The Betrayal of Democracy
in Post-Soviet Georgia
Chad Nagle
British Helsinki Human Rights Group

Special to

Maybe, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it was infeasible for the West to hold Nuremberg trials for all the Communist Party nomenklatura members who had hounded, arrested, imprisoned, tortured and executed dissidents and political prisoners for so many decades. Maybe it was impractical to even try to take such people to task in any way at all. Maybe it was inevitable that the West would acquiesce in the return to power of the more prominent of these communist henchmen in the new states of the ex-USSR. But surely, if we had any sense of responsibility to these imprisoned nations, we could have refrained from rewarding their former bosses, and applauding them as great liberators and reformers.


For the people of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, fact has been stranger than fiction in the post-Soviet era. On September 23, 1999, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which monitors democratic development around the world on behalf of the Democratic Party, awarded its prestigious Averell T. Harriman Medal of Freedom to one of the most brutal rulers of any Soviet republic in the seventy-odd years of the USSR's existence: Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. In a double ceremony in which First Lady Hillary Clinton also received the award, the Georgian leader was lauded for "building democracy" in Georgia in the aftermath of the Soviet break-up. No doubt the average American watching such a spectacle had little reason to doubt the justness of these proceedings, since the only Georgia most Americans could locate on a map has a capital called Atlanta. But for the average Georgian, the event represented another milestone of Western infamy toward their beleaguered country.

On November 8, 1999, the Pope appeared in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, next to Shevardnadze, hailing the ex-Politburo member as a champion of liberty. Even if it were possible for the 71-year-old Shevardnadze to personally entertain the principles of charity and mercy which characterize Christianity, or to believe in God at all, there is no indication of this from the way he runs his country's political system. There are currently over 100 political prisoners in Georgia, "political" because their only crime was having been partisans of an elected president who was overthrown in 1992. Economically, Georgia today is by any standards a depressed and dirty hole in the wall. Its industry now functions at 10-15% capacity, its roughly 2 million pensioners receive the equivalent of $6 per month, and hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are homeless or inhabit derelict buildings in the country's cities. Meanwhile, Mr. Shevardnadze and his ruling political clique ride around in Mercedes limousines and enjoy fat bank accounts. After his recent world tour, during which Shevardnadze was toasted in Western capitals for having "brought down the Berlin Wall," he returned to Georgia to see the victory of his ruling Citizens' Union party in elections marked by violence, arrests, and intimidation of opposition figures, and by the usual irregularities at the ballot box.


Shevardnadze's past gives no indication that he ever dreamed of democracy or the rule of law during his formative years. For roughly thirteen years, from 1972-85, Shevardnadze ruled Georgia on behalf of the Soviet regime as First Secretary of the Georgian SSR. Before that, from 1965-72, he headed Georgia's Ministry of Internal Affairs, which ran the republic's police and prisons. During these twenty years, Shevardnadze gained the nickname "Bloody Eduard," for his treatment of dissenters and supporters of Georgian national independence, and credible evidence exists that he personally participated in torture. He enthusiastically "Russified" Georgia, and thoroughly condemned the brief period of Georgian national independence (1918-21). Shevardnadze also accepted the exclusion of the Georgian language as an official language of Georgia until widespread protest forced the Soviet regime to reaccept Georgian on a par with Russian within the republic.

In 1985, Shevardnadze threw his lot in with Mikhail Gorbachev, whose star was in the ascendant. The gamble paid off, and Gorbachev rewarded Shevardnadze with the post of Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs. The choice seemed strange, given that Shevardnadze had no foreign policy experience and spoke no foreign languages but Russian (which he spoke with difficulty). But his affable manner and white-haired, grandfatherly appearance, combined with the fact that his face was new in the West, evidently convinced Gorbachev that Shevardnadze was a good pick. Georgians were pleased to see Shevardnadze depart for Moscow, and lived under conditions of relative leniency with regard to cultural and national expression for the next six years.

