03 September, 2008

Democracy (?) in Georgia

(This was originally part of this entry; I decided it best to separate the two.)
As I mentioned in a comment, the Washington Post published on Saturday an op-ed by a journalism professor who has worked in Georgia the last few years. Let's get that out of the way first.

The professor did not have kind things to say about the Saakashvili regime of Georgia:

The new leaders had improved the roads and reformed a graft-riddled police force -- but the judiciary was seen as beholden to the nation's rulers, and the media were less free than they had been under the previous leader, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. While most Georgians supported Saakashvili's pro-Western stance, many felt left behind by his embrace of dog-eat-dog capitalism. A chasm had opened between haves and have-nots, based less on experience or expertise than on youth and fluency in English. Baby-faced government officials zoomed around in black SUVs, stroking their iPhones, while teachers, scientists and pensioners took on extra jobs to feed themselves.
This would be that Western-style democracy that our media has praised repeatedly.

The amusing aspect of this remark is that it actually does reflect Western democracies, down the complaints of bureacrats being paid so much while scientists, teachers, and pensioners are underappreciated. Over the nearly four decades of my life I've heard the same things about Russia from my wife's family, the same things about Italy from my Italian family, and of course we hear these things about the United States as well. I've also heard African seminarians grumble that for all his crimes, at least Idi Amin paid the teachers well. Back when he ruled, they said, a teacher knew he would be respected. Now…

Another thing I do hear commonly from commoners in countries I've visited, but that I don't see in this article, is something along these lines: The mass media are no longer interested in broadcasting edifying programs that affirm our culture. Instead they broadcast vulgar trash that glorifies sex, violence, and greed. I've heard this from Americans, Italians, and Russians alike—as you might guess, I tend to run in circles that are highly populated by "squares." You know what I mean: boring, responsible people whose lives don't resemble adult sitcoms. Those are the people I respect most in life. It's no surprise that the mass media fail to report on how they disappoint common people.

Moving on (I excised a huge digression).
[R]esentment spilled into the streets. The government cracked down violently on the demonstrators, shocking Georgia's Western allies -- and its own citizens. …[T]ear gas clouded the air and masked men were beating people with truncheons.
Didn't something like this transpire in LA earlier this year? Or maybe it's just whenever the IMF gets together and the anti-globalist types start to feel their oats? There are Italian policemen serving hard time for how they cracked down on globalization protesters in Genoa some years ago—at the same time, Italian criminals are routinely released, either from l'indulto or from… well, no one is really sure why the Neapolitan soccer hooligans who assaulted a train were let off with at best a slap on the wrist, although the Italian political cartoonist Giannelli has an idea. The episode reminds one of the mid-90s, back when the Chicago Bulls were winning NBA championships. Riots and burning cars were routine.

I'm almost certainly doing a disservice to the author's concerns. I'll grant that Saakashvili's regime may not be the ideal Western-style regime that we might like. The professor's following remarks are especially disturbing:
There's still room to criticize the government, but if you do it too publicly, you may get punished. For all the talk of Western-style reform, Georgian businessmen say that Saakashvili's ruling party still leans on them for "donations." And government critics are often cast as Kremlin agents -- a hint at Georgia's tormented relationship with its massive neighbor. …During my year here, the government clampdown on the media continued. The main opposition television station was shuttered, and its owner, a rival to the president, died mysteriously in exile. …It was hard to stay optimistic as, over the course of the year, graduates of our program quit their jobs one after another. One came to our class and played us television spots he had produced that showed police violence and intimidation from the November crackdown. His editors did not run the stories, so he resigned.
Still, I'm not entirely convinced.
  • Government leaning on businessmen for "donations" merely sounds like a Western democracy. The supposedly conservative Republicans who used to run Congress ran that K Street Project, and from what I read the new Democratic majority has been pleased to continue the project under new management and with new goals. Merely saying "leaning" and "donations" doesn't help perceive whether they're talking about the ordinary give-and-take of machine politics or "threatening prosecution for trumped-up charges if they don't donate."
  • Editors choosing not to run stories that might embarrass the government, okay, that'll raise some eyebrows. Without specifics, however, one might conclude that the editors were simply tired of the story after the fact, or were being partisan. The point is that it doesn't have to be a government conspiracy. (Although it very well may be.)
  • One opposition journalist dying abroad in mysterious circumstances—okay, that's also suspicious, but without more facts, you can't say much at all. I wish the author had mentioned the victim's name, so that I could read more. By contrast, in a certain large nation to the north of Georgia, it's routine for opposition leaders and journalists to lose their lives; it doesn't take much searching at all to come up with more names than you can shake a stick at. (Having said all that: This is a human life; please don't imagine that I mean to pooh-pooh his death as a necessary step on the road to building a great country.)
I don't mean to say that the professor is a Kremlin agent; I merely want to point out that the article makes a lot of accusations but offers little in the way of hard evidence. I pay some attention to the Caucusus but not enough to recognize anything he's saying, although I do have a vague memory about some protests. This professor is actually living and working in Georgia, which gives him an advantage over many other people commenting on the story. I hope I'll see more of his writing in the future. (That said, let's not forget Walter Duranty.)

If nothing else, however, the article should drive another stake through the heart of the notion that the American press isn't free, and publishes only one side of the story.


Clemens said...

An historian would try to judge the source: if he is living and working in Georgia he is in a position to know what he is talking about and since he is willing to say unpleasant things that might mean that he is saying it only because he believes it is the truth.

The problem is, if he is able to say these things and still live and work in Georgia, just how intimidating IS the government?

Or or our Russian friends right, and the press here is just printing government lies?


jack perry said...

The trouble with trying to judge the source in this case is that I know neither the source nor Georgia very well. But, as you say, if he is able to say these things and still live and work in Georgia, just how intimidating IS the government?