“Catch Up and Overtake America“ has failed, shall we give it another try?

“Catch Up and Overtake America“ has failed, shall we give it another try?

In my Soviet childhood, I clearly remember very few, if any, of my friends, neighbors or schoolmates being interested in politics. To inspire our interest, we had only two TV channels and a few newspapers with easily predictable political content. Nevertheless, interesting things were still happening. The World’s premier communist leader proposed a slogan in 1957, which, strangely, is still relevant today: “Catch Up and Overtake America!” Another preposterous idea was offered by Mr. Khrushchev at the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party in 1961: “The current generation of Soviet people will live under Communism.”

Even in the 1980s my generation realized that we were as far from Communism as we were from the level of economic development of the U.S.A. We also realized that we were not able to become a society where everything was owned by the community and each person contributed and received according to their ability and needs. I still remember vividly how we were covertly listening to the Voice of America and anticipated great changes. These changes did happen, and in a relatively short time, at least for my generation.

Afterwards, the Soviet Union collapsed and we saw immediately that the ‘Soviet Brotherhood’ was as disingenuous as the communism life promised by Khrushchev. A new day had truly come. Together with my colleagues, I was able to establish the first opinion research center in independent Georgia and measure public attitudes towards various things including democracy. I can confirm that, like elsewhere, Georgians support democracy, or to be more precise, the idea of democracy. The main difference is that anti-liberal ideas are more prevalent here when compared to the old Western democracies. But they are less welcomed here than in other countries such as Bahrain, Qatar or Iraq (based on various comparative opinion polls) among others.

One of the important indicators of democracy is people’s interest in politics. This factor has been described in academic sources as an important indicator of the democratic health of a nation. Therefore, one of the questions in our very first nationwide survey was “How interested would you say you are in politics?”

As this chart demonstrates, interest in politics was comparatively high in 1990. This is the time when Mr. Gamsakhurdia (who would soon be elected president) had more people’s trust than the Patriarch of Georgia (based on yearly opinion polls). Then people were paying bribes but not kickbacks, as there were no international organizations or government bodies conducting questionable contract tenders at the time as Georgia was still part of the Soviet Union. Another apex in the history of this question occurred after the war with Russia in 2008. One pattern remains constant over these years: interest in politics increases with age as well as by education. The more formal education a respondent has, the more interested they are in politics.

Social scientists might argue that interest in politics brings more political engagement, and therefore benefits democracy. While I agree with this assertion the level and depth of engagement in politics is also important. As Chart 1 demonstrates, after nearly a quarter of century, the number of citizens interested in politics have been reduced by half.

Even in 1990, during the Soviet Union, only 8% of Georgians (Chart 3) viewed the USSR as a sound model for development. Contrary to popular opinion, the Soviet Union broke down, because on one hand, Reagan initiated the ‘Star Wars’ program, and on the other, Gorbachev started ‘Perestroika’. A country full of economic problems fell down unintentionally, most importantly because majority of people living in it, didn’t want to live in it any longer. These people included Georgians, as well as Russians. For this, we were punished first on April 9, 1989 when the Soviet Army massacred peaceful demonstrators in the center of Tbilisi, and later when Russia occupied nearly 1/3 of our country.

In addition, the survey revealed that even in 1990, a majority of people viewed the U.S and Western Europe as a promising model for development, rather than the Soviet Union. As Chart 3 demonstrates, in 1990 54% advocated a ‘Western’, American or European Model, while 39% linked our future to popular epochs in our history – the so called period of Georgian renaissance and the 3-year period of Free Georgia. It is interesting that only 8% considered the Soviet Union acceptable though all respondents were Soviet citizens. An urge for Liberal Democracy and desire to become members of NATO and the European Union continue to be the main models for development for Georgians today as well.

If we compare economic development, the unemployment rate and the quality of infrastructure of 2018 to that of 1990, it is way behind. Nevertheless, neither then, nor now, did public opinion shift to the East or the North for a simple reason - Europe is the original and ultimate place of residence for Georgians. Europe is not associated with poverty, but rather with economic prosperity. So, what should we do to bridge this huge gap? No one can step into the same river twice, so even if we had a time machine I am sure we would not stay in the Soviet Union for economic benefit alone. Let’s forget about going back to the USSR and make another try to “Catch Up and Overtake America.”

Our success formula should be to strengthen existing democracy and catch up economically. On this path those politicians who are dreaming about another civil war or police killing peaceful demonstrators as during Shevardnadze’s and Saakashvili regimes will not succeed, and the same will be for the newly emboldened neo-Nazis who are the shame of contemporary Georgia. The latter should be halted and prosecuted by law enforcement agencies who have more than adequate resources to do the job. Our grandparents soundly defeated the Nazis some 70 years ago, and we are their grandchildren!

Note: I would like to extend a special thank you to Ani Lortkipanidze who assisted with the analysis and the charts featured in this article
GORBI is an exclusive member of the Gallup International research network and has more than two decades of experience in survey research (gorbi.com)