In the late 1980s', Georgia was in the forefront of national independence movements in the USSR. Famous Georgian dissidents who had been imprisoned repeatedly under Shevardnadze's tenure and alleged torture of political prisoners by Shevardnadze's regime, became active and staged large demonstrations in the republic. But despite Shevardnadze's duties abroad as foreign minister, he always kept at least one eye trained on events unfolding in Georgia. On April 9, 1989, Soviet special forces troops (Spetsnaz) attacked peaceful demonstrators in the capital, Tbilisi, with poison gas and shovels, killing over twenty people, many of whom were elderly women. Most Georgians believed Shevardnadze instigated the killings, and his mysterious appearance in Tbilisi the day before the atrocity seemed to confirm their suspicions.


As cracks widened in the fabric of the Soviet state, the Georgian national movement culminated in the free election of a Georgian parliament in 1990 and a president in 1991. The first free election of a Georgian president in May 1991 saw the accession to power of a famous dissident nationalist writer and staunch admirer of Ronald Reagan, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Gamsakhurdia only had seven months in office before being overthrown, but during that time his parliament passed certain important laws, including the decree that the seventy years of Soviet rule over Georgia were legally a period of "occupation," and that all laws and leaders of Georgia for that time were "illegitimate." Back in Moscow, meanwhile, Shevardnadze realized that he would soon be out of a job if he did not act. When the USSR was being dismantled, Shevardnadze was faced with retiring from public life or returning to Georgia to seize power with the aid of Russian-backed forces. He chose the latter.

When US Secretary of State James Baker came to Moscow in 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gamsakhurdia had already been overthrown by a junta acting on behalf of Shevardnadze. After a closed-door meeting with Shevardnadze, Baker emerged in support of Shevardnadze's returning to Georgia to assume the presidency. Shevardnadze returned from Moscow to Georgia, where armed gangs were terrorizing the countryside under the orders of a Shevardnadze ally and one of the putsch leaders, Jaba Ioseliani.

There followed a period of civil war in Georgia which lasted for the better part of two years and resulted in the de facto dismemberment of the country. The very Russian forces Shevardnadze had invited into the country to get rid of Gamsakhurdia's loyalists succeeded in separating two regions from Georgian control, Abkhazia to the northwest and South Ossetia in the north central area. Over 300,000 refugees and IDPs resulted from these wars in a country with a population smaller than Philadelphia's. Ioseliani, a convicted mafia godfather, was made a deputy premier and his army of thugs called the "Mkhedrioni" (Horsemen) rampaged throughout villages and towns, pillaging and raping the inhabitants. Shevardnadze thus consolidated his rule over what remained of Georgian territory by means of terror, a tried and trusted Soviet method.

Gamsakhurdia was hunted down and murdered in a small town in western Georgia in late 1993, reputedly by Russian troops with the aid of Shevardnadze's allies. Shevardnadze then signed agreements with Russia concerning the permanent stationing of Russian troops in Georgia, which Gamsakhurdia had categorically refused. He staged elections in which the organs of his newly-implanted regime held all the cards. Although Gamsakhurdia was able to rally hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in central Tbilisi during his tenure as president, the elections of 1992 and 1995 brought not a single ally of the former president into the new legislature. This fact combined with highly visible violations made it strange that Western governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) so readily endorsed these elections as democratic.


Western governments evidently greeted the results of the most recent parliamentary elections in the Republic of Georgia on October 31, 1999, with similar applause and sighs of relief. Shevardnadze's Citizens' Union party again won an absolute majority of seats, leaving the main opposition party, the Democratic Revival Union (Revival), unable to make laws or significantly affect Georgian national policy. Yet any impartial observer could only conclude that, far from spelling relief for democracy and stability in the region, the results reflected an attempt by the Georgian authorities to suppress the immensely discontented electorate, and to hold the lid down on an increasingly restless, political Pandora's Box.

