Economist | Aug 19th 2010 | Tbilisi
FOUNTAINS dance, children play and families stroll along Batumi's five-mile seafront boulevard, lined with palm trees, hammocks and playgrounds. Less than a decade ago, Ajaria, a verdant south-western corner of Georgia of which Batumi is the regional capital, was the personal fief of Aslan Abashidze, a strongman who seemed to own the place more than run it. He never appeared without an army of goons, and closed the streets when his son felt like racing his Lamborghini. Cut off from the rest of Georgia by checkpoints, the economy was stagnant.Today this gently beguiling holiday resort is an exhibition of Georgia's capitalist achievements, a showcase of its transition and an advertisement for what Abkhazia, a separatist region to the north, could have become had it not been, in effect, annexed by Russia following the short Russia-Georgia war two years ago.
Like any advertisement, Batumi does not reveal the full picture. Away from the seashore, there are striking signs of poverty and unemployment in Georgia. But the change here is real—not just in the five-star hotels springing up in Batumi, its restaurants or the casinos full of Turkish punters, but in the way Ajaria is administered. So real, in fact, that some Russian officials are starting to worry about the unflattering gap between Ajaria and unreconstructed Abkhazia.
Ajaria's governor, 38-year-old Levan Varshalomidze, has done much for Ajaria and rather less for himself. As he walks through Batumi's old city, clad in jeans and without a bodyguard in sight, locals come up to thank him—and there is nothing forced in the gesture. Mr Varshalomidze belongs to the cohort of Georgians that came into their own after the Rose revolution of 2003. For all its problems, Georgia is in the hands of a young, pragmatic generation which has thrown off the Soviet-era personality cults, privileges and paranoia.
Merab Mamardashvili, a Georgian philosopher, once wrote that "A Soviet man is a product of invisible changes, degradation and progressive deformation. Breaking the chain of those changes is hard. Perhaps they are irreversible." No post-Soviet country is completely free from its legacy but Georgia has gone further than many in breaking the chain.
Gia Kancheli, a 75-year-old celebrated Georgian composer, says: "In the old days the decent people of my generation tried not to be Soviet. Today we are again trying not to be Soviet, but the new generation is different. They don't have to try: they are simply free of that pressure and those lies."
Georgia suffered gravely under Stalinist repression, but in the late Soviet period it learned to play by the rules and profit from the system. It became a playground of the Soviet empire, a source of wine, culture and entertainment. But when the empire collapsed, Georgia descended into a near-failed state: dysfunctional and disfigured by banditry and ethnic conflict. By 2003 the violence had largely stopped but the state remained weak and corrupt.
Today Georgia has reinvented itself as the star of the Caucasus. It is less corrupt than most former Soviet republics and one of the easiest places in the world to do business, according to the World Bank. Its liberalised economy has weathered Russian embargoes, and the state held together during the war with Russia. Its police do not take bribes and electricity is no longer a luxury. Most important, people are no longer surprised by such success. The biggest transformation is in their minds.
A playground no more
Georgia's transition from a former Soviet republic into a non-Soviet one began with the Rose revolution of November 2003, in which the 36-year-old Mikhail Saakashvili and his friends pushed aside the 75-year-old Eduard Shevardnadze. This was not the move from dictatorship to freedom sometimes portrayed in the West; Mr Shevardnadze was no dictator, and some of the reformers were his protégés. Rather, as Levan Ramishvili, who runs the Liberty Institute, a Georgian think-tank, says, it was a social and generational shift, almost a cultural revolution.
It was certainly a change of elite. Some of the new guard, like Mr Saakashvili, a graduate of Columbia University, had studied and worked in the West. Others came from NGOs. Most were under 40. All were free from Soviet bureaucratic baggage and electrified by the promise of getting their country back and rebuilding it as a modern state.
The support base for this revolution was not the capital, Tbilisi, the traditional driver of Georgian politics, but villages and small towns, where family structures and individualism were stronger and Soviet rule was weaker. The new ruling class did not seek approval from Tbilisi's intelligentsia, which had become enormously powerful in the late Soviet period. Piqued by Mr Saakashvili's lack of reverence, many started to oppose his rule. Vano Merabishvili, Georgia's interior minister, recalls that a few weeks after taking office he received a call from a famous theatre director pleading for the release of two of his actors, who had been arrested in a drunken brawl. Mr Merabishvili refused, violating the special relationship between the state and its cultural elite.
The reformers have also eschewed popular legends of Georgian exceptionalism, which the intelligentsia and their nationalist opponents fought to appropriate in the early years of independence (and which some opposition leaders are trying to revive). The young Western-educated elite cringed at the day-long banquets laced with toasts and songs, the celebrations of idleness. They promoted an alternative national story, of a hard-working, dynamic and European country: "Switzerland with elements of Singapore," as Mr Saakashvili once put it.
