Democracy Lab

Georgian Dream Shows Its Dark Side

Georgia's president-elect is putting the country in strong danger of losing its hard won democracy.

When Georgian President Mikheil Saakasvhili conceded defeat in parliamentary elections last month, he set an admirable and important precedent. Never before in the Caucasus, and only rarely in the post-Soviet space as a whole, had a leader transferred power peacefully following a democratic election. Long derided as an authoritarian by his domestic opponents, the Kremlin, and cynical naysayers in the West, Saakashvili put his country before his political career when he made way for the Georgian Dream coalition of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili to assume control of parliament. But, as they say, no good deed ever goes unpunished, and it appears that Saakashvili's political adversaries are not holding up their end of the democratic bargain.

The problems started the day after the election, when the surprise victor Ivanishvili -- until recently a recluse who had made his fortune in Russia -- hosted a contentious press conference at his party headquarters. There he insisted that Saakashvili, whose presidential term does not expire until October 2013, resign immediately. When asked by a Bloomberg News correspondent whether his electoral triumph signaled the return of organized crime to Georgia, Ivanishvili snapped at her in a way more befitting a tin-pot tyrant than a democrat. The overall performance did not inspire confidence. It was that of a man used to getting his way, and for whom answering questions by pesky journalists is a tiresome nuisance, not an obligation. And though Ivanishvili later put aside his call for Saakashvili's resignation following an international outcry, he has sounded it again in recent weeks, emboldened by a series of politicized arrests.

Earlier this month, police detained a former Defense Minister from the Saakasvhili administration and the military's current chief of staff, only a day after the investigations into their alleged wrongdoing had been opened. Both men have been charged on spurious grounds of having "insulted verbally and physically" military personnel in 2011. In the weeks since, over 15 other individuals -- all of them either members of Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), including Tbilisi's Deputy Mayor, or civil servants who worked for the Interior Ministry -- have been detained. Over the weekend, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that it has uncovered a case of abuse of power by former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, whom the Chief Prosecutor promised would be questioned without specifying a date. On a visit to Tbilisi Monday, European Union Foreign Policy and Security Chief Catherine Ashton offered a rote complaint about the fraught political situation: "There should be no selective justice, no retribution against political rivals." When Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Secretary General of NATO (which Ivanishvili insists he wants Georgia to join), stated that he was "extremely concerned" about the arrest of a Georgian military officer, an Ivanishvili ally criticized the former Danish Prime Minister over his refusal to condemn cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed seven years ago.

Ivanishvili has tacitly threatened the opposition that their continued criticism of the new government will result in further arrests and that only by shutting up will the political witch hunt cease. "Once I told [President] Saakashvili that it would be easier for him to come out, say he feels sorry and resign. This is the key to everything that is happening now," Ivanishvili said last week. "But they are still presenting themselves as angels. They are lying to us. This will not reduce the probability of the arrests." According to sources around Saakashvili, Ivanishvili has long been privately threatening what he is only now saying publicly. Raphael Glucksmann, a Saakashvili advisor, says that, during their first meeting after the election, Ivanishvili told Saakashvili that, "he should resign or his aides would face juridical consequences."

As if jailing political opponents were not enough, the new government is simultaneously attempting to free individuals whom it has dubiously labeled "political prisoners," including those found guilty of involvement in acts of terrorism. On November 19, the Georgian Parliament's Human Rights Committee granted political prisoner status to over 180 individuals. Seven of them include Georgian citizens found guilty of acting as accomplices to a series of terrorist acts that transpired in the fall of 2010, ranging from a bomb attack near the American Embassy in Tbilisi to an explosion near a supermarket. According to the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs, all of the attacks were orchestrated by a Russian intelligence officer stationed in Abkhazia, one of two breakaway territories inside Georgia. An additional seven names on the list are Russian citizens arrested in 2010 as part of a spy ring, 19 are members of a tank battalion that attempted to mutiny in 2009, and 24 were arrested during riots, also in 2009, orchestrated by Nino Burjanadze, the pro-Putin former speaker of the Georgian parliament.

What Ivanishvili cannot accomplish through political use of the police and judiciary, he can attempt via other means. Already, the Ivanishvili-controlled cabinet has cut funding for the maintenance of Saakashvili's presidential plane in 2013. Seven UNM MPs have defected to parties in the Georgian Dream coalition; the UNM says they were coerced into doing so. Ivanishvili's allies only need 13 more seats in order to achieve a constitutional majority of 101, something which Ivanishvili, with his unlimited cash, has the ability to influence should he choose. On top of this, Ivanishvili has launched an audit of the public broadcaster (praised by the European Union Monitoring Mission as the most objective news source in the country) which he has also said he wishes to merge with his own Channel 9, (technically owned by his wife) via the "donation" of the latter's television equipment and personnel. Meanwhile, the private Imedi Television, formerly owned by a mogul close to Saakashvili, has been acquired by a mogul close to Ivanishvili, and has ceased broadcasting news.

