ISET

ISET Economist Blog

A blog about economics in the South Caucasus.

Kakha Bendukidze. End of an Epoch?

 

The post-communist world lost one of its greatest sons last week – a freedom fighter who devoted his life to the daunting task of cleansing Eastern Europe and Eurasia from the shackles of Soviet thinking and bureaucracy. Like Che Guevara before him, Big Kakha’s legacy transcends national borders. His crusade for liberty and human dignity took him in 2004 from Russia to Georgia, and – in the last year of his life – from Georgia to Ukraine. He was eager to help revolutionaries and reformers all over the world, not sparing his time, money and effort to instill liberal ideas and incubate liberal institutions. He did so in many different ways: through education and public advocacy, advising reform-minded presidents and opposition leaders, and – when given the opportunity to do so in his native Georgia – by designing and implementing one of the most ambitious reform programs in recent history.

Kakha served as a symbol of the post-communist ‘transition’, a painful and tortuous process whereby almost thirty Eastern European and Eurasian nations attempted to exercise their unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, to quote the American Declaration of Independence. Rather than ushering in instant happiness, however, anti-communist and nationalist revolutions had in many instances unleashed Star Wars-style ‘Dark Forces’ of destruction, bringing about chaos, civil wars, economic collapse and misery. Such was the fate of Georgia and many of its sister (former USSR) republics. Waves of chaos had receded by the second half of 1990s, giving birth to a series of naked kleptocracies – a sad caricature of the democratic and capitalist ideals cherished by transition visionaries and ideologues, such as Bendukidze.

As a result, many early reformers have lost their fervor, retiring from politics or emigrating to enjoy private life. This was never an option for Bendukidze, who continued to preach free markets and anarchism (which he called "libertarianism"), knowingly full well that a second chance might arrive soon. And it did, when in the span of two years (2003-2005) popular discontent with incompetent and corrupt regimes fed into the ‘Color Revolutions’ in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Kakha came into the Georgian politics never bothering to become a politician. He did not worry about his popularity or his chances to be elected to public office. He had no patience for idiots and intellectual slaves lacking in critical thinking and originality (of which he had plenty). He was not afraid to question dogma and ruthlessly destroy institutions and regulations which he saw as obsolete, unnecessary, and harmful – institutions which only survived because nobody bothered to question their existence. He pushed with all his might for what he thought was needed for the country – not for what could score him political points.

During his time in government, Bendukidze dominated the policy debate as few had the guts and knowledge to challenge him. With the UNM losing power in 2012, he went into intellectual opposition, a place which probably best suited his temperament. He marshaled facts, theories and numbers and continued to influence the public discourse, loyal as ever to his views and principles. He was a scary opponent, but an opponent one wants to have to in order to avoid mistakes. With him gone, the country has lost so much more than the few unpleasantries he might have barked at you in a moment of irritation.

After inevitably leaving politics, Kakha made it his mission to educate the next generation of Georgian leaders. The Free University has become the embodiment of his Free Will, promoting the love of freedom, learning and critical thinking. He started with one university and then added another. Four vocational colleges and a school were soon included in the portfolio. He rebuilt and refurbished dilapidated infrastructure, brought back professors who left Georgia in the dark 1990s, turning these institutions into a brand that the young and brightest Georgians had a hard time to resist.

Kakha was quite critical of mainstream economics and mainstream economists, many of whom he would brand as ‘socialists’. Yet, despite that, he appreciated the quality of research and education provided by ISET and became a friend. His ultimate desire was to make ISET a part of the Free University, but he knew it would take years to make this plan a reality.

*          *          *

Time has not yet come for the Owl of Minerva to spread its wings. In other words, it is too early to pass judgment on Kakha’s life enterprise – the unmaking of Soviet empire. Freedom loving Georgia and Ukraine – Kakha’s darling in his last hours - are yet to crack the hard nut of squaring individual liberties (of which Kakha was the staunchest protector) with the necessity to reach collective compromises concerning social justice (e.g. equal opportunity in education, permissible wealth and income gaps). Likewise, these countries are yet to resolve the tensions between traditional values, embedded in their cultures and religions, and liberal ideals originating in the West. Moreover, transition – in its movement-towards-freedom-and-democracy sense – is yet to begin for many other Eurasian nations.

Kakha’s untimely and unfortunate death will undoubtedly spark a renewed debate about his personal legacy in Georgia. Radical deregulation and anti-corruption reforms he championed created a civilized environment in which businesses could potentially thrive and people could live a dignified and secure life. Yet, these reforms have failed to relieve the misery of the great mass of Georgian peasants and urban poor. Free trade and low taxes benefited some but hurt others – e.g. smallholder farmers, feeding into divergent perceptions and political preferences.

While contradictory assessments are likely to persist in the short-run, one thing is crystal clear. Kakha’s bigger-than-life personality will be forever remembered for his free spirit, for what he managed to achieve in his lifetime, and for his moral and intellectual bequest to posterity.

Rest in peace, dear Kakha!

