Former Soviet Republic's Democratic Transition Questioned

The former Soviet republic of Georgia passed an important test of democracy last year. After a bitter campaign, the government changed hands peacefully in a free election. But the losing party says democracy in Georgia is threatened because the new government is arresting officials from the old government and putting them on trial for corruption and abuse of power.

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It was five years ago that the U.S. was chastising Russia over its invasion of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Russian tanks had moved across the border after Georgian forces tried to re-take a separatist region, a region which Russia backed. There is still tensions between the countries, but last year Georgian voters elected a new prime minister who pledged to improve ties with Moscow.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports that although Georgia's transition to a new government has been peaceful, there are questions about whether it's taking a democratic pass.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Georgia a small country on the Black Sea, wedged between Russia and Turkey. It's only about half the size of the American state of Georgia, with fewer than half as many people - around four-and-a-half million. But the Republic of Georgia has been a faithful ally of the United States, sending troops to the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Its charismatic young president, Mikheil Saakashvili, won friends in the West by embracing free-market capitalism and announcing his government's goal of joining the European Union and the NATO alliance. That's why many in the West were shocked when Saakashvili's party suffered a crushing defeat in last year's parliamentary elections.

Saakashvili is still president, but he's a lame duck whose term runs out in a few more months. Relations between him and the country's new prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, are so bad that the two have met only twice since the new government took office.

Saakashvili's National Security Advisor, Giga Bokeria, says Georgia has only passed the first test of a democracy, peacefully changing the government by ballot.

GIGA BOKERIA: Another test of literal democracy is that winners understand that losers do not disappear or go to jail, and they continue to be their political rivals for next elections.

FLINTOFF: But the winners in Georgia's new government have, in fact, arrested dozens of officials from the previous government, including the former prime minister. He faces trial later this month on charges of abusing power, embezzlement, bribing voters and covering up a murder. Other officials are accused of wide-spread extortion, and illegal surveillance of Georgian citizens.

Prime Minister Ivanishvili has said that he would not rule out the possibility that President Saakashvili himself could be arrested when his term expires. Even now, Ivanishvili doesn't hide his scorn for his defeated opponents.

BIDZINA IVANISHVILI: (Through Translator) They are not changing the rhetoric which they had for so long, rhetoric of lies and rhetoric of intimidation and aggressiveness.

FLINTOFF: He says the former ruling party has doomed itself with its tactics and can never come back as a constructive opposition party.

Ivanishvili is a billionaire businessman who was able to finance his own campaign, against a government that used the state-run media and taxpayer money to fight against him. One reason he won was that many voters perceived the ruling party as corrupt and autocratic.

STEPHEN JONES: You know, on the one hand, the Georgian government is responding to popular demand for justice.

FLINTOFF: This is Stephen Jones, professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Mount Holyoke College.

JONES: On the other hand, it is dangerous territory because, depending on who you put on trial, you can be accused of selective justice.

FLINTOFF: Jones notes that there's a lot of concern about the prosecutions in the United States and the European Union. The person in charge of the prosecutions is Archil Kbilashvili, the chief prosecutor of Georgia. He's a former defense attorney who'd never worked as a prosecutor before he was appointed by the new prime minister. The prosecutor says there's enormous public pressure to put former officials in jail for perceived abuses.

ARCHIL KBILASHVILI: But on the other side, there is an international community who calls us to follow the law, in a very good procedural manner.

FLINTOFF: And that, Kbilashvili says, means that prosecutors must build strong cases based on clear evidence - something he says was not done by the prior administration.

A lot is riding on how the international community perceives Georgia's prosecutions. Both the previous administration and the new one have said they're determined to keep Georgia turned toward the West, with eventual integration into the European Union and NATO. Those goals could be in danger if the new Georgian government is seen to be on a hunt for revenge instead of a search for justice.

The stakes are high domestically, as well, where the question is whether Georgia can grow into a truly competitive multi-party political system. Giorgi Gogia is the senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in the South Caucasus region. He says it will take time to evolve away from winner-take-all politics.

GIORGI GOGIA: People do want dramatic and drastic changes, you know. They shift sides very easily, but once they shift, the hatred against the other is very big.

FLINTOFF: Gogia says it will be hard to imagine multi-party political give-and-take in Georgia, until there's a truly independent judiciary system to act as referee.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

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