July 1, 2009

Georgia’s Hard Slog to Democracy

By Michael Cecire

Editor’s note: The following article by Michael Cecire is a necessary follow-up to my coverage of Russia’s invasion of Georgia last August, and it’s written by a former resident who knows the country much better than I do. – MJT

The events swirling within Iran have been nothing short of startling, taking the world by surprise by its speed and intensity. Perhaps it’s testament to the Army of Davids globalization schema that, for weeks, the top two trending topics on the surprisingly super-relevant Twitter were about the events in Iran. While most have been vocal in their support for the protestors in Iran, other ‘pragmatic’ voices have ranged from cautious to dismissive. Among some of the comments have been some who cynically compare the rather withered, unclearly-supported opposition protests in Georgia "with the proto-revolution in Iran By extension, these analogies imply equivalence between Georgia’s temperamental president Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili and the apocalyptic lunacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Suffice to say that this is gross skewing of realities that needs to be put to bed immediately.

The last time I wrote on these pages, shortly following Russia’s invasion into Georgia, I cautioned that the United States should be wary not to invest its hopes in Caucasus democracy solely in the person of Saakashvili. While the United States and much of the world rightly condemned Russia’s bald-faced militarism, the reflexive fawning over Saakashvili’s Western credentials and crisp American English was decidedly two-dimensional. Saakashvili, even before the August war, faced mounting challenges to his vertical style of rule. From property rights violations to media blackouts and straining centralization, Misha at times seemed on a path to resembling the coterie of Central Asian strongmen to which the West has become more or less resigned.

Of course, a lot has happened since last August. The same brewing chorus of opposition is now camping in the streets of Tbilisi and daily demanding Saakashvili’s immediate resignation. At the same time, Misha himself seems to have undergone a decided shift. Credit where it’s due: the twin ravages of the Russian blitz and the debilitating global recession may have revived the pluralistic tendencies that catapulted the young Columbia-educated lawyer into the highest echelon of Georgian politics in 2003’s Rose Revolution. Since the war, Saakashvili has invested considerable political capital into a bevy of reforms, much of which are at the expense of his own political power, to satisfy NATO conditions and reassure a neo-realist United States tilting leftward.

Even at the onset of a crush of opposition street protests that began on April 9th, the Georgian government has been remarkably quiescent, allowing tremendous latitude to the fiery protestors whose singular platform was Misha’s removal. Now in its third month, one cannot imagine any other country, even in the democratic West, which would tolerate such an aggressive protest regime that has erected street barriers, strangled businesses, attacked police stations and parliamentarians, and been cold to generous outreach from the government. Keen on metaphor, the opposition has erected a constellation of “cells” that sit along Tbilisi’s main roads, blocking traffic for months and starving local businesses. The steepest irony is that the prison cells sit mostly empty, sometimes outnumbering the opposition activists themselves. It’s thus no surprise that Saakashvili’s popularity has risen.

Concurrently, evidence has begun to emerge of a startling nexus between elements within the radical opposition and Moscow, which has directed expatriate Georgian oligarchs loyal to the Kremlin to fund and, in some cases, escalate the already tense situation. All of this against the backdrop of eerily reminiscent provocations from Russia and its proxies lends to the possibility that a re-ignition of conflict may be on the horizon.

To be sure, the opposition is by no means monolithic and the vast majority has no more wish to assist Russia than Misha himself. But the clashing of personalities and the extremist approach embraced by some of the opposition leaders have largely rendered Saakashvili positively moderate in comparison. At the same time, Misha has wisely expended his re-appreciating political capital by reaching out to the opposition in talks, in church, and even offering government posts. Perhaps most significantly, Georgia has embarked on a comprehensive economic development and reform agenda for the regions outside Tbilisi. While it’s tempting to write this off as calculated maneuvering by a besieged Saakashvili, the opposition strategy of protesting-at-all-costs is largely backfiring. Georgia remains intact and largely free of the large-scale violence many analysts feared before the protests began in April.

Saakashvili deserves credit for this approach. As the specter of war continues to haunt the small Caucasian republic, the maintenance of stability is as important as ever. While the effects of the August war might have even made the prioritization of sovereignty over liberty understandable, the Georgian government has struck an impressive balance between resisting persistent Russian provocations and advancing an agenda of political reforms to reinvigorate its democracy, which is easily the freest in the Caucasus and Central Asia region.

Yet as the summer marches forward and Russia replays its pre-invasion war games as the opposition becomes increasingly desperate, the threat of conflict – whether internally, externally, or in some combination – will loom larger. The real test for Saakashvili, and the opposition as well, will be during the same general time frame during which the last war erupted. Though much of the responsibility for averting renewed conflict will lie on the savvy of the Georgian government and the cooperation of the opposition, the United States and the West have a real role to play here.

As a first order, the West should reject the Kremlin-approved revisionism being bandied by the Russophiles and neo-Detentists and should not fall into the trap of “respecting Russian interests” for its own sake, as though this were a goal in itself. Meanwhile, President Obama, who is scheduled to visit Moscow on July 6th, must strongly endorse Georgia’s sovereignty to avert what may be renewed Russian preparations for invasion. At the same time, a higher level of Western engagement may be the leverage that is needed to create conditions for resolution between the more moderate blocs of the opposition and the government. Ensuring the stability and independence of Georgia, a geopolitical linchpin between Asia and Europe, has long term implications for Europe’s energy security, Russia’s behavior towards its neighbors as well as the United States, and democracy promotion overall.

Saakashvili remains a flawed man, but in an area of the world where ‘benign’ dictatorships are seen as the best of options, Misha’s Georgia is a relative oasis of civil liberties and electoral participation. Though many areas require serious reform and the West should challenge the Georgian government to live up to its democratic obligations, the last year has demonstrated that Saakashvili can still be a constructive partner in the region. If anything, the protests in Iran should stand to highlight the kid-gloves approach of Saakashvili’s government toward the mostly unelected opposition, where dialogue between contrasting viewpoints is a real option forward. If a tiny fraction of the outreach and transparency existed in Iran as in Georgia, our Twitter feeds would be churning out different messages.

Michael Hikari Cecire is an independent analyst, freelance writer, and economic development practitioner. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia, he is currently finishing graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and regularly comments on the Black Sea region and economic development policy issues. A regular writer for Bacon's Rebellion and TCS Daily, he has also been published in the London Telegraph and the Democracy Project weblog. Cecire is also a long-suffering Mets fan.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 1, 2009 1:14 AM
Comments

I have not seen anything on Georgia in any Canadian news sources let alone something as in depth as this article. With the Winter Olympics coming to Vancouver in about 6 months there will be some interest in the 2014 Winter Olympic site. Maybe you could do an article on Sochi and it's geopolitical relationships with the Ukraine and Georgia. There are a lot of ethnic Ukrainians in Canada and the Liberal party leader doesn't like them (ethnic Russian). Mcleans magazine or the National Post would probably be your best bets. Good luck and please write more, John

Posted by: john hawthorne Author Profile Page at July 3, 2009 10:32 PM
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