The myth of a plucky republic

After Georgia: Far from ‘defending democracy’, Saakashvili and his backers have robbed Georgians of any real say over their fate.

Tara McCormack

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The crisis in Georgia has been depicted in terms of a democratic state bravely standing up to its former colonial master, Russia. The Kremlin, we are told, wants to punish the elected government of Georgia for its desire to join Western institutions such as NATO. Some political leaders in the West have fervently praised Georgia and condemned Russia’s behaviour. Britain’s Europe minister Jim Murphy was positively poetic when he called Georgia a ‘small and beautiful democracy’.

Recent American military interventions must briefly have slipped Condoleezza Rice’s mind when she warned Russia: ‘This is not 1968… where Russia can threaten a neighbour, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it.’ (1) Meanwhile, Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili has enthusiastically thrown himself into the role of David against the Russian Goliath.

However, this portrayal of Georgia as a brave democracy has no basis in reality. In fact, since Georgia’s formation after the end of the Cold War, the Georgian people have had little real say in their fate.

Reading the current news coverage of Georgia, one might be forgiven for thinking that Saakashvili had single-handedly steered Georgia away from Russia when he came to power during the ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003. In truth, far from Georgia struggling to break free of Moscow’s tyrannous grip, it would not be an exaggeration to say that since 1992 the Georgian political leadership has been entirely dependent upon American funding and political support. Furthermore, Georgia has been in partnership with NATO, if not a full member of it, since 1992 (2).

For a short period after declaring independence in May 1991, Georgia was ruled by nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia. However, within a few months he was replaced by Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister assuming the post of president after a coup in early 1992. From the beginning of Shevardnadze’s reign, Georgia was intimately connected with successive US administrations, receiving large amounts of aid, including military support. Shevardnadze took the bold step of joining the NATO North Atlantic Cooperation Council in 1992, and in 1994 he signed up for NATO’s ‘Partnership for Peace’ programme. By all accounts, Shevardnadze’s regime was corrupt and economically disastrous. It was well known that he rigged the elections in 1995 and 2000 – yet his American backers remained staunchly behind him.

Then, during the early 2000s, Shevardnadze’s powerful supporters seemed to tire of him. It is here that Saakashvili enters the frame. Saakashvili had been the minister for justice in Shevardnadze’s government, but he resigned in 2001 to set up an opposition party, claiming that Shevardnadze had allowed corruption to flourish.

Saakashvili had obviously caught Washington’s eye. British reporter Ian Traynor wrote in November 2003 that ‘Richard Miles, the US ambassador in Tbilisi, has been actively grooming the young, US-trained lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili to lead the succession. A series of senior US figures passed through Tbilisi this year to warn Mr Shevardnadze that his days were numbered. “We would like to see stronger leadership”, Mr Miles told the Washington Post recently in an unusually public criticism of a long-standing US ally.’ (3)

The formal change in leadership was a stage-managed affair, beginning with the elections in late November 2003. Shevardnadze was accused of massive electoral fraud by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (4). Thousands of people descended upon Tbilisi, holding roses and demanding change. This so-called Rose Revolution followed a similar pattern to other recent ‘people’s revolutions’ in former Soviet Republics, where Western-backed leaders lost the support of Western governments, and a younger leader (generally from the previous administration) supposedly swept to power on a wave of popular protest and demands. In truth, these alleged revolutions tended to be brought about and fuelled by Western pressure and intervention.

People’s revolutions do not come cheap, of course, particularly the themed ones that have proved so popular amongst Western observers in recent years (‘Orange’ in Ukraine, ‘Tulip’ in Kyrgyzstan, and the failed ‘Denim’ revolution in Belarus). The Open Society Institute alone, a private firm based in New York that promotes human rights, is said to have contributed $42million for fresh roses and coaches to bring people into Tbilisi (5).

Following the ‘revolution’, Shevardnadze resigned, and new elections were held in January 2004. Saakashvili won an incredible 96 per cent of the vote, a result that even Saddam Hussein might have been reluctant to claim. However, this time the OSCE decreed that, broadly, the election was free and fair (6).

