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Georgia’s recent presidential election was another milestone for democracy, but the small nation faces ongoing intimidation and illegal occupation of two of its territories by Russia. Whether Georgia integrates into the West or becomes annexed into President Vladimir Putin’s greater Russia is critical for the Georgian people and consequential to the United States.
Russia is seeking to strengthen its sphere of influence, especially in countries formerly part of the Soviet Union. Although some of Moscow’s tactics are brutish, outrageous, and unacceptable, it is understandable that it seeks to dominate its near abroad and reclaim a central role on the world stage. It is the United States’ policies that are hard to understand.
Consistent with his global policies of disengagement and retrenchment, President Obama is not responding effectively to Putin’s thuggish tactics. His passivity makes it harder for these countries to Westernize — even as polls show their people want to integrate with the West and their leaders seek stronger affiliation with Europe and America — and are contrary to America’s long-term interests.
Georgia’s Decade-Old Democracy
I recently returned from Georgia, where I led the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) observations of that country’s presidential election, which was won by Giorgi Margvelashvili. The well-administered elections were another important democratic milestone for Georgia and a triumph for the Georgian people as the practices, procedures, and habits of democracy deepened.
When I met with President-elect Margvelashvili, he talked about the need to stabilize the situation after a year of tense cohabitation in a split government.
Georgia’s democracy is only a decade old. Ten years ago, during the Rose Revolution, Georgians turned the page from Eduard Shevardnadze and vestiges of Soviet rule by electing the young, dynamic mayor of Tbilisi Mikheil Saakashvili as their new president. Saakashvili set to work reviving Georgia’s economy, reducing corruption, modernizing the country, and orienting Georgia toward the West.
Saakashvili achieved a great deal. But last year brought a highly charged and hotly contested parliamentary election. Saakashvili’s support had eroded due to his large personality, the major changes he brought, and questions of police brutality and corruption; he lost to the opposing Georgian Dream coalition and its leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili
That was Georgia’s first peaceful transfer of power. The recent presidential election was less consequential yet still important. As I visited polling stations throughout Tbilisi on Election Day, they were well run, calm, and orderly. Voters expressed pride in country, commitment to democracy, and hope for the future.
At a polling station in the Saburtalo neighborhood, Nina, a 37-year-old woman, brought her 3-year-old daughter with her because she had no child care at home. When I asked Nina if this vote mattered, she replied, “Of course, it is about Georgia’s future. It is good for my daughter.”
In the Krtsanisi neighborhood, Christina came to vote with her 4-year-old son Luke. Referring to her early years, when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, she told me, “What democracy means for my son, I hope, is that what we experienced when we were young he never will.”
Ronald Reagan once said that America cannot help achieve freedom for a country if we want democracy more than its citizens want it for themselves. Georgians want to extend the march of freedom. They want the checks and balances, the guardrails and the liberty that come from democratic institutions. For those cynical about democracy’s promise, weary from the uneven path of a democracy agenda, or questioning the importance of freedom’s march, I’d urge them to go to Georgia and talk to the people and see their iron will to achieve for themselves what so many Americans take for granted. Only a generation removed from the Soviet Union’s totalitarian boot, Georgians feel empowered, hopeful, and committed to holding on to personal liberty.
This transition period will require strong leadership from Georgia’s leaders and more nimble public diplomacy by Europe and the United States to show the long-term benefits of Western integration.
For over a decade, IRI and other American nongovernmental organizations and government agencies have helped Georgians create the building blocks of freedom. So there can be some satisfaction that on election night, after his party had lost the vote, President Mikheil Saakashvili urged his supporters to respect the outcome. “Georgian voters have expressed their will,” he said. “I want to tell those who are not happy with the results: we must respect the majority’s opinion.”
When I met with President-elect Margvelashvili, he talked about the need to stabilize the situation after a year of tense cohabitation in a split government. He said it would be a “failure of our democracy and stupid if we do political prosecutions of the opposition. We’ve done that before and it has not been useful. We don’t look to the past. We have no emotions of revenge. We want to look to the future. We hope a good foundation has been laid for democracy.”
That’s a good start. Another milestone passed. But of course, only time will tell whether those sentiments will guide Georgia’s leaders as they deal with the substantial challenges and inevitable turbulence that lies ahead. In a democracy there are no final victories. But today, Georgia’s guardrails of democracy are stronger than yesterday.
Russia Reasserts Its Influence in Georgia
Putin’s efforts to reassemble the Russian empire, including his desire to annex Georgia into Russia’s sphere of influence, are a serious challenge to U.S. interests.
Following its 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russia continues its illegal occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has also used economic leverage against Georgia (as well as against Ukraine and Moldova), cutting off exports into Russia of Georgian wine and other products. More recently, Russia has moved the barbwire barriers along South Ossetia some 600 yards further into Georgia’s territory.
Putin is intent on reassembling the Russian empire and reestablishing Russia’s centrality on the world stage. He has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a national tragedy. Russia’s vast Eurasian landmass puts it in the neighborhood of major global challenges, including those from North Korea, China, Afghanistan, and Iran. Furthermore, despite its vastly diminished military, nascent civil and political unrest, and its demographic time bomb, resource extraction has given Russia the financial muscle to project its influence. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia has veto power on matters before that global venue. As Putin has crowded out civil society in Russia, trampled human rights, rolled back democracy, and exercised arbitrary power at home, it is clear that today’s Russia does not share American values, nor are Vladimir Putin’s aspirations around the world consistent with American interests. President Obama’s reset policy with Russia has failed.
