Advice to Georgia on following path to democracy
Last week's declared state of emergency in Georgia came as a shock. The Rose Revolution's democratic experiment in this small but strategically vital country seemed to dissolve in clouds of tear gas. Peaceful demonstrations escalated into violence and calls for the overthrow of the government. After the police tried and failed to clear Tbilisi's main boulevard, a state of emergency was declared, including closing an anti-government TV station that had broadcast calls for the government's overthrow. By coincidence, I arrived in Tbilisi shortly after the state of emergency was declared. Like many westerners, I asked if Misha Saakashvili, Georgia's charismatic president, had gone bad. How could the leaders of the Rose Revolution put their country in the same corner as Pakistan and Burma?
I spent the next few days with government leaders, the opposition and civil society trying to answer that question. The decision to enact the state of emergency was not taken lightly. It was debated fiercely and decided collectively in the cabinet, including by many whose democratic credentials can hardly be questioned. Having spoken to Georgians involved in that decision, very few of them regret it. They believed their fragile democracy was at risk. Many consider it a significant accomplishment that the state finally showed it could defend itself. As westerners living in comfortable societies, we have trouble understanding the insecurity of a country that has teetered on being a failed state. The decision may still have been wrong, but we should see the motives behind it.
Second, Moscow is pursuing its own version of democratic rollback and regime change against Georgia. Whether Moscow was involved in planning the calls to overthrow the government is less clear. The Georgian government insists it was and has pledged to provide evidence. As I left Tbilisi, I had not yet seen conclusive evidence. That does not mean it did not happen. One of the pernicious consequences of constant Russian interference is that it has created a siege mentality. Even though much of the opposition is as pro-Nato and anti-Moscow as the government, part of it is not and fear of a Russian fifth column is widespread. Henry Kissinger once remarked that even a paranoid had some real enemies. Georgia today faces real enemies.
I discussed the events with Mr Saakashvili. He is a man whose role models are the Turkish strongman Kemal Ataturk for his westernisation drive; David the Builder, a historic Georgian king, for unifying his country against the threat of separatism; and Finnish Marshall Mannerheim who fought the Russians to a standstill. I was his latest western visitor, most of whom had come to lecture him on democracy and the damage his actions had done to Georgia's image. But he is confident that this step was needed to save Georgia and that his people understand. He believes they will honour that decision by re-electing him.
What needs to happen next? First, the government must clean up the mess left by its actions and lift the state of emergency and media restrictions. An independent commission should investigate the events and set the record straight. Cases of excessive force must be investigated and compensation given for material damage.
Second, Georgia needs to re-establish its democratic credentials through presidential elections on January 5, as well as subsequent parliamentary elections. They need to be not only free and fair but squeaky clean. The world will be watching to see whether the government and opposition have matured and to assess whether last week's events were an aberration. Third, the government needs to avoid being drawn into provocations emanating from Moscow in South Ossetia or Abkhazia as we face the end game in Kosovo as well as Russian elections.
Young democracies make mistakes. Older ones do too and it is not only the Georgians who must do better. This is a moment of vulnerability for the region's only true democratic experiment. The west needs to embrace Georgia in two ways. Tbilisi needs tough love to ensure it stays on a democratic path. But it also needs to be shielded from Moscow's pressure. Many in the west continue to ignore or play down this threat. As one European official put it, if he told his home capital what the Russians were up to in Georgia no one would believe him. Standing up for democratic values cannot only mean criticising Mr Saakashvili. It also means standing up for Georgian independence and its territorial integrity.
The writer is executive director of the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Center in Brussels.