Ironically, Ivanishvili's political shenanigans have been partly enabled by one of the weak points of Saakashvili's legacy, namely his failure to adequately reform the country's justice system. One of the most pertinent criticisms of the Saakasvhili government has centered on the lack of judicial independence, a charge that some Saakashvili confidantes now reluctantly admit. "The judiciary was not independent enough for sure during the 10 years of our government," says presidential advisor Glucksmann. "Contrary to the reform of the police, we partly failed to reform the judiciary." Now that there's a new crowd running the country, the opportunists in the judicial system appear to have made an about face in their loyalty. While admitting these faults, however, Glucksmann insists that, while the UNM ran the country, "we had a fundamental rule: No leader of the opposition should be sent to jail, whatever crime he was suspected to have committed."

Turnover and transformation is to be expected in any political transition, but jailing one's political opponents on spurious charges would risk everything Georgia has overcome in the two decades since it won independence from the Soviet Union. That such a scenario has followed so swiftly after the October 1 elections, however, comes as little surprise. Many of Ivanishvili's supporters are members of the old guard -- former police officers sacked during Saakashvili's restructuring of the corrupt force, ossified bureaucrats from the Eduard Shevardnadze era -- who supported Ivanishvili not because of any specific policy changes he offered, but as a form of revenge against the man responsible for their downsizing. Add to this Ivanishvili's authoritarian personality, his ties to Russia, the crudely nationalistic and xenophobic makeup of his coalition, and you have a recipe for retribution, and worse.

Georgia has enough problems on its hands -- high poverty and unemployment being the two biggest -- that the last thing it needs is a political witch hunt. Fortunately, the pro-Western desires of most Georgians should be enough to prevent a full reversion back to Soviet or post-Soviet levels of repression, the sort of setback that would shutter Georgia's Western integration. 71 percent of Georgians, according to a 2011 survey by the Caucuses Research Resource Center, said that the country should be closest diplomatically to the United States. In a speech last week, Saakashvili told his people that, "You wanted, we all wanted to bring back Georgia to the European family of free and prosperous nations it should never have been separated from." The coming months will test whether Georgia's young democracy is strong enough that no amount of political shenanigans can undo it. 

Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images


China's Copycat Cities

The People's Republic is building life-size European villages, but not for the reasons you think.

Chinese tourists may be flocking to Europe in record numbers, but now they can see some of the continent's top historical attractions without ever leaving the People's Republic. The Alpine village of Hallstatt, Austria, (a UNESCO World Heritage site on the picturesque shore of the Hallstätter See) has been re-created in full-scale replica in Boluo, in southern China. Complete with European-style wood houses and the town's signature Roman-numeral clock tower, the made-in-China version of Hallstatt opened this summer for visitors and new residents. The Chinese developers, Minmetals Land Ltd., even got the real mayor of Hallstatt to fly in from Austria to mark the occasion.

Strange as it sounds, the Hallstatt replica is hardly unique in China. The Middle Kingdom is cloning Western monuments, palaces, and entire towns -- often at a frenetic pace and with uncanny accuracy. But why?

American and European commentators -- not to mention residents of the original cities -- are variously amused, indignant, and, above all, puzzled. This is not, however, the first time China has imported Western architecture on a grand scale. Now, as in China's past, imitation isn't intended as flattery. The ancient parallels for these copycat projects suggest that they are not mere follies, but monumental assertions of China's global primacy.

In addition to the wholesale replication of Hallstatt, countless other facsimile cities and monuments have popped up across China -- and more are in the works. Replica British towns near Shanghai and Chengdu, for example, feature Tudor, Georgian, and Victorian architecture complete with quaint market squares and signature red telephone booths. Likewise, a Bauhaus "German Town" near Shanghai designed by Albert Speer, son of the Third Reich's chief architect, boasts bronze statues of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.

China is also home to several charming Dutch villages, at least two of the world's largest Eiffel Tower replicas, and an opulent copy of the 17th-century Château de Maisons-Laffitte (constructed using the original blueprints and imported French Chantilly stone). More eerily, perhaps, a full-scale, no-expense-spared replica of the White House stands outside Hangzhou, while less exacting copies of the U.S. Capitol, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Sydney Opera House can be found in the village of Huaxi in Jiangsu province and elsewhere. And a long-term project is under way to create a vast financial center at Yujiapu in the municipality of Tianjin based explicitly on Manhattan. The plans even include a Rockefeller Center and twin towers to be built by the Chinese arm of Tishman, the contractor for the original World Trade Center towers in New York.

China's fondness for replicating has not gone unnoticed in the West, but as of yet no one has offered a convincing explanation. Some have discussed these imitation cities within the larger theme of China's copycat syndrome. The country is full of fake brand-name clothing, electronic products, and even medicine. Chinese television shows are notorious for stealing plotlines and even jokes from American programs, and China's academic journals are rife with plagiarism. But a general disrespect for intellectual property does not fully account for life-size copies of the White House, European chateaux, and entire villages.

