Georgia through the prism of social contracts

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the four formal and informal governments of post-Soviet Georgia, which were led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Eduard Shevardnadze, Mikheil Saakashvili, and Bidzina Ivanishvili, through the prism of vertical social contracts. First though, I would like to clarify that the vertical social contract is an informal agreement between rulers and the people (those being ruled), which operates beyond or in parallel with the constitutional order of the country and differs from the horizontal social contract among the citizens. In this essay, I propose that a series of vertical social contracts replaced the unsuccessful process of establishing the Second Republic of Georgia, which failed to dismantle the power structure inherited from the USSR and establish new formal power relations in its place. I also assume it will be possible to break out of the “vertical” social contract series only through “horizontal” public agreement.

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მოხუცი ქალი ჯოხით დგას საქართველოს მთავრობის შენობის წინ

What does social contract mean?

Scholars operating in various countries and disciplines have repeatedly attempted to explain Soviet and post-Soviet history through the social contract theory.[1] In this context, as a rule, social contract theory implies the so-called vertical contract or an agreement between the ruling class and the people being ruled.[2] According to this theory, the people (electorate), who have no real direct influence on the country’s politics and economy, but who, through elections or even by not staging street protests, give the ruling class legitimacy or at the very least, stability.

In response, the rulers offer relative economic prosperity.[3] This assumption has its theoretical shortcomings. The fact that people are willing to submit to political subordination in exchange for more or less prosperity suggests that weak or solid political legitimacy is unequivocally economic and has no other symbolic-political reasons. This assumption is unjustified in the case of Georgia. However, we can still use the social contract theory as a framework for describing post-Soviet Georgia, but with one caveat: In addition to the vertical social contract, the theory of social contract acknowledges the horizontal social contract, which is not a contract between rulers and those being ruled but a contract among individuals or groups about what state should be like and what laws it should be based on.[4] It is the absence of a horizontal social contract that creates the necessity of a vertical social contract.

Let me explain.

Thirty years after Georgia’s declaration of independence, no horizontal social contract has been reached. So, Georgia, despite its formal constitution, is not established as a constituted state. I would like to apply Hannah Arendt’s theory on revolution to support this position.

In her book On Revolution, Hannah Arendt explains the purpose of revolution as establishing freedom (in the form of a republic).[5] The collapse of the Soviet Union can be considered an equivalent revolutionary event in terms of changing one particular legal system by other ones and the emergence of new states. The process of transformation that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union did not end for the former Soviet republics (except the Baltic republics). To continue applying the Arendt revolution theory, they are in a phase of permanent transformation but fail to establish themselves in terms of bringing the mechanisms of distribution and transfer of power within the framework of law, and not informal, extrajudicial transactions.[6] On the one hand, it is the inability to constitute a state (concluding a horizontal social contract) that is the cause of the permanent transformation.

On the other hand, it is precisely because of the impossibility of constituting a state that causes formal constitutional relations to be replaced by a network of informal relations. The distance can vary between a formal constitution and an informal order, but it is typical of post-Soviet Georgia that this error is fundamental. Therefore, a vertical social contract can be considered one of the forms of unconstitutional, informal relations.

The structure of inherited power

Neither before nor after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was there a wide-ranging public debate about what Georgia should have been like after gaining its independence. The political thought of the national independence movement did however envisage new political beginnings after the collapse of the USSR. Its ultimate goal was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Georgia.[7] On the one hand, the political class that effectively ruled Georgia after 1989 and legally took power after 1990 did not have a clear idea about the future. On the other hand, this class was not capable of ensuring a broad discussion of the form and content of the future of Georgia. It resulted in complete uncertainty about what kind of state Georgia should be both during the transit period and beyond it a substitute and successor to the Democratic Republic of Georgia (DRG 1918-1921) or a new state that emerged due to the collapse of the Soviet Union.[8]

The constitution of the DRG was the result of a long and intensive discussion. Noe Zhordania compared the constitution to clothing that had to be adapted to a new political body. The Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Georgia, which was quite advanced at the time, was not only advanced in terms of the ideas of equality and freedom but also created an architecture of power that was focused on local governments and parliament, and did not let the executive branch seize power.

