Former Georgian Foreign Minister Salomé Zourabichvili: Beyond Zero Sum Politics in the Caucasus

In the past two decades a new generation of leaders in Central and Eastern Europe turned the page on an authoritarian past, answering calls for independence by their fellow citizens. For a time, it appeared that these leaders and the “color revolutions” that they led would follow clear paths toward democratic and accountable governance. 

Yet today, for many countries that emerged from the shadow of the Soviet Union, the true promise of democracy remains unfulfilled.

In many respects, the revolutions that cascaded through this region have reverted to the old model of a single party state. Government institutions—especially the police and judiciary—are exploited by authorities to punish their enemies. Former officials face possible prosecution and prison sentences, creating zero sum politics where losing an election means losing everything. Having answered the call for independence, today’s leaders remain resistant to the public’s desire to choose how they will be governed.

Meanwhile, a resurgent Russia has imposed external pressure on former satellites – Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine in particular – that reinforces political divisions and turns citizens against one another. In Georgia, recent leaders with close affiliations to Russia have compromised our sovereignty, while others invited disaster with reckless bluster and confrontation.

Confronted by these persistent obstacles, democracy is not inevitable for any nation in our region. Each country faces challenges that threaten to roll back progress in a myriad of ways. Often, democracy is undermined not by blatant election rigging or crackdowns on protestors, but by subverting the legal process to silence opposition. Georgia has not been immune to such machinations; yet when our people have had the opportunity to choose, our nation has advanced.

The world witnessed such progress just last year when, through parliamentary elections, Georgia experienced its first peaceful and democratic political transition. After a decade of virtual one-party rule, President Mikheil Saakashvili and his party conceded to the incoming Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgia Dream coalition – a milestone that gave our people confidence that their choices can effect real political change.  The popular momentum spurred by these elections subsequently produced constitutional reforms that will distribute authority more equitably between our next President and Prime Minister.  These hopeful measures have inspired many Georgians – including myself – to re-engage in our nation’s political life.

With Georgians returning to the polls this fall to elect a new President, the stakes – and public expectations – are high. Yet in recent months our new government has taken steps that call into question our democratic progress, most notably through the arrest of a number of former officials and opposition leaders in what observers have suggested are politically motivated acts.  And just this week, the government’s election commission chose to deny my own candidacy for President through the use of spurious and extra-legal pretexts – a decision that I am appealing.

The Georgian people have the right to choose both how they will be governed and the direction of their nation. Restricting the field of Presidential candidates would deny Georgians the full range of choices they deserve, and in particular one focused on strengthening partnerships with other Western democracies.  And it would undermine the legitimacy of our next President, whose intended role is to represent and advance our nation’s democratic aspirations.

In recent weeks, the U.S. Congress has addressed with concern the prospects for our upcoming election, affirming that “the United States must be unambiguous when democratic backsliding occurs in a key ally after a peaceful and democratic transfer of power.”  With democracy still fragile throughout our region and Russia’s hegemonic interests still evident, Georgia’s future direction has strategic implications for our European and NATO allies.

That is why the constitutional right of citizens to choose matters – not just to Georgians who relish this right, but to the region and beyond.  Allowing this choice to be constrained would provide a blank check for those who wish to end my country’s western and democratic aspirations once and for all.

Salomé Zourabichvili is the former Foreign Minister of Georgia.