Democracy Lab

In Georgia, Two Machines Are Better Than One

The run-up to Georgia's October 1 election has been dirty, demeaning, and rife with abuses of power and allegations of corruption. It’s also the best thing to happen to Georgia in a long time.

The view from billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's über-modernist palatial home and business center is unparalleled, giving him a clear line of sight to the giant statue of Mother Georgia, the Mtkvari River, and another large steel and-glass structure at the top of a different hill: President Mikheil Saakashvili's palace. These dueling monuments to gargantuan egos, while betraying the two men's similar taste in architecture, also embody the current melodrama that has enveloped the country. These men despise each other. On October 1, they will also lead their respective party coalitions to the first parliamentary election since the August 2008 war with Russia. Ivanishvili is the first major threat to Saakashvili's power since he took over in the 2003 Rose Revolution.

The conventional wisdom has it that less corruption is always better. Recent history shows, however, that corruption concentrated in the hands of a country's ruler can be an invitation to authoritarianism. Saakashvili, while rebuilding the Georgian state and reducing low-level corruption, has also constructed a vast pyramid of power with himself at the top. Independent analysts have noted his increasingly authoritarian tendencies, and many have speculated about his plans to "pull a Putin" and anoint a loyal successor to the presidency after his constitutionally mandated exit in 2013.

Enter Ivanishvili, a multi-billionaire of Georgian birth who earned his fortune in Russia. Last year, Ivanishvili created a new coalition, Georgian Dream, which has benefited from the participation of former officials alienated by Saakashvili. It also enjoys healthy financial backing, from Ivanishvili alone. The new challenger is vague about his plans for the country and, like many of the super-rich in Russia, undoubtedly has plenty of skeletons in his closet (not to mention a pet zebra). He has already brought Georgia a valuable and unexpected gift: the possibility of a competitive election. But it's not pretty to watch.

It's important to note that elections don't have to be free and fair in order to be competitive. Whereas "competitive" simply means the opposition has a legitimate chance at winning an election, freedom and fairness refer to the quality of the electoral process (i.e., that there's a level playing field). Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) Party has worked to ensure that the field in this election will be tilted against Georgian Dream, employing schemes straight out of the post-Soviet autocrat's playbook. Its tactics have included detaining activists, fabricating criminal charges, restricting attendance at rallies, intimidating voters, levying fines for contrived offenses, and using the state-controlled media to boost the UNM's popularity.

Perhaps the most egregious abuse of state power was to strip Ivanishvili of his Georgian citizenship on the grounds that he was already a citizen of France, which would have made him ineligible to hold public office. After an international outcry, parliament, where the UNM currently holds 119 out of 150 seats, passed a law allowing EU citizens who have lived in Georgia for five years to hold public office. But the lawmakers didn't forget to include a poison pill: The law expires on January 1, 2014. As a result, even if Ivanishvili becomes prime minister or wins the presidency in next year's election, he is likely to face a very short term in office -- or a new constitutional crisis.

Besides selectively applying election laws, the ruling party has run an old-fashioned dirty campaign. Ever since Ivanishvili announced his political ambitions, Saakashvili has insinuated that Georgian Dream is a proxy for Moscow's interests -- a serious allegation in a country that was routed in a war with Russia only four years ago. In fact, "Boris" (as he was known while living in Russia) Ivanishvili spent over two decades in Russia, an experience that has presumably left him with many influential friends there (though there is as yet no evidence of a secret plan to undermine Georgian sovereignty). Nonetheless, the ruling party has used the specter of Russian intrigue as a further pretext for harassing the opposition.

Under normal circumstances, the UNM at this point would have already reduced the opposition to a mere nuisance, while blithely fantasizing about how to use its parliamentary supermajority. But thanks to Ivanishvili's well-financed political machine and his willingness to test the limits of legality, this election looks to be a closer -- if not quite fair -- fight.

One case in point: the media. To counter the dominant pro-Saakashvili spin of state-controlled television, which Ivanishvili has called propaganda, he decided to create his own propaganda outlet: TV9. Because the station was not carried by local cable companies, Ivanishvili decided to distribute thousands of free satellite dishes to poor Georgians to increase his audience (and potential electorate). While he claimed this was a philanthropic gesture, the government objected -- and fined him $45 million. In the spirit of the "October surprise" (though this time it was sprung in September),TV9 aired a video last week exposing systematic torture in a Georgian prison, causing a major domestic and international scandal and prompting the resignation of the interior minister.

