Great Power Competition and the Path to Democracy

Zarina Burkadze’s new book, published by the University of Rochester in their Rochester Studies in East and Central Europe series, is a powerfully insightful study of the challenges faced by nations caught between the manoeuvrings of greater powers and how one, Georgia, managed to forge a path to democracy.

The idea for this book originated from my empirical observations as a citizen of democratizing Georgia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the citizens of Georgia experienced a series of political upheavals, including the two separatist conflicts, coup d’état, and the Tbilisi Civil War. Georgia was an almost failed state with no responsive, effective and accountable political institutions. Corrupt practices were a norm, while Russia constantly subverted democratic trends and restrained political leaders. In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to constrain its Euro-Atlantic choice. It never stopped bolstering separatist regions and supporting illiberal groups. Nevertheless, Georgia developed into electoral democracy due to the two factors. First, the impact of external influences, primarily the US, Russia, and the EU, on domestic political developments were critical to Georgia’s democratic transformation. Second, the willingness of local elites to limit external authoritarian pressures motivated them to strengthen linkages with external democratizers and be susceptible to their policies.

Great Power Competition and the Path to Democracy studies how small states may emerge as democracies in the zone of great power competition. Conventional wisdom in the literature of externally driven democratization suggests that external political competition between democracy and autocracy promotion accounts for the variation in local politics. The underlying argument is that competing projects countervail democratizing efforts. However, in some cases, unilateral democracy promotion can lead to authoritarianism. The lessons learned from such unintended consequences are that democracy promoters should be consistent in supporting pro-democracy forces, while checking and preventing local political elites from abusing their powers.

In this book, I theorize that the great power competition pluralizes local spheres and creates multiple centers of power. Thus, it makes actors interdependent and curtails their unwillingness to democratize. The inclusion of authoritarian actors in political decision-making develops a sense of not being permanent losers and thus provides a stable environment, while pro-democracy forces veto authoritarian tendencies by instituting a set of democratic rules with the help of democratic great powers. Great power competition also enhances the effectiveness of sanctioning mechanisms against local elites. Most importantly, the democratic influence should be constant to halt unchecked autocracy promotion measures manifesting themselves in aggressive political and military actions aimed at undermining the sovereignty of target countries.

My research builds on novel qualitative data. Namely, I interviewed key political actors, experts, diplomats, and journalists. I also analyzed archival materials and newspaper articles collected at the National Archives of Georgia, the Archives of National Library of Georgia, and the Gelman Library Archives at George Washington University. I provide a thorough and retrospective analysis of an extended case study of the Georgian democratization. Further, I offer an extension to comparative cases of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Ukraine to illustrate the scope conditions.  I was very fortunate to receive different kinds of support from the Fulbright Scholar Program, Institute of International Education, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Georgia, Ilia State University, and George Washington University.

Almost after eight years of research, the most surprising finding is that great power competition can be one of the paths to democracy. It is not always counterproductive, especially when the local actors use external incentives to advance democracy. Great power competition builds opposing political forces and creates multiple pressure groups to limit governmental powers and place local actors in strategic competition within a democratic framework. The inclusion of various agenda-setters results in power-sharing and offers a peaceful environment for building democracy.


ZARINA BURKADZE is Associate Professor of Political Science, Ilia State University, Tbilisi, Georgia.

Great Power Competition and the Path to Democracy: The Case of Georgia, 1991-2020
By Zarina Burkadze
9781648250439, Hardback, £70/$95
Blog discount price: £45.50/$61.75

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