Looking through the Glass Darkly

I call my lecture “Looking through the glass darkly” a quote from 1 Corinthians 13:12.  Originally, this referred to our inability to perceive God clearly.   I am using it as a metaphor for Westerners – both public officials and academics - who looking through the glass, see one dimensional images of the Caucasus.  The way many Westerners perceive Caucasia (and I include myself) tells us more about ourselves, perhaps, than it does about the reality of South Caucasian politics.  The language we use to classify Georgia, the images we present, the questions we ask, all of these shape a reality which determines the policies we pursue in the region and the solutions we propose.  Reading Western newspapers and academic papers, listening to US Congressmen and European MPs, or reading IMF prescriptions for economic reform in the Caucasus, tells us about Western values and hopes, but not so much about the political, social and economic conditions in the region as perceived by Caucasians themselves.  Why do Western perceptions of Caucasian reality differ from the perceptions of Caucasians themselves?  What are the policy consequences of such Western perceptions? In this short presentation, I will focus on Georgia, though many of the things I say are also applicable to the other two South Caucasian republics.

Over 150 years ago, Vissarion Belinsky, the Russian social and literary critic, put it this way.  In the Caucasus, he wrote, “you will never look for anything quiet, funny or fun in the story: the story usually begins with loud phrases, and ends with massacre, betrayal, patricide. . . (B)ut this is only one side of highlanders’ life: . . . It is, of course, spectacular, but one and only one thing – say what you may – becomes boring.”*

Georgia, over the last twenty years has appeared to Westerners as a Belinsky-like reincarnation; the primary themes of political scientists, international finance corporations (such as the IMF and World Bank), and politicians, have focused on the following:

1. Georgia as strategic object (oil, transit, geopolitics)
2. Georgia as ethnic cauldron (nationalism, secessionism)
3. Georgia as failed state (civil war, economic crash)
4. Georgia as reforming state (shock therapy, democratization)
5. Georgia as failing democracy (corrupt elections, presidential authoritarianism)

These assessments are valid and interesting, but do not reflect the complexity of Georgian politics. They highlight, rather, Georgia’s political drama. Western views of Georgia are characterized by an excessive optimism or pessimism, with very little of the grey normality in between.  Think of the way we treated all three Georgian Presidents; first as liberators (even ex-dissident Gamsakhurdia was initially seen as a defender of human rights), and then as corrupt authoritarians (Saakashvili was the latest to fall into that pattern).  There has been much more limited space devoted to the mundane and pragmatic complexities of what Tip O’Neill referred to as “local politics,” characterized not so much by the catastrophes of war, revolution and ethnic conflict, but by the quotidian problems faced by Georgia’s citizenry – such as jobs, housing, health and education. In the provinces, where three-quarters of the Georgian population lives, and which we largely ignore, polls consistently place unemployment, bad roads and schools at the top of the bill.  

We evaluate Georgian reality, not on its own terms, but on our terms.  It is framed by our concerns over energy transit, political instability, illegal migration, the promotion of the liberal market, resistance to Russian imperialism, and democratic values, which we characterize in our own particular way as regular elections, the growth of civil society, and legal regularities. But are these the concerns of most Georgians? Are the realities Georgians see, the same as our own? There are more fundamental obstacles to personal liberty for Georgians than institutional or legal ones – such as the absence of money, obstacles to social and physical mobility, poor health, and corruption. These obstacles have dramatic consequences for democracy-living (something we do not experience as non-residents) as well as for democracy-building. Strangely, no doubt, to most Georgians, we separate political and human rights from socio-economic rights; but can Georgia’s citizens, living in the urban wastes of Tbilisi’s “projects,” or in the impoverished regions of Samegrelo or Inner Kartli, do the same? Amartya Sen reminds us in his book Development as Freedom, that poverty is not just about low income, it’s about what it creates - namely “social exclusion,” the loss of “self reliance, self confidence and psychological and physical health.”** These features weaken the quality of democracy we in the West claim we are establishing in Georgia. Similarly, we properly emphasize liberties (such as freedom of religion, the press, private property), whereas ordinary Georgians point to, just as importantly, issues of justice (the right to health care, to work, to protection from powerful interests).

Two interconnected questions follow from this: what are the sources of these differences and what impact do they have on Georgian political and economic development?  Broadly (and it is hard to avoid some abstraction here), Western approaches to Georgia are framed by an emphasis on leaders. Georgians look for saviors who will bring stability and security; we look to leaders who will bring Western-type reform. The two may be contradictory. We measure success by the legislative and legal change brought about by political elites, even if it leads to intensified economic insecurity for the majority of the country’s citizens.   The last two presidential regimes, in particular, have led to what (à la Trotsky), we might call a “scissors crisis.”  The more Western leaders support a Georgian President, the more disillusioned Georgians become; Western leaders will insist the President is good for Georgians’ eventual salvation, while Georgians will highlight the corrupt decline of the President and his regime. Western politicians and pundits, looking through the glass darkly, remain invested in leaders who have long lost – and for good reason - the support of their citizenry. 