Ivanishvili also borrowed from Saakashvili's playbook as he sought to blunt the UNM's edge in international support. Saakashvili, a charismatic, U.S.-educated lawyer who sought to reorient his country's foreign policy away from Russia and toward the West, has many friends in Washington, especially among conservatives. The Rose Revolution that brought him to power occurred just as the Bush Administration was touting the knock-on effects of its Iraq invasion. Saakashvili's eagerness to align his country with Bush's "freedom agenda" earned him a visit from the American president in 2005 and John McCain's now-famous expression of solidarity after the 2008 war: "[T]oday, we are all Georgians."

Ivanishvili has worked to counter the unrestrained love shown to Saakashvili in policy circles the way any self-respecting billionaire would: by buying his own supporters. The oligarch has reportedly been spending $1 million a month to retain lobbying firms to influence elite opinion in the U.S. and Europe. This strategy has paid some dividends, including the introduction of the Republic of Georgia Democracy Act of 2012, which would have conditioned U.S. aid to Georgia on its holding free and fair elections. Of course, the UNM has never underestimated the importance of navigating the corridors of Congress, and has spent millions on its own lobbying campaigns. While Ivanishvili hasn't made a major dent in the support Saakashvili has built up over the years, he has certainly raised awareness about the election in the U.S. and challenged the presumption that there is no alternative to Saakashvili.

Ivanishvili has also campaigned the old-fashioned way, pressing the flesh, making populist campaign promises, and allegedly buying votes. He has proven able to bring out large numbers in election rallies across the country.

Ivanishvili's ability to mobilize the public is an important weapon in Georgian politics, but not for the usual reasons. Although election rallies are used to generate excitement and publicity as in U.S. elections, in Georgia they also serve as a warning of how the opposition might react in the case of plausible election fraud. This is no idle threat. It was a precisely a rigged election that led to the Rose Revolution, not to mention similar regime changing events in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Given all of the above, a neutral proponent of democracy might be tempted to throw in the towel and seek out more promising cases. But this reaction would be a misreading of Georgian politics, and of post-Soviet political development more generally.

A survey of post-Soviet regimes reveals two types: strong, centralized regimes like Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Russia under Putin; and raucous and competitive but highly corrupt ones like Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia under Yeltsin. Sometimes states oscillate between these types in a cyclical pattern.

Until recently, it appeared that Georgia had transcended its Soviet past to embody a third type: a democratic regime with a strong state and little corruption. In fact, though, over time it has come to increasingly resemble the first type. A smooth, non-competitive election that entrenched the UNM's dominance would lessen its accountability to society and make it even harder for others to peacefully secure a share of power.

This is where Ivanishvili comes in. It is unlikely that the Georgian Dream will win a majority in parliament, as the latest polls show the UNM with a sizeable lead (although unlike in the U.S., over 40 percent gave noncommittal responses two months before the election). But Ivanishvili's bloc presents an obstacle to the concentration of state power more generally. A constitutional change engineered by the ruling party in 2010 transferred most executive powers to the prime minister. Saakashvili subsequently picked his right-hand man, former Interior Minister Ivane Merabishvili, for the job. Assuming the UNM wins a parliamentary majority, whoever wins the presidency in January 2013 will be in the crucial position of balancing or enhancing Merabishvili's power. Ivanishvili, assuming he can keep his diverse coalition intact, will have several months to deploy his vast war chest in various ways -- in parliament or on the streets, legally or not -- to act as a counterweight to the UNM's dominance.

The epic clash of egos that Georgians are witnessing today, discomfiting as it is, might ironically end up rescuing the country's flagging democracy. The lesson may be that the best way to weaken a power-hungry regime is not the soft incremental reforms advocated by Western governments, which typically work through the formal institutions of government usually by passing new laws. Yet authoritarian leaders are notoriously skilled at failing to implement laws on the books or applying them selectively. Instead, the surefire way to get an authoritarian's attention is to marshal countervailing power -- which may require the participation of strong-willed and wealthy narcissists who do not like losing. Ironically, building democracy may sometimes require leaders with authoritarian instincts -- as long as they aren't on the same side.

Photo by ILMARS ZNOTINS/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images


The Calm Before the Storm

China's about to find out how hard it is to run an aircraft carrier.

For more photos of China's aircraft carrier, click here. 