As countries such as Poland, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states of the former Russian empire are integrated into the West by joining the European Union and NATO, Russia has countered by creating the Customs Union, which it plans to transform into a Eurasian Union by 2015. This economic arrangement — providing lower tariffs and other economic benefits — is also an instrument for political collaboration that strengthens Moscow’s influence over member states. Initially, Russia was joined in this association only by Belarus and Kazakhstan. Recently Armenia, which had indicated an interest in EU membership, flipped and joined the Customs Union. This surprised the Europeans and seems to have energized them to lean in for Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova to become EU associate members at their upcoming summit in Lithuania.
Go to Georgia and talk to the people and see their iron will to achieve for themselves what so many Americans take for granted.
Georgia’s political elite and the people seem committed to joining the EU and NATO. This has been the course driven by Saakashvili throughout his presidency. Some feared that when Ivanishvili became prime minister last year he would forge a different course. But he too has consistently pointed to Western integration. Georgian polling numbers show very broad support for Western integration. This sentiment was echoed by voters with whom I talked on Election Day.
A Critical Phase of Integration with the West
Along with Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia is entering a critical phase in its integration into the West. Davit Usupashvili, the impressive speaker of Georgia’s parliament, explained the dangers to me. He pointed out that at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, there was a declaration that Georgia would become a NATO member. While this gave great psychological satisfaction, it provided no mechanism to protect Georgia. Russia, he said, realized that if it waited for Georgia to get an action plan for NATO membership, the die would be cast and Georgia would integrate with the West. Russia knew they were taking a risk but calculated it was worth it, so they invaded Georgia that August, securing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The European Union and NATO condemned the illegal invasion but Russian tanks continued to roll.
Now Russia has consolidated its illegal occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Speaker Usupashvili told me he does “not feel Russia’s mission in Georgia is done. Moscow’s recognition of the two territories [as new independent states separate from Georgia] is not the end.” While there is relative calm now in the run up to Russia hosting this winter’s Olympics in Sochi, after that Putin will have greater freedom to act.
A number of officials made the point that they do not want to increase tensions with Russia. They want to achieve some small steps toward more normal relations with Moscow. President-elect Margvelashvili told me, “We’re decreasing the temperature with Russia, but they make it very difficult.” A number of officials said to me that they have no illusions that Russia’s intent can be changed.
‘What democracy means for my son, I hope, is that what we experienced when we were young he never will.’
Georgia’s Defense Minister Irakli Alasania told me, “We know Russia’s nature. They won’t stop. After the Olympics we will enter a dangerous period. Russia will try to shake us up, to show we are not a stable country. We need constant reminders from Washington and the West to Russia that such behavior is unacceptable. They will continue to shake us up until they know it will not work. Georgia and the West must stand up to their bullying.”
With the United States pulling out of Afghanistan, the dynamic in central Asia and into the Caucuses has changed and Putin sees opportunity. Leaders in the region are calculating their options. And during this critical time, President Obama is seen as an uncertain voice. Not only is the Obama administration increasingly disengaging from the world, quieting its voice, and providing uneven leadership, but President Obama seems reluctant to denounce Russia because he is increasingly dependent on Putin for cooperation on Syria and Iran.
Today, Russia occupies about 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. “There is an equilibrium that people can live with for the time being,” one government official told me. “Long term the occupation of our land is unacceptable. But there is no easy solution. However, if the people see the occupation expand, if they move the border and capture another village, it could bring down any Georgian government. … If the Georgian government does not react effectively and if the European Union or the United States does not react effectively, it could dramatically shift the Georgian people’s view of the West.” Washington and Europe must stand tall and be clear about their commitment to Georgia.
There can be some satisfaction that on election night after his party had lost the vote, President Mikheil Saakashvili urged his supporters to respect the outcome.
Furthermore, while there is broad support in Georgia for EU and NATO integration, to achieve full EU membership will require meaningful regulatory reforms, opening markets, and increased government transparency. This will be seen by small producers as burdensome and costly, whereas reestablishing economic relations with Russia by entering the Customs Union would have immediate economic benefits evident down to the village level. This transition period will require strong leadership from Georgia’s leaders and more nimble public diplomacy by Europe and the United States to show the long-term benefits of Western integration.
A Western diplomat in Tbilisi lamented that given the economic stress within Europe today, the Europeans may not be strong enough to make the EU attractive. “The only way to galvanize the EU for this critical task,” he said, “is by United States leadership. And frankly, U.S. leadership is not there.”
Givi is a 66-year-old with five grandchildren. She lived the majority of her life under Moscow’s rule. She became emotional as she talked to me about the Russian occupation of Georgian territory. “It is bad. It is illegal,” Givi told me. “Russia is doing everything to intimidate and control us diplomatically, economically, the 2008 war. We need the support of Europe and America. It is the only reason we can stand up to Russia.”
In this time of peril, if America does not make clear that Putin’s bullying is unacceptable and President Obama does not provide proactive support for full Georgian integration into the EU and NATO, not only will the freedom-loving Georgians be sacrificed, but so too will America’s interests.
Ambassador Richard S. Williamson is a principal at Salisbury Strategies, LLP. He has served on President Ronald Reagan’s senior White House staff, as an assistant secretary of State, and as an ambassador and U.S. representative in several capacities to the United Nations.
Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group
With the recent presidential election, Georgians have reached another milestone toward sustainable democracy. But Russia still seeks to pull Georgia into its sphere of influence, and the United States is failing to act.
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