Sunday, December 09, 2012

Why Georgia's transition is no big deal

Georgia just got a new government. Many people see this as an example where a color revolution did work out well. I don't share that conviction.

Most dictators nowadays are "soft dictators". On paper everything looks fine: they have a parliament, elections, multiple parties and a free press. But they always find some way to stay in power: the opposition press faces libel trials or opposition media get bought by government friendly people, opposition leaders are bribed to change sides or see their citizenship challenged, government sponsored thugs disturb meetings, etc.

Color revolutions are a way to challenge these soft dictators. By building a lot of pressure at once they overwhelm the defenses of the dictator. But that they doesn't solve anything. You just get a different set of guys in power who - facing the same challenges - will very likely show similar behavior.

Real change happens on the basis of factual arguments. But color revolutions are based on lies. They claim that the present rulers are corrupt and incompetent and that when the opposition rules everything will become better. But corruption reflects a set of institutional and cultural defects that can only be cured with a sharp diagnosis and consistent effort. By focusing on people and power revolutions tend to divert the attention away from the structural issues. The consequence is that - just as the pigs in Animal Farm - they end up showing very similar behavior.

The problem with the recent power change in Georgia is that is looks a lot like a color revolution. Here it was a prison video that swung public opinion within a very short period and overwhelmed the defenses of the soft dictatorship. International pressure withheld Saakashvili from all too fragrant tricks. But as the underlying problems haven't been addressed it is rather likely that the new rulers will end up showing very similar behavior.

It may be seem better to have at least a regular change of dysfunctional government than consistently the same one. But in fact that depends. In countries where there is little alternative employment for dismissed ministers there is a great temptation to use the period till the next election to make their future safe. And the fact that Georgia's opposition won mainly thanks to the quirk of the prison video is an open invitation to the kind of soft dictatorship that tries to manage that kind of quirks to its advantage.

I do hope that Georgia's new leaders will turn out well. But we should do better to take a more distant perspective on what happens there.

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