It's finally official. China's first aircraft carrier, named Liaoning after the province in which it was refitted, has just been commissioned and delivered to the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). On Sept. 25, President Hu Jintao, who also chairs the Central Military Commission, presided over a ceremony at a Dalian naval base. Joining him were Premier Wen Jiabao, PLAN Commander Wu Shengli, and other top officials. All must have felt the weight of history on their shoulders as they witnessed the unfulfilled ambitions of their civilian and military predecessors.

This milestone was a long time coming. One of Wu's distant predecessors had first proposed a carrier for China's navy in 1928. At the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, Premier Zhou Enlai and the PLAN commander at the time advocated carrier development, and Chairman Mao Zedong made a supportive speech in 1958. Yet their aspirations were stymied by the far more immediate priorities of domestic ideological campaigns and countering Soviet military pressure amid economic autarky and political isolationism. Subsequently, Gen. Liu Huaqing -- PLAN commander from 1982 to 1987 and Central Military Commission vice chairman from 1992 to 1997 -- fervently advocated carrier development and initiated studies of foreign technologies and Chinese options.

The procurement and refitting of Varyag, the Ukrainian carrier hull that served as the basis for Liaoning, was an odyssey in itself. The hull was purchased in 1998, but one-and-a-half years of Sino-Turkish negotiations were required to ensure its passage through the Bosphorus. Varyag then began a costly, storm-plagued voyage around Africa in 2001 and did not reach Dalian until 2002. China's formal carrier program, termed "048," was officially approved in August 2004 under Hu's chairmanship of the CMC, making Liaoning's recent commissioning a centerpiece of his military legacy and one of his last acts in office.

The PLAN's possession of an aircraft carrier is a great public relations booster for the Chinese military and suggests that Chinese diplomacy will be backed by an even bigger stick in East and Southeast Asia, and possibly beyond. Yet the stick was hard to come by and remains far from a potent tool. In fact, Liaoning has not yet demonstrated the capacity for aircraft launches or landings, which is the essence of carrier operations. Why has it taken so long to get to this point, which is not itself militarily decisive?

First, China Shipbuilding Industry Corp. essentially had to start from scratch on the carrier. Fabricating a carrier hull is not easy, but a modern shipbuilding industry like China's, with yards capable of building supertankers, liquefied natural gas tankers, and large bulk carriers, can bend the requisite steel. This time, Varyag offered a pre-made hull. But on such a massive vessel, the devil is in the details. And for a carrier, the devil manifests itself hundreds of separate times; parts must not only be built, but they must also be integrated into a working set of synchronized systems. Some systems are geared to the maritime dimension, some to the air, and some to both, which imposes very different sets of requirements and characteristics. In short, it is a logistical nightmare to achieve the unforgiving performance levels required of carrier operations.

With respect to hardware, unique subsystems such as aircraft storage spaces and arresting cables to allow aircraft to land must be built and installed. China's state shipbuilders have thus far been very tight-lipped on how they procured the guts to fill in the essentially empty hull they received. Our hunch is that some parts came from Russia and Ukraine, while a good portion came from Chinese ship-subcomponent suppliers that tooled up and built strong human-capital bases as the PLAN ramped up orders for advanced surface combatants like the Type 052C (Luyang II-class) destroyer and submarines like the Type 041 (Yuan-class).

On the human side, China has had to develop substantial domestic shipbuilding and subcomponent-production expertise in order to get its first carrier into service. Now the country must learn how to actually use it. Becoming a proficient carrier operator is important because the vessel's initial diplomatic intimidation and influence value will fade unless China can demonstrate an ability to employ the ship competently to an extent that suggests real war-fighting ability.

Carrier warfare, at least as conceived in the United States -- which would likely be involved in any major naval confrontation involving the Chinese carrier -- is a holistic operational philosophy. Carrier warfare involves factors including but not limited to:

  1. 1) Assembling carrier group(s).
  2. 2) Keeping the ship's complex naval systems and aircraft running in sync and at high reliability rates in adverse weather conditions.
  3. 3) Being willing to accept pilot and aircraft losses as the force learns to operate jets at sea.
  4. 4) Protecting the ship from a range of air, surface, and underwater threats.
  5. 5) Perhaps most difficult -- integrating civilian and military command and decision-making effectively to position and use the carrier in a way that maximizes its ability to influence events in a fluid situation.