Second, it was not only legally that the present-day republic emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It had Soviet legislation in place (with some, primarily symbolic amendments), and the power architecture remained unchanged. The structure of government and the distribution of power did not change once Georgia gained its independence. It was also unfortunate that the power structure remained intact, and the issue of its change was not even raised and discussed. The renaming of the communist party district committee (Raycom) secretaries as prefects changed the facade of power, but did not change its principle. The facade of democracy in Georgia primarily means the inheritance of this very principle of power from the Soviet Union. However, it is ostensibly masked by democratic institutions that have no real power.

Despite numerous reforms launched by various governments of Georgia (three constitutions and the transition from a presidential to a parliamentary republic), the country’s power structure has not changed. It is a one-party autocracy (with more or less distinctive formal or informal leaders) that controls all branches of power, the media, and business. In facade democracies, the democratic form is outwardly maintained. However, it does not contain essential principles of democracy. Voter sovereignty is undermined. The voter does not choose the political party that represents them nor one that represents their interests. Voters give legitimacy to the ruler. The voter is not a subject of politics. Instead, voters are the objects of management. Voter participation in politics has been reduced to a minimum, a mere ritual function.

The centralist arrangement of the country serves such a structure of power. The population of Georgia is primarily excluded from political life. However, this disconnection is more visible in the “regions” than in the country’s capital, Tbilisi. Autocracy tends towards vertical centralism, which makes managing the country easier.

Due to this unfoundedness, because the horizontal social contract, i.e., the real constitution of the society in Georgia, did not take place, we can read the post-Soviet history of Georgia as a series of more or less successful vertical social contracts.

Gamsakhurdia’s Social Contract: Independence

The first social contract we can attribute to President Gamsakhurdia was the declaration of independence of Georgia. Independence was a reward in itself, and it meant nothing more than self-sufficiency. Independence was the end of the Soviet period and its accompanying non-freedom rather than the beginning of something new. The “will of the Georgian people,” which is expressed in the independence referendum, was fulfilled, and the Georgian people formally became sovereign. However, its formal sovereignty still had to be translated into political and economic rights. The attitude of the “people” in this contract was the expression “we will starve, but we will be independent.” Instead of starting a public debate about the country’s future, both the first president of Georgia and his opposition were involved in a spiral of polarization. One of Gamsakhurdia’s most serious mistakes was that the “social contract” primarily included ethnic Georgians. Georgia was, first and foremost, a state of ethnic Georgians for Gamsakhurdia. The place and future of other nationalities were not clearly defined, and it even became dangerous. Gamsakhurdia (and no other head of state after him) and his government failed to offer Georgia’s ethnic minorities a model of statehood that would put them on an equal footing. Popular and partly the academic discourse considered the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia mainly erupted due to the instigation of violence by the Kremlin (Russia). However, it must be said that the minorities have not become part of the Georgian “social contract” itself.

Mutual polarization on the part of both the Georgian government and the ethnic minorities on the one hand, and the opposition on the other, was a sign that independence was not enough. The main issue was the post-independence redistribution of power, both within the political spectrum and within the administrative and territorial arrangement. At that time, the Georgian government did not agree to the redistribution of power, instead it followed the Soviet model and claimed full power for itself. In fact, the ruling party held undivided power and established a centralist government. The government declared the opposition was an enemy of the country. With the exception of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, the regions did not have their own power. Regional institutions of power represented the central government. However, despite its autonomous status, Adjara has been governed like the rest of Georgia since 2005.

The most radical manifestation of Georgia’s inability to constitutionalize was the civil wars in the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, Tbilisi and Abkhazia in 1991-1993. Where there were no legal mechanisms for the redistribution of power, this redistribution took place by force. After the coup d’etat of 1991-92, there were no state institutions in Georgia. Political and legal chaos spread throughout the country, and the economy collapsed. Georgia emerged from these wars without two autonomous regions and with a completely ruined economy.

Shevardnadze’s Social Contract: Stability and International Recognition

The next attempt at establishing the social contract occurred under the government of Eduard Shevardnadze. Even though he created a democratic facade for the country, in reality he only further strengthened the structure of one-party autocracy, which Georgia inherited from the Soviet Union. Specific institutional steps, (e.g. raising the electoral threshold) served to consolidate one-party power, while the introduction of governorships served to strengthen centralism. If Gamsakhurdia promised the country its independence, Shevardnadze’s promise was stability and international recognition.

