Back in January of this year, the well-known Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal wrote the following:
Present-day Georgia, as with Russia, is basically a one-party state in which a small group of elites control the executive, parliament, all regional authorities and the three national television channels [bold mine-DL]. The judiciary is less than free. The dark side of Georgia’s campaign against corruption and criminality is that it has empowered a large and unaccountable police force. The country’s prisons are bursting with many inmates who should not be there; in 2011, Georgia ranked fourth in the world in the number of prisoners per capita [bold mine-DL].
Until recently, the governing elite has not faced serious opposition and was cruising toward victory in parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for later this year and next January, respectively. Last year, however, it faced an unexpected challenge when popular Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili announced he was going into opposition politics. His demarche mobilized a large segment of Georgians who are tired of the current administration’s economic policies and domination of the political scene.
Because of the prison abuse scandal in Georgia, even more Georgians turned against the domination of their country’s political scene by Saakashvili and their party. Had it not been for the effect of that scandal, it is uncertain whether the opposition could have won a majority in parliament. In other words, had it not been for a massive backlash against major abuses under Saakashvili and his ministers, including torture, it is hard to imagine how the opposition would have been able to win. The “dark side” to which de Waal refers in his article came to light in the videos showing prisoner abuse and torture, and the prison scandal was the natural product of the abusive system over which Saakashvili and his allies presided.
Saakashvili deserves some credit that he conceded defeat after his party was overwhelmingly repudiated, but it doesn’t change the reality that his party was repudiated because it had been concentrating power in the hands of its members while making the Georgian government more illiberal and abusive rather than less. If it had not been for significant outside pressure and international scrutiny of the election, it is possible that the worst fears of Saakashvili’s critics might have come true. Fortunately for Georgia, that didn’t happen, but it was reasonable to think that it could. Georgia now has a chance to break with this pattern of a one-party state, and that wouldn’t have been possible if Saakashvili’s party had prevailed in this election.