(europeanvoice.com) As Georgia heads towards parliamentary elections, its democracy looks increasingly endangered.
Georgia, too, promised much after the Rose Revolution in 2003, when democracy breezed through this ancient country and replaced the ageing and authoritarian president Eduard Shevardnadze with a youthful and outward-looking clique headed by Mikheil Saakashvili.
But the Rose Revolution has also lost its bloom. A decade of rule by Saakashvili has left the country more divided, and its democracy more endangered, than at any time in its post-Soviet history. Saakashvili's own instincts appear to be growing ever more authoritarian.
Georgia goes to the polls in October to vote for a new parliament – shortly after my own country, the Netherlands. But there could scarcely be a greater difference between the two countries in terms of what is at stake. The Netherlands is used to consensual coalitions, sometimes encompassing left and right. Georgia is deeply polarised, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that these elections could either consolidate or smash apart the country's already fragile democracy.
Another important difference between these two forthcoming elections is the extent to which, in Georgia, the focus on personality is unrelenting. There is virtually no discussion about political programmes, or positioning on either the left or the right of the political programme. What political discourse there is relates largely to Georgia's external relations, and is coloured by Saakashvili's loathing for Russia.
The focus on personality is undoubtedly because Saakashvili is facing the first serious challenge to his dominance since he took office. Bidzina Ivanishvili, an entrepreneur, and his Georgian Dream coalition are mounting a credible opposition to Saakashvili's stranglehold on power. And because Saakashvili knows he has relatively few achievements on which to call for future support, he has taken to all manner of personal attacks against Ivanishvili. You might call it ‘Ivanishvilification'.
Whenever Ivanishvili is profiled, even in Western newspapers, he is described as a billionaire, as though success is a dirty word, or as if wealth is incompatible with political leadership. Saakashvili regularly denounces the consultants engaged by Ivanishvili to accentuate Georgian Dream's alternative vision of the country's future, conveniently glossing over the fact that Saakashvili's government has itself spent large sums of Georgian taxpayers' money trying to promote him and his government in the US and EU, not least in the public-relations war with the Kremlin during and after the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict.
Personal attacks are par for the course in politics. But the attacks directed at Georgian Dream go well beyond what is acceptable in a democracy. There appears to be a systematic attempt to undermine Georgian Dream's electoral prospects – through legal persecution, through manipulation of the press and through intimidation.
As president of Liberal International, the global family of liberal-democratic parties, I should declare an interest here: two of the parties in the Georgian Dream coalition are allied to Liberal International. But like all democrats, I believe democracy itself is more important than any party or movement. What Georgians need is a stable, fair and competitive political environment in which they can make free choices about their future.
This, however, seems unlikely. Leading human-rights NGOs are increasingly vocal in their criticism of the incendiary nature of politics in Georgia. The UN special rapporteur on the right of freedom of peaceful assembly and association has just tabled a report highlighting serious problems in Georgia. Even the EU, not known for its straight talking, has warned Saakashvili that it expects a free, fair and transparent election, and has emphasised that this is primarily his responsibility.
We cannot expect a country like Georgia, for so long under Moscow's domination, to become an established democracy overnight. But the EU should be clear with Tbilisi that its financial and political support for Georgia depends on democracy being strengthened, not undermined. Politics in Georgia, and indeed the debate that we in Europe are having about politics and political personalities in Georgia, needs to move beyond personal animosities and mud-slinging towards a more mature discourse, focused on the future. Georgia is facing many challenges internally and externally, but Georgians can ill afford for democracy itself to be under challenge.
Hans van Baalen is a Liberal Dutch member of the European Parliament.