Eduard Shevardnadze's peaceful departure from the Georgian presidency marked a triumph for civil society. Non-governmental organizations, many of which receive funding from Western donors, played a prominent role in Georgian events following the rigged November 2 elections. NGO success in Georgia, however, may not be easily transferable to other states in the former Soviet Union, some experts contend.
Two Georgian NGOs, the Liberty Institute and the student-led association Kmara , led aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts before the November 2 elections and used their organization to keep protests steady and visible afterwards. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Shevardnadze appeared to acknowledge the critical role played by NGOs when he criticized them for siding with Mikhail Saakashvili and the other politicians who led the protests. In particular, Shevardnadze slammed the Open Society - Georgia Foundation, funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, for helping to foment the anti-government protests. (The Soros Foundations Network includes the Open Society Institute, which publishes EurasiaNet.)
Many Georgians suspect Shevardnadze of exaggerating the NGO role in forcing his resignation, believing instead that the Georgian leader opted to give up power only because key players in the army and security services refused to side with him. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Ghia Nodia, head of the influential Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development , maintains the NGO role "should not be overestimated." He argues that NGOs played "an important but not the decisive role [in November events]."
At the same time, few would contradict the contention that opposition leaders would not have been able to outmaneuver Shevardnadze during the November 2 election aftermath, had it not been for the staunch support of NGOs.
The ability of NGOs to influence recent events may be connected to circumstances that are exclusive to Georgia, which has a relatively open political system in comparison with most other former Soviet states. Given greater room to operate, NGOs in Georgia built capacity during the last decade, creating a solid core of experienced activists. The same cannot be said for the NGO sectors in many other CIS countries, many of which feature authoritarian-minded political systems that harbor suspicious and sometimes hostile attitudes towards the non-governmental sector.
Throughout the process leading up to Shevardnadze's resignation stretching back to the parliamentary election campaign Georgia's NGO sector maintained high visibility. Civil society groups were legitimate and vigilant before the fraudulent vote count began. On November 2, a national watchdog called the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy conducted parallel vote tabulation to provide a check on official results. The organization also dispatched groups to post observers at every precinct commission. At the same time, groups like the NGO-managed Election Media Center explained election law to private media outfits, which have more free rein in Georgia than in other post-Soviet countries.
"[NGOs] started to play a role in public opinion months and years before the elections," says civil activist David Usupashvili.
Indeed, NGO influence has been steadily building in Georgia since the early 1990s. During the last years of the Shevardnadze administration, they frequently cooperated with the government to shape a legal system. Non-governmental leaders, including Usupashvili, took active part in drafting the Georgian Constitution and other vital laws that have secured basic human freedoms. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Unlike authoritarian states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Georgia officials nurtured civil society groups by allowing for tax exemptions and making registration easy and straightforward. This helped create a free and competitive environment for groups and donors. Between 1995 and 1997, Zurab Zhvania, who served as parliament's leader and was part of the troika leading recent protests, welcomed input from non-governmental groups.
The three-week campaign to press Shevardnadze owes much to the robust professional networks that non-governmental groups have built. But it is important to realize that even well-organized groups might not have achieved their goal peacefully if the government had a firmer power base.
The ability of the NGO sector to develop in Georgia is largely a product of the country's tumultuous history since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Civil strife, including the separatist struggles involving Abkhazia and South Ossetia, prevented authorities in Tbilisi from establishing firm control over the entire country. At the same time, the government did not address rampant corruption and thus was unable to promote stable economic growth. Effectively, Georgia's disorder permitted the NGO sector to grow. NGOs were able to fill a void created by government ineffectiveness.
Alexander Lomaia, head of the Open Society - Georgia Foundation, insists that a combined effect of the political leadership; independent media and active civil participation prompted Shevardnadze's resignation. Police and security services faced dwindling salaries and incompetent administration, giving them little incentive to stand with Shevardnadze. In countries where government prop up corrupt police networks, anti-government protests could easily play out differently. Moreover, Georgia's economic woes meant that the NGO sector could attract young Western-educated professionals. In many other countries, such as oil-rich Kazakhstan, the most qualified professionals have entered the private sector.
Now that a new political age is dawning in Georgia, NGOs may struggle to manage their new prominence. Usupashvili says the groups have to master a new stance; more cooperative with the government, but no less vigilant. As some leaders become public officials- Zurab Chiaberashvili, head of the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, now runs the Central Election Commission- others must remain watchdogs. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Lomaia promises that NGOs will be more demanding than ever of high standards. At the same time, NGOs throughout Georgia may find themselves wrestling with their image. Many leaders worry about becoming so entrenched as to grow isolated from an increasingly conservative, and fed-up, population.
As Georgia elects its new government in a vote scheduled for January 4, the civil society so admired in the West may change form. Anyone who would promote Georgia's "revolution" as a blueprint needs to understand the engineering behind it.
Jaba Devdariani is a board member of the United Nations Association of Georgia and analyst of Georgian politics, currently working in Bosnia and Herzegovina.