Saakashvili soon found out that the Western-funded rock concerts and gimmicks of the Rose Revolution, although they made great copy for Western journalists, only take a leader so far. The revolution rapidly ran out of steam. By 2006 Saakashvili and his former prosecutor-general Irakli Okruashvili had fallen out and were accusing each other of corruption, criminal activities and even murder. Saakashvili came under increasing criticism from his international friends, too (7). Georgia’s weak and faltering economy, and mounting evidence of major corruption, resulted in popular discontent and demonstrations in November 2007. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency and clamping down on opposition activity.

Then we come to the current crisis, with Georgia launching an attack on South Ossetia; hundreds of people have been killed, both in Georgia’s initial attack and in Russia’s ‘peacekeeping’ response: its bombing of Georgian targets. Given the intimate relationship between the Georgian elite and its American sponsors, it seems unlikely that the attack was a complete surprise to the Bush administration.

Some commentators on the left have argued that this conflict is part of an American plan to encircle Russia and protect oil pipelines. However, the attack can have little strategic use for either America or Georgia. Rather, one possible explanation for Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia, and by proxy on Russia, is that it was an attempt by Saakashvili to resolve his weak position domestically and with his international sponsors.

It may be that Saakashvili decided that a military adventure would be just the thing to shore up his position internationally and create some enthusiasm for his regime at home. In the short term, at least, the adventure does seem to have been a success in terms of international support. Publicly, officials in Washington have been falling over themselves to praise Saakashvili; aid has poured into Georgia from the US. However, it has been reported that, privately, Washington has urged Saakashvili to hold back, and there may be signs that he has overplayed his hand with shrill calls for NATO intervention (8). Some EU governments, including France and Germany, have already opposed full NATO membership for Georgia because of a potential Russian reaction. Saakashvili’s rash adventure is unlikely to have given them much confidence in his judgment. To what extent his actions have boosted his popularity at home is unclear; some Georgians are angry about his military excesses (9).

The move from Georgian-Russian tensions to Georgian-Russian war can be seen as a bloody by-product of thoughtless Western foreign policy in the former Soviet republics. Any regime that is reliant first and foremost on international sponsors, rather than on properly democratic domestic support, is playing a risky game; foreign backers can decide to change their man on a whim. Saakashvili knows this; he saw what happened to Shevardnadze. The unpredictability and inherent instability of these new ‘satellite states’ in the East creates the potential for more rash actions by local leaders given a green light by Western backing and flattery.

We need not waste any sympathy on Saakashvili. It is the Georgian people we should be concerned about: they have been denied any possibility of democracy and self-government by an opportunistic international community and a cynical domestic elite. It is inaccurate to say that Russia is trying to extinguish Georgian democracy since we do not know what a really democratic Georgia would look like – it has not yet existed.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in European Union studies and International Relations at the University of Westminster. She is producing two debates as part of this year’s Battle of Ideas festival: The state we’re in: What is the point of British foreign policy? on Thursday 9 October, and Is America still the world’s policeman? on Sunday 2 November.

(1) Recent events in Georgia, US Department of State, 13 August 2008

(2) For details see the NATO website

(3) The people smoke out the grey fox, Guardian, 24 November 2008

(4) Post-election interim report – Georgia, Parliamentary Elections 2003, OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission

(5) Georgia on His Mind: George Soros’s Potemkin revolution, Richard W. Carlson, Weekly Standard, Volume 009, Issue 35, 24 May 2004

(6) Georgian election in essence consistent with most commitments but challenges must be addressed urgently, OSCE Press release, 6 January 2008

(7)For an excellent and very detailed commentary on post-rose revolution Georgia read Mark Almond’s Black Roses: Georgia’s Reformers Fall Out, Mark Almond Oxford, 3 November 2007

(8) Bush is spectator as policy unravels, Financial Times, 12 August 2008

(9) ‘Sinful Saakashvili’ or hero, News Week, 12 August 2008

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