The 2008 August war with Russia, which provoked hundreds of casualties and a huge flow of displaced people, also had some unexpected consequences for the quality of democracy in Georgia. The president at that time was Mikhail Saakashvili who, on the wave of the 2003 “Rose Revolution”, promised to lead the country toward a modern and democratic future. Notwithstanding important successes in state-building, the Saakashvili government was not democratic. Indeed, if we look at the major indicators of democratic quality, Georgia experienced a decrease from 2007 to 2010, when the country began to recover from the conflict and political tumult of previous years.
In this article, I argue that the effects of the August war on Georgia’s democratic process were two-fold. On the one hand, the war provoked a shifting balance among international actors. In particular, the EU became the major donor for the country, through an increase in its aid-conditionality programme. On the other, the August war initiated a process of de-consolidation of Saakashvili’s power, which eventually could be considered beneficial for Georgia’s democratic process. Indeed, even if the war increased Saakashvili’s popular support, this support proved to be unsustainable and even ephemeral. Saakashvili did not realise it and undertook political reforms that were strongly opposed by Georgia’s lively and very active civil society.
A shifting international environment
At the international level, one of the main drivers of the change in balance among external actors was that Saakashvili realised that his country could not rely anymore on the United States in its quest for security. During the years before the war, the United States was deeply involved in the region. In 2005, for instance, President George W. Bush visited the country and called Georgia the “beacon of liberty for this region”. However, when – three years later – Russian tanks were entering Georgian territory, Washington did not intervene to help Tbilisi. Instead, the delicate negotiating process was led by French President Nicola Sarkozy. This is one of the reasons why the war enhanced the profile of the European Union in the region, which became a key actor in mediating between Russia and Georgia during the war and eventually led the monitoring mission (the European Union Monitoring Mission –EUMM) to the borders of the two breakaway regions (South Ossetia and Abkhazia). Less than a year after the conflict, the European Union firmly strengthened its position in the country, with the clear idea of fostering deeper integration, mainly through its new Eastern Partnership (EaP) programme equipped with the conditionality tool, which consists of respecting and fostering democratic governance and human rights as conditions to receive aid. Therefore, Saakashvili's regime found itself relying much more on the European Union and its aid programme, which was the major source of external funding in the South Caucasus.
From a domestic standpoint, the August war’s consequences in the short term were multifaceted. First, following the traumatic events of the Russian invasion, Saakashvili regained popular support after a difficult and contested period when opposition groups organised massive demonstrations that sometimes degenerated into violent clashes with the police, arousing international criticism. In the end, he was able to further consolidate his political project based on a strong executive. Second, the huge external aid programmes (around 4.5 billion dollars) also had the effect of mitigating the worsening of economic conditions following the global economic crisis. Overall, as Ghia Nodia claimed, “save for the separatist regions, the results of the war were not as dramatic as the initial shock had suggested.”
Ephemeral domestic support
In the medium/long-term, the consequences of the August war were detrimental to Saakashvili’s regime. Indeed, in the following years, Saakashvili pursued his reform projects aimed at exchanging the presidency for a greatly empowered premiership and remaining in charge after the end of his second and final term in 2013. To carry out this reform, the constitution had to be changed. However, the constitutional amendments, eventually approved by parliament in 2010, were not deemed to be inclusive or accurate by opposition parties and the international community (i.e. the Venice Commission). On the wave of such criticism, Georgia’s political scene grew more and more polarised, as civic movements and opposition political parties organised several huge demonstrations in 2009 and 2011, which called for Saakashvili’s resignation. Saakashvili, who found himself much more dependent on international aid programmes, and well aware of international criticism for his choice to violently repress the 2007 demonstrations, did not recur to extreme violent measures to cope with the protesters. Nevertheless, trust in the president fell from 51% in 2008 to 28% in 2012.
In this context, Bidzina Ivanishvili - a Georgian-born billionaire, who also had a French passport at that time - founded a new party called Georgian Dream, which among other stances proposed to “normalise” the relationship with Russia. In October 2011, just two weeks after he declared he would enter politics to oppose the government for the 2012 parliamentary elections, President Saakashvili tried to hinder his political project by revoking Ivanishvili’s citizenship. This choice provoked high international pressure, including from Russia, which was allegedly endorsing Ivanishvili. Eventually, Saakashvili was pressurised to sign a constitutional amendment in May 2012 that allowed European Union citizens to form political parties in the country. Thus Ivanishvili was able to lead Georgian Dream in the upcoming elections.
Subsequently, the release of some videotapes showing torture and human rights abuses on some prisoners in Georgian jails just before the election provoked shock and indignation among the population. The government reacted by calling for the arrest of the guards involved. A former prison officer, Vladimir Bedukadze, who leaked the video, claimed that the torture had been ordered by the Minister of the Interior Bacho Akhalaia. Eventually, the minister resigned just a few weeks before the election. At the international level, Western actors harshly criticised the episodes. The EU immediately condemned the physical and sexual abuse of Georgian prison inmates and Anders Fogh Rasmussen (at the time secretary-general of NATO) warned: “the October elections will test the NATO-aspirant country's democratic credentials”.
The first democratic turnover
In the 2012 parliamentary elections, Saakashvili’s party lost the majority of seats and the next year, in presidential elections, Giorgi Margvelashvili, from Georgian Dream, won the election. In less than two years, Saakashvili had been overturned by opposition forces. Indeed, in Saakashvili’s Georgia international and domestic actors had imposed strict regulations for electoral management, which finally forced him to abide by democratic rules and accept the election’s results. In fact, since the August 2008 war, Saakashvili and his party, the United National Movement (UNM) had been unable to fully implement their political project (modernisation without democratisation).
Overall, it is possible to argue that there is a strong link between the August war and Georgia’s path to democracy. Following the war, Georgia found itself much more dependent on European Union aid - which is strongly conditioned by respect for democratic principles - to avoid isolation and escape from the Russian yoke. At the same time, Saakashvili misunderstood both international and domestic support and made some missteps that eventually halted his nondemocratic project and ousted him from power through the first democratic turnover.