The main formal achievement of Shevardnadze’s government, along with the international recognition of Georgia, was the 1995 Constitution and the introduction of a national currency. However, the 1995 Constitution was not the result of broad consensus, and parts of it consolidated power in the hands of the existing government rather than taking into account the interests of the heterogeneous groups comprising Georgian society.[9]

Regarding the redistribution of power, Shevardnadze took the path that Gamsakhurdia did not or could not take. Suppose the theory of a vertical social contract refers to an agreement between those who rule and those who are ruled. In that case, we can talk about a modification of this contract in Georgia in the sense that it did not conclude a “contract” with “people” but with specific groups. These were the old Soviet intelligentsia, the former party nomenclature, the former Soviet red directors” who transformed into businessmen and actors engaged in the shadow economy, as well as the Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church. These groups, to varying degrees, mediated between the government, which maintained the structure of the police state and the people. The intelligentsia and the Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church changed places in terms of symbolic capital. The symbolic capital of the intelligentsia was declining, while trust and support of the Patriarchate was steadily growing. The economy was still entirely under the government and was not free.

Shevardnadze paved the way for the extreme empowerment of the Church. To strengthen the shaky legitimacy of his government, Shevardnadze first gave a symbolic meaning to the church by enshrining it in the 1995 constitution. Later he engaged the state in a constitutional agreement with it, which gave the Orthodox Church and its Patriarchate a de facto religious monopoly in Georgia, and gave it unlimited capacities to accumulate financial and symbolic capital.

Shevardnadze was only able to fulfill his part of the social contract partially. Georgia became an internationally-recognized state, and Shevardnadze began the process of integrating the country into Euro-Atlantic structures. The principles of his foreign policy, at least outwardly, apply to this day. But Shevardnadze could not solve the country’s domestic political problems, and the state monopoly on the use of force was restored. However, the issue of crime had not been resolved. Street violence was replaced by police violence. The 1998 crisis halted Georgia’s economic growth. Shevardnadze’s second term was characterized by stagnation and total corruption.[10]

Saakashvili’s Social Contract: Rapid Modernization and State Consolidation

The youth and democratic wing of the Citizens’ Union promised the people the defeat of corruption and the modernization of Georgia. To get a more specific list of promises, we need to look at the Ten Steps to Freedom document, which set out a program of young reformers that covered a variety of issues, including restoring territorial integrity and passing a law on press and media freedom, ending of the Soviet system of government, the issuance of pension debts, the confiscation of illegally obtained property and the granting of independence to educational institutions.[11] From a state that was unable to pay salaries and pensions and was plunged into a swamp of corruption, Georgia had to become a modern, advanced state that could obtain membership to NATO (and the European Union).

Like Shevardnadze, Saakashvili was able to fulfill only part of his promises. Despite successful sectoral reforms that eradicated corruption, simplified civil services, reformed the police, the leaders of the Rose Revolution missed a historic chance to re-establish Georgia. They, too, despite constitutional reform, did not change the previous power structure. Saakashvili’s constitutional reform was not about public debate and a public good; his goal, like those before him, was to keep power in the hands of the ruling party.[12] Saakashvili failed to fulfill the second component of the promise, too, the unification of Georgia.

In the case of Saakashvili’s presidency, we can speak of the most conventional model of thesocial contract” – power instead of prosperity. The “Singaporeanization” model that the Georgian government sought to propagate meant rapid economic prosperity under virtually many years of one-party authoritarianism. Voters had to express confidence in the government, relinquish their political and economic rights, and in response, they would receive rapid modernization and prosperity.

Ambitious infrastructural reforms required financial resources from the Saakashvili government, which the country could not accumulate on its own. The Saakashvili government has chosen several ways to fill this gap. One of these ways was through the deregulation of the economy, which envisioned making it as easy as possible to do business in Georgia and to attract foreign investment (the losing side of this policy included employees and consumers who were no longer protected by any legal mechanisms). Another way was informal dealings with large, mainly Georgian businessmen operating in Russia and the informal taxation of businesses. The mechanism of the informal taxation of business has been in place since the very first days of the Rose Revolution. At first, it took the form of “returning” illegally-obtained property to the state. However, there never was a legal framework for this. Lado Papava referred to Saakashvili’s economic policy as a mixture of neoliberalism and neo-Bolshevism, precisely because of the mixture of deregulation and expropriation.[13]

Saakashvili’s government also continued Shevardnadze’s path to the extent that it also tried to make deals with critical public players, primarily businesses and the church. The deals with both turned out to be fruitless, and as soon as a new strong political rival emerged, both turned their backs on Saakashvili.

