Saakashvili’s de facto authoritarianism had three core pillars: control over national TV media (through direct and indirect ownership); weak and financially starved opposition; and people’s fear of reprisal by the state. This sense of fear came from what many have alleged to be illegal surveillances, random arrests, acts of intimidation, extortion, and blackmail undertaken by the Ministries of Interior, Justice, and Prisons and other “law enforcement” powers. These structures of repression were facilitated and legalized by an unconditionally subservient judiciary.
Mr. Ivanishvili’s challenge to Saakashvili did not weaken these power structures, but he united virtually all of Saakashvili’s opponents, and used his immense wealth to create new TV stations that provided the critical alternative to state media. He also ran an exceptional campaign orchestrated by American consultants and financed independent vote monitoring. It was also vital that the US finally turned on Saakashvili: The Obama administration clearly played a key role in preventing fraud and forcing Saakashvii to accept his defeat.
The collapse of Saakashvili’s system creates a narrow window of opportunity for democracy in Georgia. Diversity in Ivanishvili’s political coalition makes it harder for him to try to consolidate his powers for an indefinite term, if he were to be tempted by authoritarianism. While important constitutional changes are mandatory to prevent concentration of power, it appears that Ivanishvili understands this. In addition, Georgia needs to take several other practical steps that can help nurture this democratic moment.
First, rule of law must replace rule by fear. The all-powerful Ministry of Interior must be broken up into small and controllable components. Its successors must be put under the supervision of an independent board not influenced by the executive office. It is incumbent on the US to push for demolishing this Ministry and weakening other “police” structures.