The former President of Turkmenistan, Sapurmurat Niyazov or “Turkmenbashi”, installed large photographs of himself in public squares all over the country and famously built the Arch of Neutrality, surmounted by a golden statue of himself which rotated to face the sun. The man who replaced him in 2006, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has abolished the Niyazov personality cult by replacing his pictures with his own, and either removing the statues or building ever-more extravagant public monuments, to his own design, to overshadow them.
Berdimuhamedov has also introduced beauty contests for horses, these being his main personal interest. He is writing a book, his equivalent of the “Thoughts of Chairman Mao”, which he expects to be used in every Turkmen school as a teaching resource, just as Niyazov’s analogous book once was. He has also vowed to fight back after seeing the country’s crowning achievement, the world’s tallest flagpole, being topped by others in Azerbaijan and Takjikistan. All these personal promotion schemes have cost the country around 100 billion or more since independence.
Such absurdities are held to be manifestations of the cult of personality which surrounds so many world leaders. Successive leaders of Georgia, another country in the region with similar chronic social problems, have also encouraged such cults of personality around them and become bywords for infamy in the eyes of many. This is one of the reasons the incumbent President and Prime Minister of Georgia were eventually installed. But the Georgian people are finding out the hard way what happens when the crusade against personal rule stops there.
It takes one to know one
Mikheil Saakashvili may no longer be President of Georgia but he has made sure he won’t be forgotten in a hurry. In his final years he infested Tbilisi with a range of peculiar new public buildings – Hall of Justice, Theatre, Bridge of Peace and so on, rather than refurbish the crumbling blocks his citizens lived in. Many of these buildings are architecturally interesting, and may be revered in future generations. But for now they are seen as “Saakashvili’s buildings”, monuments to himself, and Georgians object to being forced to use them when the money could have been spent on their welfare, not him.
Saakashvili may not be in the same league as Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has run Kazakhstan since Soviet times and has several museums dedicated to his life and work, on the model of the Stalin Museum in Gori which was once a required place of pilgrimage. But he could easily be compared with one of his professed heroes, George W. Bush, who he named a road after in Tbilisi.
Bush hardly had the usual reasons for developing a personality cult around himself, as he came from a relatively stable democracy whose national identity is too strong to be recast by one individual in their own image. But he ended up deviating so far from the American people’s self-image that his policies are now considered “Bush schemes” and his appointees “Bush staff”, rather than American policies and American government servants. This is not of course considered a good thing, even by Bush’s own party, with its calls for “American values” rather than those of one person.
The consequences of the Saakashvili cult are now well known – the terrorising of the population, embezzlement, fraud, human rights abuses, torture, misuse of the police and army, corrupt courts and the country being a regional arms dealing hub. Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman with no political past, was parachuted in from nowhere and elected Prime Minister in November 2012 on a promise of staying just long enough to sweep all this away. Having secured a comfortable majority he stepped down, as promised. But this has done nothing to stop the cult of personality – indeed, it has only strengthened it in the eyes of many.
Dead men walking
Theoreticallly power in Georgia lies with Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, a relative unknown both before his election and since, and parliament. The new President, Giorgi Margvelashvili, is no longer Head of Government and also a nonentity. But they were both nominated by Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition, and won because they were extensions of him – people were voting for Ivanishvili, not people they barely knew.
The stepping down of Ivanishvili, and the installation of non-entities in the senior political posts, was supposed to ‘normalise’ Georgian politics. It was designed to reduce the influence of personalities and make constructive debate about issues, and the development of coherent ideological platforms, more important. But the political force which has made the least attempt to make these changes is the Georgian Dream itself.
The coalition’s main appeal was that it would end the abuses and prosecute all those responsible. It has made noticeable progress with the former, but not enough progress with the latter to convince people that it was sincere. With National Movement people still roaming around, many are scared that a deal has been done and that criminals will continue in the same way as private citizens, still immune from prosecution – the lack of criminal charges against Saakashvili himself being cited as an example of this.
Furthermore, removing the terror has also removed hope. When everyone knew the police and courts worked for Saakashvili rather than justice everyone knew where they stood. When everyone either supported or resisted the UNM, whichever side they took, they hoped they were doing it to make things better. But the terror has not been replaced with material benefit, the one big issue in Georgia, and those who resisted it have been given no alternative to hope for. This has provoked questions about whether “democratic rule” was actually worth fighting for, particularly when Western democracy is losing its appeal by imposing on Georgia “anti-discrimination” legislation considered an assault on Georgian values.
Similarly the individual is still stronger than the institutions of state. Ivanishvili may have stood down from political office but he is still a public figure in Georgia, founding a sovereign wealth fund and trying to develop the country. Although his actions do not seem to be in any way inappropriate, he can do whatever he wants simply because the current rulers all owe their positions to his patronage.
This has produced situations such as his development fund agreeing various large scale proposals for the redevelopment of Tbilisi without consulting the City Council, the appropriate authority. The members of the government he himself created should be the first to speak out about this abuse of process but seem unaware of it themselves. Similarly, when Ivanishvili declared President Margvelashvili a “disappointment” some months ago this was a scandal. The government does not support its own new system enough to treat the views of Ivanishvili, a private citizen, as no different to those expressed by any citizen in any bar on any given night.
Of course, the people voted for Ivanishvili and his nominees, thus bringing all this on themselves. But it is the opposition parties, not the government, who are trying to uproot the personality culture. Every one of the parties outside the Georgian Dream, and some in it, have complained publicly that rule by Ivanishvili’s decree is worse than being ruled by a President who was theoretically accountable to parliament and government. Nino Burjanadze, who was implicated in every crime of two regimes and leads a party of millionaires, is gaining capital by saying “they have stopped the terror, but this is normal, they aren’t actually doing anything else.”
Two steps too far
The failure to either stamp out the personality cult or replace it with a democratic system has left Georgians, once again, with no one to vote for. As the forthcoming local election results will show, they still believe in the Georgian Dream by default, for now, because no one else has developed a personality cult to rival Ivanishvili’s unwanted one. But already there is talk in the streets that the Saakashvili terror only affected the political class, not everyone. If yesterday’s oppositionists and political prisoners are not doing anything for the people, the only ones who benefit from stopping the terror are themselves.
Personality cults thrive when political programmes do not give people basic benefits, as no one votes for parties or ideologies which don’t do that. As with the rise of Hitler in Germany and Salazar in Portugal, if democratic alternatives are not offering any solutions personalities fill the vacuum. Even in prosperous Canada former PM Pierre Trudeau’s inexperienced son leads the Liberal opposition due to the ‘pop star’ image deriving from his father’s name, though his policies are, deliberately, anyone’s guess.
The way to stamp out the personality cult is to go to the other extreme – empower people to take control of their own lives as much as possible and rely less on government. By redistributing funds and expertise to the people affected by the decisions, as happens in some agricultural projects in Georgia, you provide benefits and at the same time engender public interest in how to make best use of resources people now see as theirs to control. Such processes need to be carefully monitored, but are no more liable to be hijacked and corrupted than anything delivered by government. It all comes down to goodwill, and if you want this to happen, the goodwill is there.
But any talk of redistribution of power, though common in many countries, is never likely to be countenanced in Georgia. In a place like Turkmenistan, whose people have always supported its independence but never had a say in its government, it could be done. Indeed we are left to wonder why all the Western powers which keep preaching the need for democratic systems have not insisted on this as a guarantee of aid and investment, rather than propping up undesirable regimes for dubious “strategic” interests.
In Georgia the Georgian Dream still represents the least unpleasant option for many. But if you ask Georgians what they would actually want, if they could have every possible option, you get two answers. One is the restoration of the first post-independence government, democratically elected and still regarded as legitimate by many Georgians. The other is, anything but the first government, whatever that may be. In the former situation, all the present parties will be criminalised by the public for being part of an illegally imposed political culture. In the latter, the present parties and their concerns would be irrelevant. No one wants to sign their own death warrant.
Faced with two steps forward it will never take, the Georgian Dream cannot fulfil its promise of bringing democracy to Georgia. The people will not engage with a system which leaves them hopeless and powerless, with no one to blame for that condition when the system is the one they say they want. It is just a matter of waiting for the next personality to come along, establish a cult, and start the cycle of repression all over again.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.