The elections were a travesty of democracy at very least. Reports of attacks and other electoral violations against representatives of Revival were myriad, and the ruling Citizens' Union claimed about 80% of television air time reserved for campaign ads. Revival candidates were in many instances physically assaulted or denied access to voters, sometimes by tanks and troops. The Central Electoral Commission (CEC) of Georgia, whose top officials are presidential appointees, disqualified literally hundreds of opposition candidates from running, and, in an unprecedented move, denied accreditation to hundreds of election observers. In the midst of all this, could Western governments and NGOs honestly have believed that the CEC and the Georgian government reported the final count fairly and accurately?

On October 28, Shevardnadze received two US Army Hughes helicopters in time for the election. On election day, and the few days preceding it, Georgian pilots were flying the new choppers over Tbilisi at low altitude and making a deafening noise. Shevardnadze also issued the ridiculous warning that an electoral victory by Revival would be a "coup d'etat." In a country where the police force is four times larger than the military, Shevardnadze evidently intended for Georgian voters to go to the polls in a climate of fear. Apparently, a further twenty American attack helicopters are expected to arrive in Georgia in coming weeks to beef up potential.

In a democracy, when living standards and general economic conditions plunge radically and do not improve within a reasonable time, the government (which in a parliamentary system sits within the legislature) is usually flung out come polling day. Yet somehow, the United States and its European allies expect this not to be the case in a country like Georgia, where the people are highly literate and aware who their leaders are. The squalid poverty of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and the destitute conditions in Georgia's countryside and smaller towns are, supposedly, conditions which the Georgian people tolerate ad infinitum in the interests of some wonderful life which Shevardnadze and the Citizens' Union are arranging for them in the near future. Such a premise is incredible to anyone objectively viewing the current situation in Georgia. The desperate population is actually shrinking, as Georgians leave their country in droves in search of a more dignified life abroad, and within the country there is little or no faith that President Shevardnadze and his government have either the ability or inclination to turn things around.

So how does the West put a good face on events in Georgia? It isn't too difficult when one considers that the big international NGOs, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Council of Europe, can make more or less unchecked public pronouncements about the level of democracy in ex-Soviet republics. After all, the only voices to oppose them are small organizations with little influence, or domestic human rights groups whose members conduct their activities under constant fear of harassment or arrest. Clearly, groups such as the OSCE and Council of Europe have agendas in the former Soviet bloc which have little or nothing to do with the development of democracy or sovereignty. Funded and organized by the governments of Western member states, these organizations have repeatedly put their seal of approval on elections which any dispassionate observer with two eyes in his head would conclude were a sham. The agenda, therefore, is not democracy, but rather "stability" as Western governments conceive of it.


Many might argue that a policy of promoting "stability" at the expense of democracy is the wisest, most cautious one for the West to pursue. The problem is, the policy hasn't worked very well in the Caucasus, and has served to make the natives either cynical or contemptuous of the United States. As a result of Chechnya being once again bombed into oblivion by the Russians, the leadership of Azerbaijan appears to be turning away from its pro-Western stance in fear of spillover from the new Chechen war. Armenia's government was decimated on October 27, when a group of gunmen claiming only to want "the people to live well" entered the parliament building and shot dead the prime minister, the speaker of parliament, and six other ministers from the ruling "Unity" party.

The massacre in Armenia was especially illuminating as to the effectiveness of the West's "stability" policy. In the Armenian parliamentary elections in May 1999, "Unity" won an absolute majority of seats in the legislature, and the result was immediately proclaimed by both the OSCE and Council of Europe as representative of the move toward genuine democracy in the country. Yet the popular base of support for this party was, to say the least, obscure. When factoring into the Armenian equation the West's plans to build oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, and the fact that the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh is a fly in the ointment for such plans, one can easily see how the West might have plotted to leave democracy out in the cold in the last Armenian elections.