Ivanishvili’s Social Contract: From “Restoration of Dignity” to New Stagnation

The novelty of Georgia in the late 2000s and early 2010s was that Saakashvili’s de facto opposition consisted of two oligarchs, Badri Patarkatsishvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili. The political opposition gathered around a large capital, and it is hard to imagine it would succeed without it. If Patarkatsishvili’s confrontation with Saakashvili’s government failed, Ivanishvili could take into account his mistakes and form a coalition involving business and the Patriarchate. Ivanishvili’s large package of election promises included social policy (the Georgian Dream party seemed to have a social-democratic orientation, as opposed to Saakashvili’s rightist-liberal direction), prosperity for all, and employment, but the central promise was ideological. Ivanishvili’s propaganda not only managed to portray Saakashvili as a bloodthirsty tyrant but also as a paradigmatic anti-Georgian phenomenon who wanted to degenerate Georgia and deprive Georgians of Georgianness, traditions and faith. Ivanishvili’s contract with the public was largely negative. It was based on the fact that Ivanishvili and the government appointed by him would be tolerated by Georgian voters on one condition only – Saakashvili’s non-return.

It soon became apparent that Ivanishvili was not going to change social policy, nor could he ensure the promised prosperity. Only the ideological part was fulfilled from the initial agreement.

On the one hand, there was a social-democratic orientation (people vs. the elite). On the other hand, there was a pseudo-conservative ideology within Ivanishvili’s agenda. It was pseudo-conservative insofar as it was not based on the preservation of any existing values. Instead, it was based on the ethno-religious icon of Georgia formed in the 2000s, especially under the influence of the Church, of which anti-Western affect was an integral part. Inadmissibility of democracy, human rights, and especially the protection of minorities are some of the characteristics of this anti-Western affect. Misogyny, homophobia, and religious and ethnic xenophobia, which evolve from this sentiment, were based on the idea that the Georgian Orthodox man, at least in the social hierarchy of Georgia, stands above all others. On July 5, 2021, the Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Gharibashvili directly stated that the Georgian Dream party represents this very imaginary majority and that the rights of minorities could not be protected and guaranteed if the majority did not wish to do so.[14] For some Georgians, symbolic power that determined who and in what color of clothing some others could walk down in Rustaveli Avenue was appealing in exchange for giving up their political and economic rights for the benefit of the oligarchic regime.

Saakashvili’s government, despite the adoption of legislation promoting big business, was not yet a big bourgeoisie, neither was it a group of oligarchs. On the contrary, the party was trying to control business. Roles have changed under Ivanishvili’s regime, and Georgia is leaning towards an oligarchy, which, through its own party (the Georgian Dream), controls the state’s repressive apparatus and deals with the most influential part of the ideological state apparatus (the Patriarchate).[15] The basis of the social contract, on the one hand, is shrinking. On the other hand, it is becoming more stable. For a significant number of Georgian voters, stagnation, which gives them nothing, is comfortable or, at least, tolerable. However, on the other hand, it does not require anything from these voters either, in contrast to the forced modernization, which required them to be co-participants of the process in one way or another, but without considering their wishes and interests.

This kind of post-Soviet version of the Soviet stagnation is the primary resource of Ivanishvili’s regime and the content of its renewed “social contract.” The oligarchy is given the opportunity to get rich, it controls the state through its own party, and in return, does not cause discomfort for the most inert part of the Georgian population.

For the first time in post-Soviet history, the current Georgian government is opposed not by a new movement with new ideas and promises but by the former ruling party. Both parties are asking voters to take part in an almost eschatologically drawn battle between good and evil. Both parties have a more or less stable voter base that makes previous social agreements impossible.

