Liberal Development: Georgian Response to Putin’s Agenda

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

On February 26, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili delivered his annual state of the nation address in Georgian Parliament. In sharp contrast to the speeches of previous years, he devoted a lot more of his time to his country’s internal development than to Russia and other foreign policy issues. The message the Georgian leader apparently wanted to deliver to his domestic and international audience was that the future of Georgia depends on how successfully its liberal experiment proceeds. This could also be viewed as Tbilisi’s response to Russian Prime Minister Putin’s indefatigable attempts at isolating Georgia internationally and destabilizing it internally. Georgia’s civil society has too discovered original ways of counteracting Putin’s anti-liberal and irredentist agenda.

Georgia’s best achievements under President Saakshvili so far have been institution-building and liberal economic reforms. Its police, security forces and army are not only modeled after the West but seem to be the only ones in the post-Soviet space (with the exception of the Baltic nations) to be enjoying full autonomy from the Russian security apparatus. Georgia’s liberal economic policy, embedded in the Economic Liberty Act, has found recognition internationally and further upgraded the nation’s index of economic freedom to the 26th position this year, according to the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal; a remarkable achievement for a non-E.U., non-Anglo-Saxon country and a powerful reason for foreign investors to bring their capital into Georgia.

In his address, Saakashvili mentioned the word development and its equivalents some fifty times and the word liberal ten times in a bid to raise domestic and international confidence. “Only by building a liberal economy will we be able to fully ensure the sustained recovery of our nation. Only in this way will we create a society of boundless opportunities, free of corruption and bureaucratic pressures. Only then will we be open to economic development. This will make Georgia more attractive, for both Georgian and foreign investors.”

But it is not only through a liberal economy that the Georgian government hopes the country will become a better place to live. A “strong educational system and the right infrastructure remain the main priorities” as well. The education system was marred by rampant corruption before the 2003 Rose Revolution and the first phase of the reform was aimed at creating a fair, transparent and competition-based mechanism through the introduction of the nation-wide examination process for higher education. The second phase of the reform will now focus on secondary education through comprehensive certification procedures for both students and teachers.

The Georgian parliament has recently finished the transformation of the second channel of Georgian Public Broadcaster, which now gives detailed and unabridged daily accounts of press conferences, statements and public speeches of every single political party. Although all major national TV channels run talk shows with daily appearances of representatives of the opposition and the ruling party, the second channel’s newfound appeal is truly extraordinary since it has now become a publicly-owned tribune of free speech.

One part of Georgia’s civil society that would like the reforms to run even deeper and faster has found its own ways to push forward the liberal agenda. A dozen of creative enthusiasts led by Tamara Chergoleishvili will soon inaugurate yet another liberal publication. According to the editors, Tabula, a bilingual Georgian-English weekly magazine is designed “to amplify liberal voices in Georgian political debates…and [to not only] analyze and comment on public policy but to change it, to move it [in a] liberal direction and to confront challenges to liberty, create intellectual leadership on major issues as well as on thought frameworks for decision-making.”

The editors of Tabula have an ambitious dream to develop their magazine into a Georgian Economist, but their dream is no more ambitious than the Georgian government’s quest to establish and preserve a liberal democracy in the Caucasus, at the doorstep of Putin’s Russia, which has already placed Georgia at the top of its sphere of influence agenda.