The phenomenon has also been taken to reflect a Chinese obsession with Western tastes. Urban-design critic Harry den Hartog has referred to the projects as "self-colonization," comparing the re-creation of Dutch, German, British, and Italian towns around Shanghai to the concession territories that the imperial powers developed there and in Tianjin after the Opium Wars. But China's relationship with the West has changed immeasurably since the mid-19th century, when the country was known as the "sick man of Asia." Within the context of China's economic rise, the present-day importation of styles and architecture feels more like muscle-flexing than a symptom of sickness.

There are apt parallels in Chinese history for this recent round of replication. Then, as now, the projects were intended to showcase China's own worldliness, wealth, and global supremacy. At the height of the Qing dynasty's power (circa 1750), for example, the Qianlong Emperor commissioned the French and Italian Jesuits in his court to help design and build a European palace complex. The result was the Xiyang Lou, often translated as the "Western Mansions" or "Western Palaces," a sprawling collection of Baroque stone palaces and gardens based on the Trianon at Versailles. Eventually destroyed by French and British forces in 1860, the structures had been symbols of China's wealth, far-reaching influence, and central position in the cosmos: exotica on the grandest of scales.

The "Western Palaces" provide some cultural context for the current surfeit of replicas in the People's Republic. Today, 21st-century industrialist Zhang Yue entertains at his own version of Versailles near Changsha in the province of Hunan (where his company compound, Broad Town, also features an Egyptian pyramid), and a state-owned firm in the northeastern city of Harbin occupies another imitation Versailles. Like their quarter-millennium-old counterparts, these imitations are beacons -- directed at both Chinese nationals and outsiders -- of China's worldly scientific and cultural knowledge. By appropriating the monumental trappings of power from distant places and times, the Chinese do not merely place their own country on a symbolic par with historical Western superpowers, but suggest that China has mastered and transcended their levels of achievement.

More striking precedents for the copycat cities and palaces are found even earlier in Chinese history. The First Emperor (Qin Shi Huang) is perhaps most famous for the spectacular terra-cotta warriors he commissioned after he unified China in 221 B.C. But the terracotta army that made him famous was not the only grand building project the emperor and his court undertook. Sima Qian, ancient China's premier historian, recorded a remarkable building program pursued by China's first ruling dynasty, the Qin:

Whenever Qin conquered one of its rivals, it would commission replicas of its palaces and halls and reconstruct them on the slope north of the capital, facing south over the river. From Yongmen all the way to the Jing and Wei rivers, there were replica palaces, passages, and walled pavilions, all filled with women, bells, and drums that Qin had taken from them.

The construction of each facsimile palace corresponded directly to the conquest of a specific territory, and exotic new towns in the Qin heartland soon followed, where conquered families from the empire's far reaches were required to resettle. The imitation palaces were the most outlandish spoils of war, reconstructed and presented by proxy to the home audience. They were expressions, in concrete terms, of the Qin's invincibility and inevitable ascendancy.

Modern China's replica palaces and monuments are not built to correspond to military victories, of course. And while the Chinese Hallstatt features a few blond European entertainers, the People's Republic is not filling its imitation towns with real people and historical artifacts from the West. But like the ancient replicas, their modern counterparts are also conspicuous demonstrations of authority and influence on an inconceivably far-reaching scale. Not only has China outstripped Europe's leading economies, but it is now importing, by proxy, its most cherished architectural achievements -- the literal halls of power. This is the new world order made visually and physically manifest.

The First Emperor also commissioned a corollary project to his palaces and pavilions: 12 colossal bronze statues wrought from the melted weapons of his enemies and erected in the capital to represent the vanquished states. Today, China is once again putting bronze statues of foreigners on display to correspond with its imitation cities. Aside from the Schiller and Goethe statues in "German Town," one can find the likenesses of Winston Churchill, Princess Diana, Harry Potter, and James Bond in "Thames Town," and Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and business magnate Jack Welch in Broad Town. Needless to say, there is no violent conquest behind the creation of these modern Chinese monuments and the cities they inhabit. But they and their ancient equivalents represent a dizzyingly grand amalgamation of worldwide political, cultural, and industrial achievement to which China is, by its own understanding and aspiration, heir.

The First Emperor built the greatest superpower in the known world, and he created a monumental vocabulary to articulate this supremacy. Now modern China, consciously or not, is marshaling his symbolic language to convey its burgeoning global primacy. The First Emperor no doubt would have approved wholeheartedly of China's new replica cities and sights, taking special delight, perhaps, in the White House facsimile. And in spite of the legendary scale and precision of his own building ventures, even he might have been impressed by the Chinese Hallstatt.