The Next Test for Democracy in the Republic of Georgia

Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Knowledge Cafe, a social enterprise and civic gathering space supported by USAID

A conversation between USAID Assistant Administrator Brock Bierman and 5 Georgian activists

The preamble to the U.S. Constitution articulates a path for the American people to “form a more perfect union.” This small phrase acknowledges a very big idea. Democracy requires a lot from its citizens. The Constitution itself helps create the basis for a more perfect union, but democracy ultimately depends on the citizens who exercise their rights and help shape their society and the government that represents them.

This same spirit of democracy has taken root all over the world, and it’s my honor to help bolster this spirit in Europe’s youngest democracies.

The Republic of Georgia, which declared its independence from the Soviet Union only a generation ago, has worked to cultivate its own spirit of democracy, which requires free and fair elections and the active participation of the country’s citizens. Georgia has made tremendous strides on its path to joining the Euro-Atlantic community, but it still has important steps to take.

Earlier this year, the Parliament of Georgia passed constitutional amendments and electoral code reforms to reduce ambiguities in electoral law, address corruption, and take steps toward leveling the electoral playing field to enable a more pluralistic parliament. USAID supported the year-long process, bringing together the political parties, civil society organizations, and government agencies that helped shape these historic changes.

The next step for Georgia is to ensure that this October’s pivotal parliamentary elections are conducted in a manner that ensures an inclusive political process free from malign influence. A free, fair, and inclusive electoral process will advance Georgia’s transition to a more mature democracy. It will also inspire public confidence in democratic processes and strengthen the credibility of the government formed after the elections.

For that to happen, citizen engagement must be at the top of the agenda for all stakeholders, from political parties to election administration bodies. That is why USAID devotes so much of its assistance to elevating the voices of Georgian people from all walks of life and empowering local civil society groups to advocate for their communities.

In honor of International Day for Democracy, I spoke with five Georgian civil society activists whom USAID has supported in their efforts to build a stronger democracy. I heard their views on how to ensure the Georgian people have the opportunity to build the responsive democracy they deserve. While each has his or her own perspective, all of these activists share a commitment to helping Georgian society build its own “more perfect union.”

Georgians will go to the polls in just a few weeks. What needs to happen to ensure Georgians from all walks of life turn out to vote?

Nana Bagalishvili, co-founder of the Knowledge Cafe, a social enterprise and civic gathering space supported by USAID — “It’s exciting that we, a young democracy, have the example of [past democratic elections]. This year we need to react appropriately to the current situation in our country and prove our commitment to Georgia by participating in the elections.”

George Melashvili, civil society activist, president of the Europe-Georgia Institute, and participant in the USAID-supported Generation Democracy initiative — “Politicians need to work much more with the electorate and offer solutions that resonate with people, while people should be much more active in the democratic process to gain more trust in it.”

Goga Jmukhadze, local democracy activist in Rustavi — “The low turnout of voters over the past few elections illustrated that there is so much work remaining to be done with young people. I think that awareness raising activities … are crucial for young people to realize that civic activism is important and that casting a vote is one of the ways to contribute to the betterment of Georgian democracy.”

In your view, why is local activism important for Georgia’s democracy?

Anano Kulalagashvili, citizen journalist in Pankisi Gorge — “Civil society in Georgia contributes to the development of democracy. It ensures that officials are held accountable to the public. Our citizens are given the opportunity to be actively involved in the policy-making process, which increases the degree of legitimacy and trust. Civil society also promotes the integration of less active groups in the country into public life. That’s why democratic education, ‘get out the vote’ campaigns, and empowerment policies matter. They give citizens, especially the most skeptical ones, an opportunity to learn about the democratic process and begin to participate in it.”

How can USAID and the international community be a partner in this effort?

Nana Bagalishvili — “Georgians [look to] American democracy [as] a model, especially for people born during the past three decades.”

Anano Kulalagashvili — “I think that with the help and support of USAID and the international community, volunteers in communities can promote active communication with the public and encourage them to participate in the democratic process.”

Esma Gumberidze, civil society activist, Georgia’s Youth Representative to the United Nations, and member of the European Democracy Youth Network — “International organizations can [also] help Georgian civil society build trust [among the wider society] and [advise] them on how to build partnerships with businesses, foundations, and individual citizens, who could contribute financial and other resources to make civil society more sustainable.”

What message do you have for citizens who see challenges in their communities or who have ideas for how they’d like to see the future take shape?

George Melashvili — “If you see challenges and problems in the community, do not wait for someone else. If you have the desire, the ideas, and if you want to change the future for the better, remember that each of us has the power to bring benefits to the country.”

Esma Gumberidze — “Democracy is a process that needs constant practice. It is like a muscle, if one does not exercise it, the muscles weaken and wither. Thus, even if we do not see the direct outcomes of our activism immediately, we still need to continue pushing.”

A Challenging, but Bright Future for Georgian Democracy

Since regaining its independence in 1991, Georgia has faced a difficult road toward building a functioning democratic society. There have been many challenges, from the ongoing Russian occupation of 20 percent of its territory to endemic corruption to the lack of basic public services.

Since the 2003 Rose Revolution, however, the Georgian people have achieved tremendous progress, building a viable state with functioning democratic institutions. While the Georgian people may continue to confront challenges on their development journey, I see an optimistic story about what can be achieved when a society’s citizens are engaged and committed to turning their democratic aspirations into reality.

In honor of this important day, I would remind our Georgian friends that democracy is a messy, difficult process in all societies, punctuated with setbacks, uneven progress, and the occasional, unexpected, leap ahead.

Debate is part of democracy. Differences of opinion do not weaken democracy; they strengthen it — so long as all parties remain focused on their shared goal of serving the people. Civil society activists, like the people we recently spoke with, drive that process by serving as a bridge between citizens and the sometimes distant-seeming business of politics and policy. Democracy thrives when leaders draw from the best ideas from across parties and society, fueling the pursuit of that more perfect union.

About the Author

Brock Bierman is Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Europe and Eurasia Bureau. Follow his work @BBiermanUSAID.

Last updated: September 16, 2020

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