Georgia's modernisation was vigorous, even brutal. Gia Sulkhanishvili, a businessman and a former student of Mr Mamardashvili, says: "The government took an axe to the Soviet practices and destroyed the environment which bred nepotism, hypocrisy and idleness." The change is all the more startling when Georgia's fate is contrasted with that of other former Soviet republics, including Russia. "As in Russia, there were laws in Georgia, but then there were informal rules which trumped them," says Mr Sulkhanishvili. "Those rules are largely gone."
Overnight, the reformers abolished the corrupt 15,000-strong traffic police and replaced them with 2,300 American-style road patrollers. The new recruits were motivated not only by decent pay and new cars but by the fact that their new bosses did not take bribes. Entire ministries were culled, along with 30,000 bureaucrats. The government slashed red tape, privatised everything from hotels to hospitals and used the money to build new roads.
Much of this liberalisation was pushed forward by Kakha Bendukidze, a business magnate of libertarian temperament who had made his fortune in Russia before Vladimir Putin started to put pressure on business. Georgia, Mr Bendukidze argued, was so poor that only radical reform would do. But he also realised that economic reforms needed to be backed by humanities and education projects to engender a new national elite. In 2007 he founded the Free University in Tbilisi, which teaches law, business and languages. Each graduate undertakes to finance a new student, creating a sense of stakeholding in Georgian society.
A virtual democracy?
In 2003 the young, energetic, English-speaking Mr Saakashvili represented a visible change from the old Soviet-style nomenclature. Today an even younger generation has come of age. As liberal, patriotic and Westernised as the president, its members object to his obsession with power, his centralisation and his populism. They see the state not as a sacred cow but as a provider of basic services and security.
The decisive moment, some of them say, came in November 2007, when Mr Saakashvili, faced with the prospect of losing power, sent riot police to crack down on a demonstration and to trash a television station. The government said it acted to avert a coup. But its decision shocked Georgia, and the outside world.
Shorena Shaverdashvili, an American-educated editor of the Liberal, a weekly magazine, says this was the point at which Mr Saakashvili became more interested in retaining power than in pushing through reforms. "He alienated and then turned against the part of Georgian society which was most willing to catalyse the transformation," she says. Several of Mr Saakashvili's former allies have now turned into opponents.
On paper Georgia has all the institutions proper to a democracy. In practice few of them enjoy real power. Parliament, dominated by Mr Saakashvili's United National Movement party, has become little more than a rubber stamp. The police and judiciary are beholden to politicians. Key decisions are taken by a circle of insiders whose influence often extends far beyond their job titles. Democratic procedure is often sacrificed to expediency—catastrophically so in the case of Mr Saakashvili's decision two years ago to attack South Ossetia with heavy artillery fire, giving Russia the excuse it needed to invade.
The situation is not helped by the motley state of Georgia's opposition, which often does a better job at discrediting itself than the government, or by the weakness of civil society. Yet, as Ms Shaverdashvili puts it, "The government makes sure that we don't get strong fast." Businessmen are wary of financing the opposition or advertising in Georgia's critical media for fear of incurring the government's displeasure.
Mr Saakashvili is more a moderniser than a democrat. Yet in order for his reforms to become irreversible, Georgia needs strong democratic institutions; above all an independent judiciary and the rule of law. Mr Merabishvili argues that these cannot be simply decreed; they need to become entrenched tradition, recognised by Georgian society as a whole. So for the time being, he believes, it is the government that is best equipped to administer justice. This argument is all the more dangerous for being persuasive.
Too much personal power is concentrated in the hands of Mr Saakashvili and Mr Merabishvili, his feared interior minister. That is ominous for a country where power has not been transferred peacefully since independence. A set of proposed constitutional changes would shift more power to parliament and its nominated prime minister. But Mr Saakashvili's critics say that discussion of the proposed reforms has been limited. They fear that the president will follow the example of Vladimir Putin and stay on as prime minister when his term expires in 2013. If he does, he risks destroying his own legacy.
After the collapse
Despite all the progress, Georgia's future is fragile. Two years after the war, relations with Russia have not yet normalised. Russia's heavy military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains a threat to Georgia's security. There is also a risk that Mr Saakashvili will exploit this threat to consolidate his own power. Earlier this year a television channel controlled by a friend of the president broadcast a spoof documentary about another Russian invasion, sparking panic among Georgians. The film, allegedly made with Mr Saakashvili's approval (although the channel denies it), was meant to mobilise the population. Instead, it infuriated it.
And yet the mental shift which has occurred in Georgia will make it hard to turn the country backwards. On June 25th police cordoned off the central square in Gori, the birthplace of Stalin, and, in the dead of night, toppled a statue of the former dictator that had survived the Soviet collapse and Russian bombardment in 2008. Yet there was neither celebration nor protest. Georgians had moved on.