili’s election, arguably could not have happened without the diplomatic and economic support of the United States.

Behind the scenes of the revolution, the U.S. applied various “democracy promoting” devices to ensure that the revolution was successful on American terms.

Support from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy was vital, as was the maneuverings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which leading up to the revolution suspended support for development projects in Georgia – widely seen as creating the economic stagnation that set the scene for popular unrest.

In July 2003, the Financial Times noted that the U.S. “delivered the most painful blow to Shevardnadze” when his “one-time friend and partner, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, …told [Shevardnadze] he needed to be far more democratic to be assured of U.S. support.”

Just before the elections in September 2003, the State Department made the surprise announcement that the U.S. would halve the financial aid to Georgia, which had stood at $100 million in 2003.

The resulting financial pressure was overwhelming for a country so heavily reliant on foreign aid. Georgia was the second largest per capita recipient of American aid (after Israel) having received over $1.8 billion from the U.S. in the past decade.

Since the Rose Revolution, the U.S. and Georgia have maintained close relations, and both Bush and Saakashvili have been vociferous in their praise of one another.

To show his admiration for the U.S. president, Saakashvili even renamed the main road to Tbilisi’s airport George W. Bush Street. A billboard was erected on the side of the road with a picture of a waving and smiling George Bush. 

During a 2005 state visit to Georgia, Saakashvili told Bush, “We welcome you as a freedom fighter.” Bush responded by saying, “before there was a Purple Revolution in Iraq or an Orange Revolution in Ukraine or a Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, there was the Rose Revolution in Georgia.”

Bush credited the Rose Revolution for sparking a wave of democratic change throughout the region.

“Now across the Caucasus, in central Asia and the broader Middle East we see this same desire of liberty burning in the hearts of young people,” Bush said. “They are demanding their freedom and they will have it.”

But as the Saakashvili government falls under growing criticism for authoritarian tendencies, this demand for freedom may lead to the ouster of Bush’s new best friend in the Caucasus. Opposition leaders are capitalizing on Georgians’ frustrations with Saakashvili’s democratic deficiencies to propel themselves into power.

“Saakashvili has been ruling the country in an authoritarian way for four years putting his own ambitions and opinion higher than the rule of law,” said one leading opposition candidate, David Usupashvili, leader of the Georgian Republican party.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether any of Saakashvili’s opponents are ultimately any more democratic than he is.

Yet, whoever wins this election, it’s clear that the ability of the West in general and the U.S. in particular to pressure the Georgian government on human rights and the rule of law has been undercut by Bush’s own authoritarian tendencies.

To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.

Back to Home Page