Since April 9, some Georgians have taken to the streets of Tbilisi calling upon President Mikheil Saakashvili to resign. Their numbers have dwindled, but a dedicated few still block major thoroughfares, populate tents outside the presidential residence and rally bigger crowds in front of Parliament.
Meanwhile, ordinary Georgians—of all political leanings—ask, Is this normal in a democracy?
A few supercilious foreign advisers may answer No, but the truth is, Yes—demonstrations and protests are normal in most democratic societies. Only societies repressed or altogether stagnant are free of extra-systemic manifestations. It is unrealistic to expect any system of government—however experienced, however democratic—to handle every situation, every expectation smoothly. Now and then, politics bounces into the street. Of course, demonstrations impose concrete societal costs that must be considered:, however, they also enhance the dynamism and growth of a society. You will not have to watch television too many evenings to see similar things happening in other western democracies.
Remarkable about April 2009 in Georgia is the near absence of violence and vandalism. Naturally, a few incidents have been reported and a few people have tried to score political points by trumping them up—it is difficult to imagine how in such circumstances it could be otherwise. In general, however, Georgians—Government and opposition—should be proud. One measure of Georgia’s success is that all the western reporters who rushed to Tbilisi for April 9 have left. Again, you will not have to watch television too many evenings to see them reporting worse scenes from some other western democracy.
The test of a democratic society is not whether it maintains perfect harmony, but whether the society maintains civility and whether it is able to profit from extra-systemic action, grow and move on. Georgia has unequivocally passed the first test. Now, frankly, comes the harder part.
Every democracy faces this moment.
It is hard to imagine the United States of America as little country with an uncertain future but in the 1780s, it was just that. The War of Independence from Great Britain was won. But the thirteen barely United States were weak, bound together by an inadequate constitution. The economy was wobbly. British agents meddled. And there was civil unrest.
A Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787 to consider changes in the new country’s government. After 15 weeks, it produced what we know today as the Constitution of the United States of America. On September 17, after the last meeting, an old woman approached Benjamin Franklin. “Well doctor,” she asked, “what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it!”
Franklin’s challenge was eternal—for all democracies, for all time. Can you keep your democracy? Can you find the right balance? When to demonstrate? When to discuss?
In 1787, America had been through a lot—war, economic hardship, civil unrest. Not everyone agreed upon the new Constitution—it was a crucial moment, which was turned into one of the great moments in the history of democracy.
Remarkably, the debate over whether the State of New York would vote for or against the Constitution was pursued not in the streets, but in the newspapers. Between October 1787 and August 1788, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, writing pseudonymously as Publius, published 85 articles explaining every provision of the proposed document. These articles are still read and studied as The Federalist Papers. Opponents answered in the newspapers under pen-names like Cato and Brutus. Every aspect was explored. When the debate was done, New York voted for the Constitution.
America grew stronger, but Franklin’s challenge re-occurred throughout its history. Within living memory, the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s rocked even the strongest nation on earth. Today, America is a better country because of those protests, but only because Americans—black and white, of every political hue—found the strength to leave the street, discuss, grow and move forward. The 2008 election of Barack Obama, an African-American, as president of the United States is a direct consequence of protest, debate and agreement four decades ago.
In 2009, Georgia has been through a lot—renewed independence, civil war, economic hardship, war, occupation and democratic development in very adverse circumstances. Despite all, and with problems aplenty yet to face, Georgia is a success.
As Georgians solve those problems, they should consider Benjamin Franklin’s age-old challenge—can you keep the success already achieved? Only Georgians can decide.
Your friends can wish you well and offer some thoughts from their own experience that you may find useful. Georgians must decide whether an American story from 1787 is useful to them today. Or whether they find helpful my own experience that committing words to the pages of newspapers forces logical, factual and constructive argumentation.
David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington. This column appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper.