Seeing Georgia Through Rose-Colored Glasses

"When I was a child, a kid, [in the] Cold War, America, it was perfect for us. It was an absolute ideal." ~ President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, on the Charlie Rose Show, March 11, 2011.

In 2004 when Mikheil Saakashvili came to power, the "Rose Revolution" bloodlessly ushered in a new government that cast its eyes toward Europe and America for democratic inspiration. This took the form of both political and economic freedom. The economy grew robustly (though unevenly) in 2006-07 but suffered during Georgia's conflict with Russia and the global economic crisis beginning in 2008. Over the last seven years the government has attempted to increase investment, reduce regulatory requirements and reign in corruption, while also ostensibly pursuing political democracy.

The bloom has come off the rose.

While the Georgian government publicly extols the United States, it seems to be modeling itself politically and economically after Singapore, a one-party state with token and ineffective political opposition, no independent civil society organizations to balance power. Indeed, the government is systematically stripping basic -- and recently gained -- democratic rights from working men and women. Among all the countries that emerged from the former Soviet Union, only Georgia has seen its once government-dominated trade union federation reform itself and attempt to become a truly independent and representative labor organization. However, this concrete demonstration of democracy in action was apparently too much for the Saakashvili government to take, and it has stepped in to crush the trade union federation.

Economically, Georgia has garnered praise as one of the few post-Soviet republics to reform. However, it has done so by taking a sharp libertarian turn that has left the country worse off. It has reformed its investment laws to attract foreign direct investment (e.g., foreign capital is pouring into construction projects on the Black Sea), privatized public services such as health care (leaving a bad health care system even worse) and passed labor law reform leaving workers with few rights on the job

Despite Georgia's keen desire to join the European Union, it is clearly alienating its erstwhile allies there as well. At an Open Society Institute-sponsored seminar on March 21 regarding Georgia's goal of integration with the European Union, Eric Fournier, the French Ambassador to Georgia said, "We are making absolutely no progress. [There is] a lack of freedom of the media, total contempt for labor and the trade unions... We are getting a description of a neo-bolshevik state with absolutely no freedom."

An Authoritarian State in Libertarian Clothing

In 2006 Georgia passed a draconian labor code that launched a direct assault on workers' rights and was roundly criticized by the International Labor Organization (ILO), the UN expert body on labor law and policy. Since 2008, the Georgian government has also waged a wholesale attack against the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) and many of its affiliates, including the largest union, the Educators and Sciences Free Trade Union of Georgia (ESFTUG). This teachers' union makes up half the organized labor movement in Georgia. In the public sector (e.g., railways, hospitals and schools), the government is attempting to intimidate workers from being union members and starve organizations of funds. In some cases, the government has gone so far as to block the voluntary transfer of funds from the individual bank accounts of members to the union account, thus controlling how private citizens spend their own money. And in the case of teachers, that money comes from a salary that amounts to roughly $100 a month.

Some, however, lulled by aggressive government rhetoric, fail to recognize the assault on the largest civil-society organizations in the country, or how this is the antithesis of freedom, either economic or political. For example, Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, said in a blog from June 30, 2010: "Georgia is a fascinating place and well worth checking out, especially for ed reformers curious to see how a choice regime adopted enthusiastically by a libertarian government just five years ago has played out in practice."

Protection through International Agreements

The global labor movement is seeking to protect Georgia's independent worker organizations through a variety of international mechanisms. The Georgian Trade Union Confederation has filed a complaint against the government of Georgia with the International Labor Organization. The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) filed a petition against the Georgian government under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) in 2010, a trade law that allows countries to export most goods to the United States duty free, if they respect internationally recognized worker rights such as freedom of association and protecting the right to collectively bargain. The U.S. government took the situation seriously enough to inform the Georgian government that it will accept the petition for review once the law is reauthorized by Congress. (The law recently lapsed due to a dispute over sleeping bag imports.)

The AFL-CIO is also seeking to use other mechanisms. For example, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a U.S. federal agency, recently approved a $58 million loan guarantee for a hydroelectric project in Georgia. OPIC is bound by its operating procedures to follow the lead of the U.S. Trade Representative and GSP labor standards as to country-level compliance, and includes comprehensive contract language in project agreements regarding labor rights. The AFL-CIO is monitoring this project to ensure that these contract provisions are respected so that workers will be able to exercise their internationally recognized rights in at least one place in Georgia. Similarly, the Millennium Challenge Corp. is weighing whether to extend a second multimillion dollar compact to the Georgian government for development projects. It, too, has indicators that require a recipient country to respect human and labor rights. The AFL-CIO is engaged there to urge critical labor reforms before any new compact moves forward.

Beyond Denial to Reality

When push comes to shove, most governments go through a process akin to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' "five stages of grief:" denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. While governments rarely reach the acceptance stage, most governments will take the threat seriously. After a short period of denial and anger, they will then engage with the U.S. government, the organization that filed the petition, and their own labor organizations and activists. Even if much of what they are doing is lip service, or merely public relations, at least they make an effort. They usually get to "bargaining" relatively quickly.

Predictably, for several months after the Georgian government was informed about the petition, officials flatly denied to both the U.S. government and the ILO the reality of what they are doing. Only in the last few weeks have they moved on to rage. And their manifestation of that rage is to redouble their efforts to destroy democratic rights of workers and the only reformed trade union organization in the former Soviet Union.

Will they move on to bargaining, even if for just PR? Will they really actually engage? The next opportunity for the Georgian government to back off its attack comes on May 19. The Ministry of Education is attempting to invalidate the election of the teachers' union president, who was constitutionally elected last October in an internationally observed democratic process. The court case could pave the way for a hand-picked Ministry of Education apparatchik to unconstitutionally assume leadership and control of the largest trade union organization in the country, thus recreating a Soviet-style power over unions.

Isn't fighting these anti-democratic, authoritarian dictates what the Rose Revolution was supposed to be about? And if America is an "absolute ideal," as President Saakashvili says, should the Georgian government really be trying to emulate the controlled economy and society of Singapore?

Timothy Ryan is the Asia/Europe Director of the Solidarity Center, which conducts programs in Georgia and around the world to help workers build democratic unions, advance workers rights and promote broad-based, sustainable economic development.