Georgia is a small country, about half the size of the U.S. state of Georgia, but it is a champion of democracy whose impact is felt beyond its borders – and its situation is emblematic of threats to democracy in the region. Although the country holds regular and competitive elections, its policy decisions are affected by oligarchic influence, and civil liberties are inconsistently protected. And its hostile neighbor Russia poses significant political and security challenges. Yet Georgia’s people are engaged in a struggle to remain sovereign and to continue building their democracy.
In September, three members of the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs family learned firsthand about what Georgia is facing when they participated in the 7th International Tbilisi Conference, “Defeating Putinism.” They heard about the state of democracy in the country and contributed their voices to a robust discussion on the threat of Putin’s Russia to the countries that border it and how the free world can and must act to counter it effectively.
“The conference really emphasized the urgency of preserving democracy in Georgia,” said Besiki Kutateladze, an associate professor in the Green School’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice and a native Georgian, who attended the conference. “There’s a disconnect between the government and the people, who want to be more western, more Europe-facing.”
The Green’s School’s delegation was led by Pedro Botta, executive director for strategic initiatives, who moderated a session on the ramifications of next year’s U.S. presidential election. Botta and Kutateladze, who participated in a panel on protecting rule of law, human rights and democratic institutions, were joined by Ernest Asamoa, a PhD student in political science and government.
Hosted by the McCain Institute at Arizona State University, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Economic Policy Research Center, the conference included high-level conversations about Russia’s war against Ukraine and the future of NATO and the European Union (EU). It highlighted the ongoing occupation of a fifth of Georgian territory by Putin’s army.
“The conference was established to bring global attention to Georgia’s struggle to stay sovereign and to continue building its democracy,” Botta said. “It put a spotlight on the vulnerability of democracy in the Balkans and Eastern and Central Europe, which are hotspots of authoritarian governments and conflicts.”
Kutateladze’s panel highlighted some of the progress and regression Georgia has gone through over last 20 or so years. “There has been some positive change, especially related to independent media and civil society,” he said. “That wasn’t a given when I was there 25 years ago. Outside advocacy groups and independent critical media are the biggest accomplishments. They are fighting for survival and attacked by the governing party daily, but they are persisting.”
As a Georgian, Kutateladze felt both pride and disappointment. “A country that has tremendous potential to be in the Western democratic orbit has been sucked back into Russian influence. It was good to be there to see the important work people do and how dedicated they are, but I was also reminded how difficult Georgia’s geography is, surrounded by neighbors that don’t share democratic values.”
The third member of the Green School delegation was Ernest Asamoa, a PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Relations who has been working in the area of democratic backsliding and authoritarianism. “Although the central focus of my work has been on Africa, I have investigated the role that electoral systems play in promoting democracy and also mitigating conflicts,” he said.
The conference and his visit in Georgia fueled his interest in studying democracy. “I witnessed firsthand the desire of the participants to promote democracy across countries, even in hostile grounds, because of the values it promotes,” Asamoa said. “I also witnessed the unwavering support that members from the EU and from Washington had for the Ukrainian cause. As an individual aspiring to be a scholar in comparative politics and international relations, I observed from the conference how these two fields can work together to make the world better.”
Botta moderated the conference’s final panel, which focused on the United States’ 2024 presidential election and what it means for this struggle. “The world is watching to see what the U.S. will do, which will be based on who wins the election. People in Europe are frightened, legitimately wary of that possibility.” The panel talked about the scenarios that could play out and American politicians’ messaging on world issues, coming to a consensus that the U.S. will most likely continue supporting Ukraine.
“Participating in international conferences brings the Green School visibility and creates opportunities for students and faculty,” Botta said. He expressed his hope that the Green School can eventually be a presenting sponsor at the conference, which deals with one of the School’s strategic themes: the backsliding of democracy around the world. “We want our faculty’s research to be relevant, inform policy and have an impact.”