ISET Economist Blog

Georgia's Democratic Challenge
Friday, 25 October, 2013

In his 1991 book “The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century”, the famous American political scientist Samuel Huntington (1927-2008) identifies three global democratization waves in the history of humankind. The first wave was the creation of the classical democracies in the United Kingdom and North America and the ongoing democratization process of the 19th century in France and other European countries. The second democratization wave refers to the time after the Second World War, when some latecomers (Germany, Italy, Spain, etc.), joined the community of democratic nations. Finally, the Third Wave (capitalized because it has become a dictum in political science) was comprised of that democratization that occurred in the latter part of the 20th century. Georgia is a Third Wave democracy.

Considering the evolution of political systems throughout history reveals that the path toward democracy is usually not straight, and often it is not successful. Huntington emphasizes that in the first and the second waves successful democratizations “significantly outnumbered transitions in the opposite direction”. In the first wave, four of seventeen countries that adopted democratic setups between 1828-1926 years retained them through the 1930s. And in the second wave, only one-third of 32 countries that had developed democratic institutions in 1958 had reverted to authoritarian governments by the mid-1970s. But what about the Third Wave?


After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most of the newly established independent countries started moving towards liberal and democratic governance. Yet after 22 years, it is clear that the Third Wave of democratization is more ambivalent than its predecessors. According to the 2012 “Nations in Transition”- report of the American Think Tank Freedom House, only three out of 15 former-soviet countries, namely the Baltic states, managed to fully establish liberal democracies. Eight out of the 15 countries are considered “consolidated authoritarian regimes” and the remaining four are currently in limbo between authoritarianism and democracy. According to Freedom House, Georgia belongs to this latter group of four countries.

At first glance, one might say that the success of Baltic countries is primarily determined by their advantageous geographical locations. Neighboring countries exert influence on one another, and if the neighbors are well-established democracies, this will foster the development of Western civil society and Western political culture. Yet is this the only reason why democratization in Georgia seems to be a rather rough road, while it proceeded so smoothly in the Baltics?

The influential political scientist Dankwart Rustow (1924-1996) was the first to develop a model of the transition of countries to democracies. According to Rustow, the prospects of a country to transform into a democracy and the duration of the transition process primarily depend on the political history of that country. According to him, “democracy, in particular, involves a process of trial and error, a joint learning experience.”

In Rustow’s view, the democratization process requires not only the establishment of democratic institutions like parliaments and free courts that live up to fundamental principles like the famous “separation of powers”. It is not enough to have free elections, freedom of speech, and the right to demonstrate. To come to its real fulfillment, democratization requires a change in the values and the attitudes of the members of society, and this is the most difficult part to achieve, because, unlike the institutional changes, it cannot be decreed by an enlightened political elite.


In his seminal 1970 paper “Transition to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model” (Comparative Politics 2, pp. 337-362) Rustow postulates that a society has to go through four stages for achieving democratization. The first stage is the emergence of a sense of national unity. The second is a phase of “prolonged and inconclusive political struggles”. This phase is the most dangerous during a transition process, as there may be competing groups in a society and there is a threat that one group takes control of the state and establishes an authoritarian regime. In this stage, it can easily happen that a society drifts into civil war and bloodshed.  The third stage is the “decision phase”, where a general consensus among all competing groups is established that collective decisions will be made according to democratic rules. The final phase referred to as the “habituation phase”, is where democracy becomes a habit.

The continued sharp conflicts between different political groups and the high tension between political forces in Georgia indicate that in Rustow’s model Georgia is somewhere between Stage 2 and Stage 3. At Stage 2, fears of democracy reversal are well-grounded – examples are provided by the Arabic countries. It is far from clear that the “Arab Spring” will result in the establishment of democracies in Egypt, Libya, and the like. But even if a country is already closer to Stage 3, there is still a high risk of democracy reversal, as exemplified by the essentially failed “Orange Revolution” of Ukraine.

A lack of democratic attitude, or, more plainly, a lack of democrats, is not only a problem on Stage 4 but may also reduce the prospects of successfully passing through Stages 2 and 3. Living under the Soviet Union changed peoples’ attitudes. Their success in life and their positions in society were almost exclusively determined by the government. As a result, political conduct and many social characteristics were adopted so as to fit life in the Soviet Union, fostering servility, suppressing criticism, and avoiding the expression of dissent.

The views and analysis in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the international School of Economics at TSU (ISET) or ISET Policty Institute.