The West considered the leaders of "Unity" more likely to compromise in the OSCE negotiations with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Furthermore, the victorious party had enough seats to impeach the nationalist Armenian president, who had thus far proven unwilling to consider compromise. So the stage was set for legislative victory for Western pipeline plans until, that is, the gunmen entered the parliament and massacred the leaders of "Unity" on October 27 (it may have been more than coincidence that earlier that day, two senior US foreign policy aides had met with the slain leaders, no doubt to talk about Nagorno-Karabakh). The act of terrorism was condemned in Western capitals. But what was unsaid was that this desperate act by fanatical malcontents may have been, and likely was, a product of Western support and legitimation of electoral victory by a party enjoying little active support in Armenia. That such leaders (one was former First Secretary of Soviet Armenia) could have been elected by such a vast majority, and yet have received no discernible public display of sympathy after their murder, only lends credence to the view that their popularity was a chimera. So much for "stability."

Georgia hardly looks more stable than Armenia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now de facto partitioned from the rest of Georgia, and Shevardnadze is now accusing another region, the Autonomous Republic of Adjaria, of "separatism." There is no basis for the accusations, except that the head of the regional government of Adjaria, Aslan Abashidze, is also the chairman of Revival, the first party to mount a real opposition to Shevardnadze's Citizens' Union since the overthrow of Gamsakhurdia. Abashidze does enjoy rather a "separate" reputation in Georgia, in that he is famous for having refused entry of the Mkhedrioni to Adjaria in 1992, thus sparing at least one region of Georgia from certain plunder. He has accused Shevardnadze of repeatedly trying to orchestrate his assassination, and believes the central government plans to launch a civil war against Adjaria in the near future.

It remains to be seen how long the Western policy of "stability over democracy" will be pursued in Georgia, but one thing is fairly certain: it is failing fast. Georgia is a dismembered state, and Shevardnadze has arrested several people in the last few years on allegations that they were involved in attempting his assassination. Shevardnadze may be planning another war against the relatively prosperous region of Adjaria to remove Abashidze in the near future (perhaps with the aid of his new US helicopters). This could result in further partition if the Georgian government forces fail, as occurred in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Only the most cynical or negligent observer could characterize this state of affairs as reflective of "stability."

But even more troubling for the United States should be the fact that in our unconditional support of a deeply unpopular leader, the United States has created a high level of anti-Americanism in a nation which, during the Cold War, was fiercely pro-American and looked up to us as the only power which could help them realize their national aspirations. Most residents of Tbilisi now refer disgracefully to the wall which Washington constructed in front of the US Embassy as the "Berlin Wall." Georgians no longer take the OSCE and Council of Europe seriously as promoters of either democracy or human rights in Georgia, and many in fact suspect them of being staffed largely by intelligence officers. The same goes for NDI, which in its 1999 pre-election report for Georgia referred to Shevardnadze as "respected leader" (presumably they meant "respected by NDI"). Sadly, Georgians now wonder pathetically whether the course of their country's history might have been different had Ronald Reagan still been president at the time of the Soviet Union's collapse.


We are wrong to throw enthusiastic support behind old Communist Party nomenklatura figures such as Eduard Shevardnadze, both from an ideological and a practical standpoint. Not only will these people never have the knowledge or will to allow democracy in their countries, no matter how great the myths we build around them, but they will never be able to guarantee stability either. When Reagan spoke of fighting for freedom in the "Evil Empire," most politically aware people in the constituent republics of the USSR believed he meant it. But the weakness of Reagan's successors ensured that bringing about the Soviet system's demise would only be a job half done. The Clinton administration sponsors heads of state in the Caucasus who are willing to kick their people in the face, so that pesky domestic political movements and the development of sovereign democracies do not get in the way of the flow of oil. In Georgia, Shevardnadze is one such leader, but it is not clear he will be able to keep the place under thumb forever on the West's behalf. It is more likely that before long the whole region will blow up in our face.

Chad Nagle is a lawyer living in Alexandria, Virginia. He observed the 1999 Georgian parliamentary elections on behalf of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group.

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