What other reasons explain Westerners’ misreading of Georgian politics? Western politicians have a Whiggish belief in the power of reform, regardless of the outcome. Despite evidence of failure, the grand design of the last twenty years remains intact: institutionalization and the market will lead (in the end) to democratization and social progress.  The application of such reform, given its “universality,” becomes a technical and scientific problem that is directed from above (we call it macroeconomics), based on something that is measurable (GDP growth).  Such an ideological approach comes close to what Karl Popper condemned as harmful social engineering.  Genuine reform is incremental, open to argument, change, and pressure from below.

Allied to the problems of faith (in reform) and method (working with elites), there is a logistical matter. Most Westerners living and working in Tbilisi are blissfully unaware of Georgians living in the concrete desolation of didi dighomi in the city outskirts, or in the bleak provincial towns of Akhalkalaki, Borchalo and Lanchkhuti. All revolutions, especially capitalist ones, are characterized by uneven development, and a visit to Zugdidi, the regional ‘capital’ of Samegrelo, would persuade most observers that the revolution never reached it. Democratization, foreign-built hotels, and young faces in town halls have not changed the nature of provincial rule, dominated by Gogol-like inspector generals and cowering clerks.  Outside Tbilisi, there is an alternative reality that Western officials may encounter on a road trip, but rarely have to endure.  If they did, they might have quite a different view of Georgia’s needs.

Finally, Western observers often create, however sub-consciously, a false dichotomy between “the West” and Georgia. It may be reflected in a sense of exoticism, touched upon by Belinsky, or in a new line of separation which after the fall of the Berlin Wall moved eastward to the old Soviet border (excepting the Baltic).  On the “other side,” Georgia remains a land of unpredictable passions, dangerous conflicts, and deep memories. This, of course, is what Europe has been about for most of its history, and events over the last two decades in the heart of Europe, from riots over immigration to separatist movements (Italy, Belgium), and the rise of neo-fascist parties (Marine Le Pen, Jörg Haider, Geert Wilders), suggest it is not over.  Yet, we persist in exploring themes we believe separate us (supported by funding agencies, doctoral supervisors, and sensational reporting), such as ethnic conflict, national identity, democratic deficits and restrictions on human rights.

Francois Hartog in his book The Mirror of Herodotus: the Representation of the Other in the Writing of History,*** reminds us that descriptions of other peoples are really about how we view ourselves. For European observers, Georgia represents what we used to be and what we escaped. What we see in the Caucasian mirror is what we want to, the reflection of a self-interested projection of ourselves as better governed and more rational.  This is why, perhaps, we over-interpret the mistakes of Georgian politicians, which we often construe as a threat to democracy or reform (the imprisonment of former Saakashvili government members is a recent example). This is because we base our democratic measurements on ideals we have constructed for ourselves, but in reality we rarely keep.   We idealize ourselves, and set Georgia up for failure.

This could all remain a pleasant discussion – so what that we see Georgia through a Western prism?  But it is important because it has policy consequences. Perceptions determine what we see as the problem and how we think about solutions.  It is particularly important in the Georgian-Western relationship because Western states are powerful in shaping Georgia’s future.  Let’s take two examples: President Misha Saakashvili, as a young pro-Western reformer, received strong Western support (as did Shevardnadze before him), long after it became obvious to Georgian citizens that the regime had become a powerful one-party system which controlled most of the media. Western governments prolonged the life of a pro-Western, but increasingly undemocratic regime. 

A second example might include Western analytical approaches to Georgian social and economic structures. We have a very particular view of Georgian civil society, one that is populated by English speaking NGOs that reflect our own preferences and speak our own language.  It is an exclusive view of civil society that depends on comfortable Western interpretations, and does not include, for example, trade unions, which are vital to the defense of employees’ civil rights, or the expressed needs of Georgian citizens themselves. We would come up with different solutions if we investigated more of the realities Georgians face in their daily working lives, in places where English is not the language of communication.

The West has strategic interests in Georgia, and it is quite normal to pursue those interests.  But it may be that our misreadings of Georgia are reinforcing policies and decisions that undermine the desired result of an effective market-based citizen democracy. Adam Przeworski, among others, has shown that statistically greater income equality leads to stable and sustainable democracies.  That may be a reason to start looking through the glass differently and thinking about policies that are closer to the hopes and aspirations of Georgians themselves. 

* Cited in Elizaveta Anatolyevna Pyanzina, ‘Representation of the Peoples of the Caucasus in 20th Century Russian Literature and Cinematography’, MA Thesis, Russian and East European Studies Program, University of Oregon, 2011, p. 14.
** Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Oxford: OUP, 1999, p.21.
*** Francois Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: the Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, Berkeley and London, University of California Press, 1988.

Stephen Jones
Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies
Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley
MA 01002,