The fall of Shevardnadze

There should be great satisfaction that a kleptocratic and failed regime in Georgia has been thrown out of power by a popular uprising, and that this took place without bloodshed. Georgia now has a chance for a fresh start in the quest to develop a successful democracy and market economy, and the United States should continue to give strong support and help to Georgia, despite the fact that the massive help that it has given over the past 10 years - more than $1 billion in per capita terms - has been overwhelmingly stolen and squandered.

However, the latest events should also be a matter of deep embarrassment to many people in the American and European news media, political establishment and think tanks. For too many years, these outlets presented to their publics a picture of Georgian democracy and progress that bore little relationship to Georgian reality. It really reflected only the propaganda of Eduard Shevardnadze's regime.

Charles King of Georgetown University wrote in The National Interest in 2001 of his absolute astonishment when he actually visited Georgia at the contrast between what he found there and the impression he had been given in the United States. That was barely two years ago - long after the nature of the Shevardnadze regime, and Georgia's failure to develop, had become completely apparent to people on the ground, let alone to ordinary Georgians. West Europeans, and especially some British officials, have been as bad or worse than the Americans in this regard.

There are several lessons to be drawn from this. First, there is a very strong tendency in the American media and kommentariat to follow a mixture of their own prejudices and the official American and Western line on a particular country and issue. In the case of Georgia, the Clinton administration developed an obsession with building up Georgia as a buffer against Russia - and reporters and commentators followed obediently in the wake of this policy, without examining Georgia's own internal dynamics. Everything was reduced to part of the "Great Game" between Moscow and Washington.

As has now appeared in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, this obsession with hostility to Russia, and the supposed threat from Russia, was also quite excessive and quite unconnected to truly important U.S. and Western interests. This malign obsession, and the self-deception that it encouraged, recalls past U.S. mistakes - such as the nature of American support to the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan, which helped engender Al Qaeda. If we are to avoid such disasters in the future, it is essential that we learn from our past mistakes. The debacle of U.S. policy toward Georgia is a good opportunity to do so.

Second, journalists and commentators are often so mesmerized by the ideology of democratization that they are unable to see what is in front of their faces. It does not help that for all the big talk about Georgia's importance, so very few serious Western students have specialized in the place.

It is a matter of bitter reproach to Western academia that 12 years after the Soviet Union collapsed there is still no serious academic book on post-Soviet Georgia - while there have been endless pseudo-academic papers written from behind desks in Washington. What are contemporary PhD students doing with their lives? Why did none of them choose to go and live in Georgia? After all, though the lives of ordinary Georgians have become very grim, one can still live very well there on only small amounts of Western money. This isn't Afghanistan or Iraq, for heaven's sake. The food and wine are wonderful, the people hospitable, the women charming, the scenery magnificent. Thus a Georgia that was portrayed in the West as progressing was in fact experiencing a process of radical demodernization, from what had been a successful and prosperous society under Communist rule. This simple universal framework of analysis also spares Western analysts from having to understand how other political and social systems actually work.

Georgia, like large parts of Africa and elsewhere, is a political society, structured around family and clan allegiances, where patronage plays an absolutely central role. This system grew up under Soviet rule, but reflects ancient Georgian traditions. Unfortunately, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Georgia lost the protected Soviet markets for its products, both the Georgian economy and the material for Georgian patronage collapsed, driving the elites into the kleptocratic plundering of whatever sources of cash were at hand - Western aid, energy imports and their own country's taxes and tariffs.

This in turn should lead to a certain caution about the prospects of the new Georgian leadership. We should certainly help them and wish them well. But we should not make yet again the mistake of thinking that all it requires is that a new bunch of "good guys" come in and sweep away the Bad Guys (who were our good guys only yesterday).

We have already made that mistake twice in Georgia, first with the anti-Soviet national "democrats" of the early 1990's, and now with Shevardnadze. Anyone who comes to power in Georgia will have to work to some extent at least within the bounds of Georgia's social and political system. That does not mean that progress is impossible. It does mean that we must be realistic about its speed and extent.

Originally published in the International Herald Tribune on November 26, 2003