The first factor boils down to how much Hu's successor, Xi Jinping, and China's other next-generation leaders are willing to spend on naval construction. The U.S. Navy operates 11 carrier strike groups. While there is some variance, a typical strike group comprises the carrier with its air wing of 65 to 70 aircraft, one or more cruisers, and a destroyer squadron composed of two or more destroyers and/or frigates. Submarines, logistics ships, and supply ships often support the carrier as well. The strike group is served by 7,500 personnel, 5,000 of whom operate the carrier and its aircraft alone. U.S. deck-aviation scale and capability is so imposing as to remain completely unattainable for China for the foreseeable future.

Moreover, Beijing does not want to overemphasize carrier capabilities. It neither needs to nor even could employ a carrier group to further its claims in the disputed Near Seas (the Yellow, East China, and South China seas). Even the most advanced aircraft carriers are increasingly vulnerable to attack by missiles and other weapons. Moreover, China already has highly effective weapons systems, including the world's foremost substrategic missile force, quiet conventionally powered submarines, and numerous and increasingly sophisticated sea mines. Still, even assembling an extremely modest carrier group -- which the PLAN will want to do eventually to build future capabilities as a great-power navy -- will require dedicating vessels in a navy that is improving qualitatively far more than quantitatively.

The second issue, which relates to the first, is the extent to which a higher naval-training tempo will be prioritized. Training with a carrier group is not cheap: A study by the Government Accountability Office in 1993 (the last time the U.S. Navy released numbers) says it cost $1.5 billion per year to operate a carrier battle group. Today, in an era of higher oil prices, the cost may be double or more. A Chinese carrier group would be far less capable and likely smaller and cheaper, but the old U.S. Navy number gives a sense of the rough costs China will face to operate a carrier, especially with a Chinese fleet that relies more heavily on oil-based fuels than the U.S. Navy. If a Chinese economic slowdown constrains defense-budget growth, the PLAN may increasingly be forced to choose between training more with the ships it has and buying more of the new ships its admirals want.

Third, China's leadership (and the population at large) must also decide how many pilots and aircraft they are willing to sacrifice if they want the PLAN to become proficient in carrier operations. Between 1949, when the U.S. Navy began deploying jets on a large scale, and 1988, when the combined Navy/Marine Corps aircraft accident rate achieved U.S. Air Force levels, the Navy and Marine Corps lost almost 12,000 aircraft and more than 8,500 aircrew. Even if it moves less aggressively, China is almost certain to suffer significant and unexpected pilot and aircraft losses as it builds its carrier capability. In a predominantly one-child society with growing use of communication tools that can circumvent state censorship, grieving families of lost pilots could spark meaningful negative publicity and impose caution on training in a way that ultimately makes Chinese naval aviation less combat-effective.

The fourth factor speaks to decisions China must make in coming years regarding naval procurement, as well as additional training in areas of critical weakness such as anti-submarine warfare. Beijing faces a two-pronged dilemma in funding naval procurement, and carrier development exacerbates the situation. First, in an increasingly challenging economic environment with slower growth rates, the naval budget faces increased competition for state funds. Second, a single carrier cannot ensure a continuous operational capability. China probably needs at least three carriers to always have one at sea. Building two more massive warships, plus the surface combatants and submarines needed to protect them, would risk catalyzing further naval competition and anti-China security alignments in Asia. Deck aviation may well help China advance its strategic goals in the South China Sea, but it could also hem China in further afield.

Finally, Beijing's leadership will likely commit a number of missteps before it gets up to speed in the art of carrier diplomacy, a game that the United States has engaged in for nearly 70 years. In a region already rife with suspicion that China's willingness to use soft power is waning fast as its military becomes more capable, assertive carrier-related rhetoric and deployment may exacerbate tensions with neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

In an exclusive interview with CCTV, China's first carrier captain, Senior Capt. Zhang Zheng, acknowledged that the PLAN does not yet have sufficient experience in deck-aviation operations. He stated that progress was particularly needed in the integration of naval aviation and surface combatants, the implementation of new safety procedures, and enhancement of administration. It will also be necessary to continue science and technology tests and crew and pilot training. What is significant, however, is that Zhang was realistic about these challenges and that he discussed them in excellent English, the designated international language at sea. These are hallmarks of embracing a weighty historical mission that will take time to realize but will ultimately transform China into a very different sea power from what it is today. Given ongoing disputes and uncertainty about Beijing's future capabilities and intentions, neighboring countries are bound to worry. But Zhang's predecessors surely could not be prouder.

Zha Chunming/Xinhua/