Rate this blog entry:
7 Comments

Related Posts

Comments

 
Guest - Sanjit on Monday, 17 November 2014 20:59

Extremely well written article in an area that is the author's forte. We often write best the stuff we know best.

Extremely well written article in an area that is the author's forte. We often write best the stuff we know best.
Guest - Helene Ryding on Monday, 17 November 2014 23:46

Only one problem with what Bendukidze was doing. The removal of many old regulations, only for the EU to insist on bringing in some new ones. But the article rightly points out the conflict between individual decision making and collective decision-making. Georgia hasn't really learnt to debate collective choices yet, and not many Georgians have much scope for individual decision making when it is based on choices about how to spend their own money, because they don't have enough.

Only one problem with what Bendukidze was doing. The removal of many old regulations, only for the EU to insist on bringing in some new ones. But the article rightly points out the conflict between individual decision making and collective decision-making. Georgia hasn't really learnt to debate collective choices yet, and not many Georgians have much scope for individual decision making when it is based on choices about how to spend their own money, because they don't have enough.
Guest - Eric Livny on Tuesday, 18 November 2014 00:04

Good points, Helene... One could perhaps claim that thanks to Kakha we are starting from clean slate :) But I agree with your point about the EU approximation process (potentially) undoing much of what has been achieved under Kakha's leadership. The really tragic thing is that with him gone there are no people around with the intellectual depth and the political gravitas to question the regulation dogma. Have just attended a seminar with the WB Vice President. All kinds of environmental and food safety NGOs were there saying why do we allow HPPs to be built without proper environmental risk assessments (which isn't the case, of course), why don't we have tougher environmental regulation, why do we allow our children to be poisoned with unsafe food... I was like, wow, that would be a fun way to create productive jobs for Georgia's unemployed kids.

Good points, Helene... One could perhaps claim that thanks to Kakha we are starting from clean slate :) But I agree with your point about the EU approximation process (potentially) undoing much of what has been achieved under Kakha's leadership. The really tragic thing is that with him gone there are no people around with the intellectual depth and the political gravitas to question the regulation dogma. Have just attended a seminar with the WB Vice President. All kinds of environmental and food safety NGOs were there saying why do we allow HPPs to be built without proper environmental risk assessments (which isn't the case, of course), why don't we have tougher environmental regulation, why do we allow our children to be poisoned with unsafe food... I was like, wow, that would be a fun way to create productive jobs for Georgia's unemployed kids.
Guest - Rahat on Thursday, 20 November 2014 21:34

Kakha will be missed in the Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan). His ideas inspired number of reforms and I hope that his Kyrgyz followers will use and develop his ideas further.

Kakha will be missed in the Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan). His ideas inspired number of reforms and I hope that his Kyrgyz followers will use and develop his ideas further.
Guest - Paul-Henri Forestier on Wednesday, 03 December 2014 20:18

Having had the privilege to run for four years the institution that was then the largest investor in Georgia's private sector and championed Transition to Market Economy, I was moved when reading this excellent and un-biased paper on Kakha Bedukidze. From extreme liberalism to extreme submission to environmental NGOs, there is a line that developing, democratic leaning, countries should follow. It starts with property rights, independence and competence of the judiciary and regulations needed to make market rules effective. As Eric hints, some (not all) NGOs seem to draw their legitimacy from attempting to over-burden developing countries with constraints that would kill rather than support economic growth and job creation. We should all be thankful to Kakha for his intellectual honesty and courage.

Having had the privilege to run for four years the institution that was then the largest investor in Georgia's private sector and championed Transition to Market Economy, I was moved when reading this excellent and un-biased paper on Kakha Bedukidze. From extreme liberalism to extreme submission to environmental NGOs, there is a line that developing, democratic leaning, countries should follow. It starts with property rights, independence and competence of the judiciary and regulations needed to make market rules effective. As Eric hints, some (not all) NGOs seem to draw their legitimacy from attempting to over-burden developing countries with constraints that would kill rather than support economic growth and job creation. We should all be thankful to Kakha for his intellectual honesty and courage.
Guest - Eric Livny on Wednesday, 03 December 2014 20:56

Thank you, dear Paul Henri, your perspective is much appreciated. In fact, I am in the process of writing a separate piece devoted to environmental NGOs and how they go about doing their business in Georgia. May actually be a good idea to discuss this with you (I am doing interviews with stakeholders to get a better sense of the situation).

Thank you, dear Paul Henri, your perspective is much appreciated. In fact, I am in the process of writing a separate piece devoted to environmental NGOs and how they go about doing their business in Georgia. May actually be a good idea to discuss this with you (I am doing interviews with stakeholders to get a better sense of the situation).
Guest - Paul-Henri Forestier on Thursday, 04 December 2014 01:30

By all means, let me know if I can be of any help. It would be my pleasure.

By all means, let me know if I can be of any help. It would be my pleasure.
Already Registered? Login Here
Register
Guest
Thursday, 29 October 2020

Captcha Image

Our Partners