On November 7 Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili's carefully crafted image as a Western-style democrat was shattered when he twice used massive force to disband peaceful protests, injuring over 500 people.
Claiming that the opposition was working with Russia to overthrow his government, Saakashvili declared a 15-day state of emergency, banned private television stations from reporting the news, and shut down Georgia's most popular TV station, Imedi, which is managed and part-owned by News Corporation (parent company of THE WEEKLY STANDARD). When Western leaders condemned these moves, Saakashvili backpedaled, proposing a snap presidential election in January, then a week later firing his prime minister in a gesture that amounts to little more than a distraction.
The use of force was particularly ironic in that Saakashvili himself came to power four years ago through the celebrated Rose Revolution, a wave of street protests which then-President Eduard Shevardnadze refrained from crushing. It now appears that Saakashvili actually cares as much about political freedom as the strongmen leading Pakistan, Venezuela, and Russia.
Plainly, too, events in Georgia have dealt another blow to President Bush's democracy agenda--not because the president's noble goals are unworkable, but because he has failed to force the bureaucracies in Washington to implement policies that will actually advance them.
The Bush administration dispatched a deputy assistant secretary of state, Matt Bryza, to Tbilisi, where he did a good job of pressing for democratic elections and for the lifting of the state of emergency. Bryza also emphasized that "a cornerstone of democracy is that all TV stations should remain open" and pushed for putting Imedi back on the air.
Yet he also implicitly justified Saakashvili's move against Imedi: "I sense that the Georgian government is genuinely, genuinely concerned about what has been broadcast by Imedi TV at that time, that was inciting people to overthrow the government," Bryza was quoted as saying on November 13 on the U.S.-funded Georgian website Civil.ge. He expressed hope that in the future journalism would be "fully professional" and would "not involve calls for unconstitutional steps."
But the next day, a Georgian court stripped Imedi of its broadcast license, claiming that it had been "used as a major tool for organizing demonstrations."
Georgia's current crisis started in mid-September, when Saakashvili's former interior and defense minister, Irakly Okruashvili, accused Saakashvili of planning to kill Georgia's richest man, Badri Patarkatsishvili (who co-owns Imedi), and of hiding the truth behind the mysterious death of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania in 2005.
Several opposition leaders seized the opportunity to form an anti-Saakashvili coalition. They set forth a number of demands: opposition representation on the electoral commissions; a more democratic allocation of parliamentary seats; and cancellation of the extension of parliament's term by six months. When the government failed to cooperate, the opposition brought between 50,000 and 70,000 people into the streets of Tbilisi on November 2, with financial support from Patarkatsishvili and prominent coverage on Imedi.
As protests progressed, these leaders--virtually all of whom had supported Saakashvili during the Rose Revolution--began to demand his resignation. While they claimed not to want another revolution, that would have been the effect of what they demanded.
They were right, of course, that Saakashvili rules Georgia with an iron fist. Upon taking office, he amended the constitution to dramatically increase presidential powers, creating a one-man autocracy. Nevertheless, it was unnecessary and unwise to demand his resignation. In its almost 16-year post-Soviet history, Georgia has never had a constitutional transition of power, and no leader has completed his full term in office. Ending Saakashvili's term early would have further undermined Georgia's chances of moving toward constitutional democracy.
Like the protest leaders, Saakashvili acted rashly, putting his own survival above the rule of law. Internationally, his image suffered irreparable damage. Domestically, he has lost much of his political legitimacy and support, and many now call him a dictator.
The Bush administration has supported Saakashvili, both politically and financially, since 2003. In February 2004, Bush called Saakashvili "a friend with whom we share -values," and during a visit to Tbilisi in May 2005 he called Georgia a "beacon of liberty." The administration has much to lose if the situation continues to spiral downward.
But it has much to gain by using its influence in Georgia to preserve the country's democratic opening. Early presidential elections and the lifting of the state of emergency on November 16 are not enough. Likewise, while a serious election-monitoring effort including foreign observers, exit polls, and Parallel Voter Tabulations is all important and the United States should help bring it about, it is insufficient. Even a perfect balloting process will be meaningless if the opposition is prevented from mounting a serious campaign.
The United States can push the Georgian government to deal fairly with those accused of seeking the overthrow of the government with Russian help--either put them on trial or dismiss the charges--and to punish those in the government who used unjust force against the demonstrators.
Washington can also promote a level playing field in both the presidential and later the parliamentary elections. The Georgian government's proposals for democratizing the membership of electoral commissions and the allocation of parliamentary seats are good first steps. But Saakashvili could still use state resources to advance his candidacy--dispensing welfare benefits to buy votes, for example--and intimidate the opposition. Mounting a credible campaign is impossible without money. Many leading businessmen support the opposition, but they fear--with good reason--that the state will go after their businesses if they act on their beliefs.
Most important, Imedi must be allowed back on the air. Surveys say that the station is the primary source of news for more than half the public. Because it is administered and part-owned by a U.S. conglomerate, it is the least partisan channel in Georgia, and people trust it.
Until these conditions are met, steady pressure from the Bush administration--a clear and consistent message from all U.S. officials, including threats to suspend Millennium Challenge Account aid--is the best hope for a return to the democratic path.
One of the Bush administration's flaws is that its democratic rhetoric is seldom followed by the specific and continuous actions necessary to promote U.S. interests over the long term. The collapse of Georgia's democratic transition is but one example of this lack of follow-through. During his last 14 months in office, President Bush, by his actions toward Georgia, could still show the world that his commitment to democracy abroad is more than just talk.
Irakly George Areshidze is the author of Democracy and Autocracy in Eurasia: Georgia in Transition (Michigan State University Press, 2007). He was a political strategist for a Georgian opposition party in 2003 and 2004.