A Mexican Standoff in Georgia

Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition has only held power for a few weeks since its surprise win in last month’s parliamentary elections, but some of its first steps already have me worried about the risk of a reversion to authoritarian rule there. A week ago, Georgian authorities brought criminal charges against Bacho Akhalaia, a former defense minister and close ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s, along with two sitting officials in the Defense Ministry. This week, we hear that authorities have arrested five senior officials in the Interior Ministry on charges linked to the October election.

I’m worried about these arrests because I’m watching them through the lens of a theory that sees strategic uncertainty as one the leading killers of new democracies. In my mental model, democracies can revert to authoritarian rule three ways: 1) an executive coup, whereby the ruling party quashes its rivals or otherwise rigs the political system in its own favor; 2) a military coup, whereby state security forces install themselves in government; or 3) a rebellion, whereby one or more opposition parties successfully seizes power by means other than a fair election. Rebellions occur rarely and almost never succeed, but executive and military coups are historically common, and most attempts at democracy worldwide have failed within a decade or two of their start by one or the other of these means (see here, here, and here for some previous posts on these broader points).

The spoils of state power often play a strong role in enticing incumbent officials and military officers to attempt coups, but they aren’t the only force at work. Political factions may also be lured into undemocratic behavior by uncertainty about their rivals’ intentions and fear of the steep costs of guessing wrong.

A game-theoretic model demonstrates this point in a formal way, but you can get the same idea by thinking about a Mexican standoff (and if you don’t know what that is, watch the embedded clip below from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for the classic cinematic example). In democracies, the three gunfighters are the ruling party, the opposition, and the military. In some cases, each of these factions may be itching to knock off its rivals as a way to win sole control of some treasure at hand. In other cases, though, some or all of the dueling pistoleros might genuinely prefer to cooperate with the others. Maybe there’s an even bigger treasure up the road that they can only capture if they work together, or maybe they’re just tired of shooting. Whatever the reason, the problem is that this desire for cooperation can’t always overcome the fundamental problem of mutual distrust. Because the stakes are so high, every little turn of the eyes or twitch of the finger is liable to get misinterpreted as a sign of bad intentions, and no one wants to be the sucker who waits a little too long to shoot in hopes that things will work out okay on their own.

Turning back to Tbilisi, the early arrests of Saakashvili loyalists in the state security apparatus are raising concerns that Georgian Dream means to punish its former overlords in ways that push the boundaries of democratic practice. An executive coup is the typical trajectory for new democracies in the post-Cold War period, especially in countries, like Georgia, where politics is sharply polarized. Even if they aren’t aware of those general facts, many observers seem quite sensitive to this risk. “The gloves are off in Tbilisi as the new ruling power takes aim at President Mikheil Saakashvili’s allies,” Molly Corso wrote of the arrests in Business News Europe. According to the New York Times, “some lawmakers feared [the arrests] presaged a wave of reprisals against members of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s defeated government.” And on today’s TBLPOD podcast from Tbilisi, Camrin Christensen noted that, “People here are now probably thinking, ‘Oh, no, am I also on this list?’ and thinking about taking family vacations.”

It’s not the handful of arrests themselves that are so worrisome, of course. It’s what they imply about Georgian Dream’s underlying intentions. In the Mexican standoff metaphor, these arrests are a menacing turn of the eyes and hips in the direction of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and its sympathizers in the police and defense establishment.

Maybe those fears are overblown. Maybe Georgian Dream is being straight with us when it says it’s just pursuing legitimate investigations into abuses of power during President Saakashvili’s tenure. Even if that’s the case, though, the resulting uncertainty about its true intentions and growing fear of a self-coup will increase the risk of a military coup or a rebellion by the UNM as these factions grow more concerned about their fading prospects under Georgian Dream. The stronger their belief that Ivanishvili has it in for them, the stronger their incentive to respond fast, before the bullets arrive and score some serious damage.

My judgment might be clouded my affection for the place—I was a Soviet area-studies major as an undergrad; one of my oldest and closest friends is an American expat now living in Tbilisi, and I loved what I saw when I traveled there for his wedding a few years ago—but I’m optimistic that this budding standoff will wind down without any grave injuries or fatal mistakes. Georgia’s rival factions might not like each other, but they hate and fear Russia even more. (The cartoon to the right sums up many Georgians’ views of their 2008 war pretty nicely.) Because of the omnipresent threat from its neighbor to the north, Georgia badly wants into Europe, and entry into NATO is seen as the first door through which it must pass. NATO has sound geostrategic reasons not to admit Georgia while the threat of renewed war with Russia lingers, but Saakashvili’s authoritarian tendencies didn’t help its case, either. The risk of further alienating Europe with a blatant demolition of democracy will probably be powerful deterrent to would-be rebels or coup plotters.

European officials are keenly aware of this desire and already making good use of their leverage. A few days after the former defense minister’s arrest, RFERL reported that NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was “extremely concerned” about Georgia’s post-election politics. “It’s for the legal system, the judicial system in Georgia, to sort out these cases,” he told a meeting of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly in Prague, “but of course it’s important that such trials are not undermined by political interference and we will of course follow that development very, very closely.” As will we.

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