Standing in front of Sameba Cathedral in Tbilisi on a recent trip, I couldn’t help but be in awe of this striking building. The new church is a work in progress, abuzz with activity, and well attended by the city’s residents, including many of its young people. While many of Georgia’s churches are of great historical significance, they are equally notable as living institutions with active congregations. But my interest in Georgia’s churches stems not from religious conviction but a belief in civil society.
A “Putnam-esque” view of democracy finds utility not just in churches but bird-watching clubs, Elks Clubs, and office softball teams. Theories aside, democracy practitioners have learned the value of creatively using community institutions to empower groups and encourage open societies. Examples abound that democracy is not a short-term task and certainly not irreversible. For democracy to gain firm footing, the pillars of a vibrant civil society must outlive leaders, personalities, and generations.
While Georgian optimism is heartening, democracy is unfinished business in Georgia. Lack of media freedom and space for dissent are frequently cited problems. This is hardly surprising as democracy building is often a long-term business. But it is an essential prerequisite for the Euro-Atlantic organizations Georgia wants to join. The stakes in Georgia are high— its geography does not leave much room for mistakes.
As an Atlantic Council report argues, if the international community is to truly help Georgia in the aftermath of conflict, aid must be coupled with democracy benchmarks. A Transparency International poll out last week found that only 27% of Georgians believe aid money will be well spent (16% believe it will be stolen). Georgians trust foreign donors to spend the aid money effectively far more than their own institutions, with 48% trusting foreign governments the most and 40% preferring donor oversight to any other single form of control.
Ensuring oversight over aid is a good start, but why is there low public trust in the first place? Where are the spaces where ‘social capital’ can build? How can civil society foster freedom of expression and perhaps even play a role in Georgia’s divisive territorial disputes?
Looking up at Sameba, I wondered if this might be a good place to start. Patriarch Ilia II has already appealed for reconciliation between Georgia and Russia during a recent trip to Moscow. From Northern Ireland to South Africa, church leaders have been players in the reconciliation of deeply divided societies. Caritas, Pax Christi, and other church-affiliated NGOs have gone where other NGOs can not, running independent community building programs in closed societies. The church in Cuba for instance, has played a role in calling for “societal dialogue” without explicitly entering into political controversies, though it hasn’t always been easy towing that line. It is their “catholic” message of forgiveness that allows churches to move beyond political divides and bring about dialogue. As the civil rights movement in America demonstrated, even churches that are not traditionally civic-minded can evolve to produce significant social change. Could the Georgian and Russian churches be a place to promote informal dialogue between Georgians and Russians during this difficult political time? Could the Church play a role in track-two diplomacy?
What role can young people play? Democracy assistance to Georgia during the Rose Revolution targeted this sector and National Movement effectively mobilized youth to gain power. The young Georgians I met were strongly positive about their current government and reaped the benefits of National Movement’s proactive youth policies. But how can youth continue to push Georgia forward to ensure that freedom of expression and dissent are not compromised? Tbilisi State University has seen a fair share of opposition activism, but often-times youth who are unhappy with the current government are also unconvinced by the opposition. Continued democracy assistance in Georgia must reexamine ways to empower Georgia’s youth. The promotion of independent media could be coupled with a youth strategy. Targeting university radio stations and any other form of underground media might open up spaces for contestation and debate among Georgia’s youth.
Georgia’s goals are lofty but admirable and should be encouraged. But if democracy is to take root in Georgia, an open society must flourish first. After all, Georgian democracy could prove to be the best guard against its neighborly Goliath.
Cindy Romero is assistant director of the Transatlantic Relations program at the Atlantic Council.