My InoSMI column this week discussed the implications of the Georgian municipal elections and the blatant double standards that are applied to Western coverage of Georgian politics and policy. As if on cue to prove my point, Matt Continetti has a lengthy write-up praising Georgian democracy that completely ignores the significant flaws in the elections. AFP reported on the flaws of the elections last week:
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party headed for a landslide win in municipal elections Monday but victory was marred after Western observers said the vote suffered “significant shortcomings.”
This is not surprising. When a ruling party completely dominates the political scene and has all of the advantages of power in such a country, we shouldn’t be surprised if there is some significant measure of fraud. What is worth noting is the reaction to these “significant shortcomings” in the Western press. If this had been United Russia or Ahmadinejad instead of Saakashvili’s party, we would be hearing outraged cries about fraud and election-rigging, and pundits and bloggers would be expressing their support for the opposition. Instead, we have heard little, and most of what we do hear comes from Saakashvili enthusiasts.
What is most telling in Continetti’s report is the selective use of election monitor evidence. The OSCE monitors did report “evident progress,” but they also cited “significant shortcomings,” which in this case meant “systemic irregularities” involving episodes of ballot stuffing and a contest clearly biased in favor of the ruling party. Given a weak, disorganized opposition and all of the advantages of incumbency and government, it is not shocking that Saakashvili’s party won two-thirds of the vote last week, but there is none of the skepticism about the legitimacy of the result that followed Iran’s presidential election last year. Saakashvili initiated a major war and presided over a military disaster, and his party still wins an overwhelming majority in the first election following the war. As I look at it, that is not a sign of a healthy, “resilient” democracy, but the beginning of a one-party state in which any amount of incompetence and failure will be tolerated by the electorate.
Personally, I am not terribly concerned with the integrity of the Georgian electoral process, but what does concern me is the steady flow of propaganda on behalf of Saakashvili that still treats his government as if it were a model of democratic reform rather than a deeply flawed, authoritarian-leaning failure when it comes to political reform. This is the sort of enthusiastic support Americans were giving Saakashvili right up until he escalated the conflict in South Ossetia, and it is this enthusiasm that blinded policymakers and journalists to Saakashvili’s flaws.
The most glaring omission in Continetti’s article is any discussion of the actual causes of the August 2008 war that so badly damaged Georgia’s economy and hurt its chances of attracting foreign investment. It is indeed difficult to attract investment when the country is governed by a reckless demagogue who escalated a war against a nuclear-armed major power. His only indirect acknowledgment that Georgia was mostly to blame for the war is that “some in the West said Georgia was at fault.” For his enthusiasts, Saakashvili’s responsibility for the August 2008 disaster simply has to be whitewashed, because it cannot be justified. All that Continetti can bring himself to say against Saakashvili is that he “mishandled” 2007 protests, which left dozens of protestors hospitalized, “made mistakes before and during the war” (such as escalating a skirmish into a war?) and that he is now “too friendly with Iran.”
Of couse, Georgia has every right to increase its economic ties with Iran, and it is doing the same thing as Turkey in improving its relations with its regional neighbors. This is the last thing for which Saakashvili should be criticized. Turkey has been successfully reforming its economy and its political institutions for just as long under the AKP government, but the latter now receives none of the glowing treatment offered to Saakashvili, because the Turkish government thinks that being an ally does not involve acting as an obedient lackey. The Georgians should take care that they don’t become too friendly with any of their neighbors, or else they may find that their democratization will someday come to be viewed as a threat to the West when their government chooses to pursue its legitimate national interests.