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Book review: Uncertain Democracy by Lincoln A. Mitchell

Uncertain Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy and Georgia’s Rose Revolution

Lincoln A. Mitchell

University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia
December 2008
192 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8122-4127-3

Georgia’s November 2003 Rose Revolution has been a popular subject for articles, analyses and opinion pieces. Most of these appear well-timed for the yearly November anniversary, and many feature a title with some play on the word rose. Probably more so than Serbia’s Plum, Abkhazia’s Tangerine, Ukraine’s Orange and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip revolution, the Rose Revolution stands out as a significant historical event, as truly revolutionary, perhaps because it most strongly gives off the impression that things are not as they were before. Given this state of affairs, it is quite welcome that there is now also a book, written by someone who witnessed events from close by, without being directly involved himself: Lincoln A. Mitchell. Mitchell was chief of party for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Georgia from 2002 until 2004. Aware of the Rose Revolution literature’s cliché-ridden headlining tradition, Mitchell named his book Uncertain Democracy.

Mitchell’s angle for Uncertain Democracy is the democracy assistance Georgia has received throughout the years. The Rose Revolution has been subject to a lot of oversimplification and misrepresentation. In the most naive variants, it is cast as a transition from dictatorship to democracy, brought about either by a people fed up with oppression, and/or by benign/nefarious (depending on one’s perspective) United States plotting. The truth, of course, is much more complicated, and the caveats go far beyond the now often heard observation that Saakashvili’s post-Rose Revolution government is not as democratic as it once was. Mitchell gives a fine analysis of how the Rose Revolution came about. Few of his observations will be surprising or completely new in themselves, but together they paint a picture markedly more subtle than the received narrative. Some of the highlights are listed below:

  • Shevardnadze’s pre-Rose Revolution government wasn’t the dictatorship it is sometimes made out to be. It was not a legitimate democracy, but there was a considerable amount of civil liberties. Without this relatively free environment, the events leading up to the Rose Revolution would never have been possible.
  • At the same time, Saakashvili’s Georgia isn’t a full democracy either, and, this is not merely a recent development, but something which was true right from the start. While the Rose Revolution has probably made Georgia more democratic overall, with markedly improved elections and reduced corruption, certain other areas like media freedom and the quality of party politics have deteriorated since before the Rose Revolution.
  • The Rose Revolution was much less a transformation from dictatorship to democracy than a transformation from a very weak and dysfunctional to a strong and effective state. And this is not accidental — state failure is what motivated people to rise up in protest against Shevardnadze, and effective government was perhaps a more widely professed goal of the Rose Revolution than democracy, with Saakashvili notably expressing the hope to emulate David the Builder, Atatürk, Ben-Gurion and De Gaulle.
  • The Rose Revolution was triggered by the fraudulent 3 November 2003 parliamentary election, but Shevardnadze did not actually rig that election to the extent that previous elections had been rigged. Pre-election manipulations apart, Shevardnadze’s For a New Georgia bloc received only 2 seats more than it should have according to exit polls and parallel vote tabulation. Most of the fraud took place in Ajara, in favour of Abashidze’s Revival party (allied to Shevardnadze). Interestingly, even according to the official results, the opposition had won a majority in parliament, and half of the opposition parties were content with the result. Crucially though, Saakashvili’s National Movement-United Front did get shortchanged significantly, and he did not accept the results.
  • In 2003, few opposition leaders were new faces in Georgian politics. Zhvania, Saakashvili, Gamkrelidze and Burjanadze had previously been prominent members of Shevardnadze’s Citizens Union of Georgia, Burjanadze right up until August 2003. Zhvania had led the Citizens Union’s very fraudulent 1999 parliamentary election campaign. The only major opposition politician who had not previously been part of the Citizens Union was Natalashvili, whose Labour Party had been cheated out of parliament in 1999. The Labour Party was the second largest opposition party in 2003 and was the only other party to suffer as much from the election fraud as the National Movement-United Front. But Natalashvili committed the mistake of not joining the subsequent protests even as his supporters did, and was thus politically marginalised following the Rose Revolution.
  • The Rose Revolution did not, at least initially, attract huge masses of protesters. It started off with only a couple of thousand of people, and did not reach 100,000 until its climax on the 22nd. For the largest part, it featured fewer people than the failed protests in 2007 and 2009. The Rose revolution only succeeded because Shevardnadze’s government was so weak, and mishandled the situation so completely.
  • From Shevardnadze’s position, the Rose Revolution was wholly unnecessary. This was not a presidential election, so his position was not directly at stake. Furthermore, he had said repeatedly hat he wanted to step down anyway at the end of his term, so the composition of parliament should not have been so important as to risk his political legacy over. Finally, the Citizens Union of Georgia was in shambles, so he could have allowed his protégés to step into his political footsteps, even if they were now the leaders of the opposition.
  • The Rose Revolution was not in any way ‘engineered’ by American funded NGOs. But it was made possible by democracy assistance, which educated many of its key actors, and which made available the necessary tools to expose election fraud, such as parallel vote tabulation.
  • The Rose Revolution was also not directly wanted by the United States. Despite considerable disappointment in Shevardnadze, he was still seen as pro-Western and to some degree as a ‘reformer’. It was hoped that someone more committed to reforms would succeed him in the next presidential election. But in November 2003, Shevardnadze was one of the few world leaders who unambiguously supported the United States war in Iraq, so engineering a revolution against him would not have made much sense.

The account in Uncertain Democracy shows that the Rose Revolution was a significant, albeit only relative step towards democracy. But it has been oversimplified in the minds of policy makers, and Mitchell argues that this has actually impeded democracy assistance in Georgia. After all, if Georgia is now a democracy, then democracy assistance is no longer necessary, and if the defenders of democracy are now in power in Georgia, then any democratic shortcoming must be due to inexperience, and cannot really be the government’s fault. Indeed, American democracy funding for Georgia has been cut back after the Rose Revolution, while civil society has also been weakened by the outflow of many activists who took up posts in Saakashvili’s government.

Uncertain Democracy stands out for its nuanced, informed, comprehensive and fair content. Sadly, its writing is at times unsatisfactory. Especially in the sections on democracy assistance, the prose is sometimes cumbersome and verbose. This is compounded by a number of misspellings and other small errors, as well as foreshadowings which remain unfulfilled. These flaws mean that Uncertain Democracy will not become the definite book on the Rose Revolution. Such a book would also require more than 5 years of hindsight and more access to confidential sources, which, to his credit, Mitchell acknowledges. However, Mitchell has succeeded in exploiting his unique experience as an outsider who witnessed the Rose Revolution form close by in crafting a book that, at least for the time being, is the principal English language reference on the subject.

Note: Uncertain Democracy is rather critical of Georgia’s post Rose Revolution government, but to Saakashvili’s credit, he recommends the book on its back as “essential reading”.

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