In any case, Georgia will be doomed to cyclically repeat the phases of authoritarianism and democratization unless it takes a decisive step after 30 years of independence, and this time through a horizontal social contract. Georgia should be established as a new state as a result of a broad public debate. This time, it should destroy Soviet power architecture and create a legislative framework for political and economic freedom and equality.


The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office - South Caucasus Region.



[1] Linda J. Cook, The Soviet Social Contract and why it failed. Welfare Policy and Workers’ Politics from Brezhnev to Yeltsin, Harvard UP 1993; Sarah Ashwin, “Endless Patience: Explaining Soviet and Post-Soviet Social Stability.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 31, no. 2 (June 1998): 187–98; Aлександр Азуан, Общественный договор и гражданское общество, Мир России, 2005, Т. 14 N 3, 3-18; Samuel A. Green, Citizenship and the Social Contract in Post-Soviet Russia, in Demokratizatsiya, 20.2 (2012) 133-140; Samuel A. Green, From Boom to Bust: Hardship, Mobilization & Russia’s Social Contract, In: Daedalus, 146,2 (2017), 113-127.

[2] Vertical and horizontal social contracts were first distinguished by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan. This distinction is used by Hannah Arendt in her book On the Revolution, where she says that both treaties are mutually exclusive. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, London 2006, 161.

[3] e.g., Timothy J. Colton and Henry E. Hale. 2009. “The Putin Vote: Presidential Electorates in a Hybrid Regime.” Slavic Review 68(3): 473-503; Daniel Treisman. 2011. “Presidential Popularity in a Hybrid Regime: Russia under Yeltsin and Putin.” American Journal of Political Science 55(3): 590-609.

[4] Arendt, On Revolution, 161.

[5] Ibid. pg. 132, 133.

[6] Ibid. pg. 135.

[7]  Levan Berdzenishvili, Sacred Darkness, Tbilisi 2010, Zaal Andronikashvili and Giorgi Maisuradze, Georgia 1990: Philology of Independence or Immature Experience, Impression N1, July-August 2008, 12-21.

[8] Nodar Topuridze, Subjectivity of Georgia in the International Law, Tbilisi 2015, 224 passim.

[9] The same can be said about the constitutional amendments adopted later, so I will also refer to the literature on the following amendments to the Constitution: see Giorgi Meladze, Karlo Godoladze, “Constitution for All” or “Minority of the Chosen Ones” - Problems of Creating a Constitution in Georgia, Review of Constitutional Law VIII, Tbilisi 2015, 24-33, URL: (last seen on 03.10.2021). See. See also Vakhtang Natsvlishvili, Davit Zedelashvili, Constitution of Georgia 20 Years Later, Tbilisi 2016; On the revision of the Constitution: Marina Muskhelishvili, Constitutional Changes in Georgia, in: Armineh Arakelian, Ghia Nodia, Constitutional/Political Reform Process in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Political Elite and Voices of the People, Tbilisi 2005; Vakhushti Menabde, “Revision of the Constitution of Georgia. What Ensures the Legitimacy of the Supreme Law “in the collection: Gia Nodia, Davit Aprasidze, Constitutional Amendments in Georgia. Collection of Articles, Tbilisi 2013, 116-135; Davit Zedelashvili, “Revision of the Constitution in Georgia: The Passions of the Majority and the Constitutional Order” in the collection: Gia Nodia, Davit Aprasidze, Constitutional Amendments in Georgia. Collection of Articles, Tbilisi 2013, 136-178.

[10]  Vladimir Papava, Economic Achievements of Postrevolutionary Georgia. Problems of Economic Transition, 56(2) (2013)., pp. 51-65.

[11] Gigi Tevzadze, Kakha Lomaia, Levan Ramishvili, Ten Steps to Freedom, Brochure “Enough, Because I Love Georgia”, Tbilisi 2003, URL: (last seen on 03.10.2021).

[12] See footnote 9.

[13] Vladimir Papava, Economic Achievements of Postrevolutionary Georgia. Problems of Economic Transition, 56(2) (2013), pp. 51-65.

[14] URL: (last seen on 03.10.2021).

[15] Hereby, I refer to Louis Althusser’s notion on “ideological state apparatus”. Louis Althusser, Ideologie und ideologische Staatsapparate, Hamburg 2010.