Viewing Georgia, Without the Rose Colored Glasses

The war between Russia and Georgia has receded from the front pages, but the questions it has raised are still urgent. Russia’s aggression toward Georgia, which greatly exceeded what was necessary to achieve its stated goals, and Moscow’s continuing efforts to weaken and destabilize Georgia, make it clear that Russia is a real threat to several U.S. allies. From Azerbaijan to Latvia, the Kremlin’s actions have been duly noted. The next American administration will confront the fallout of this war and face a hard challenge: It is not possible to craft Georgia policy without looking at the broader U.S.-Russia policy, while it is not possible to craft a broader U.S.-Russia policy without recognizing the role the U.S. plays in creating tension between Russia and Georgia.

The U.S. enthusiastically greeted the Rose Revolution, which peacefully brought a coterie of Georgian reformers, including Mikheil Saakashvili, to power in late 2003. Beginning with Saakashvili’s election as president in 2004, in a vote broadly viewed as free and fair, the Bush administration began to treat Georgia as an unequivocal success story and a thriving democracy. Additionally, U.S. support in Georgia shifted away from democratic development in areas like the media, political parties and civil society and focused more on efforts to strengthen the state, because the U.S. viewed the government in Tbilisi as the chief engine of democratization in Georgia

The story in Georgia, however, was far more complex. Even before he was sworn in as president, Saakashvili pushed through constitutional changes that gave more power to the president at the expense of the legislature. During the next three years, democracy could be described as simply not a priority to the new government, which was intent on rooting out corruption, reforming the education system, retraining police, reducing bureaucracy and strengthening the Georgian state. In concrete terms this meant that media freedom was reduced, an independent judiciary did not evolve, the government party sought to weaken opposition parties, and a one-party system (its fourth in less than 20 years) was solidified. But it was still possible, during this time, to see the positives as outweighing the negatives.

The U.S., however, simply didn’t see the negatives. In November 2007 when Saakashvili used force to disperse nonviolent protests, criticism from the U.S. was muted. But European views of Georgia’s democratic development, already more critical than America’s, grew considerably more negative after November of 2007.

The problems of democracy in Georgia are important not just because democracy is important, but because the U.S. has framed its support of Georgia around that country’s status as a democracy — a notion that is increasingly less plausible to most of the rest of the world. Moreover, Georgia’s future lies with integrating into European and North Atlantic institutions for which democracy is a nonnegotiable criterion. Georgia has asserted, with tacit U.S. support, that it was denied NATO membership last year because many European countries are afraid of Russia. That explanation provided good political cover in Georgia, but it obscures another likely explanation: that Georgia has not become democratic enough in the eyes of many Europeans for NATO membership. Constantly praising Georgian democracy, as the Bush and Saakashvili administrations do, is not a strategy for solving this problem.

Neither John McCain nor Barack Obama will want to abandon Georgia to an unpleasant fate at the hands of the Russians. The question for the U.S. is how, beginning with the promised $1 billion in assistance, it can best support its Georgian allies without pushing Russia into a broader conflict with the United States.

Aid that focuses on humanitarian and infrastructure projects is increasingly important because thousands of people in Georgia were displaced in the war and because the Russian military did millions of dollars of damage to Georgia’s economy and physical infrastructure.

But any military assistance to Georgia will further provoke Russia and give the Georgians the means to use force to try to bring Abkhazia or South Ossetia back under their control. Saakashvili’s government will undoubtedly keep up the nationalist and anti-Russian rhetoric in the next months and may possibly see another military action as a way to rally support for the president when, inevitably, it begins to flag again. For the U.S., this means that any military support for Georgia needs a commitment from Tbilisi that it will not use these weapons offensively or without an extremely good reason — better than the one given this time.

It is also important that the aid be seen as support from the American people for the Georgian people, not for Saakashvili’s government, which was weakened in the year preceding the August war and is now facing increasing calls from opposition parties and other Georgians for investigations, resignations and so on, related to the conduct of the Georgian military in that conflict. The temptation for the Saakashvili government to use this enormous aid package as proof of continuing U.S. support for him is substantial. The government claims the assistance was given to Georgia because of Saakashvili’s relationships with President Bush and his administration, but what if U.S. aid is seen as propping up a potentially teetering and discredited government?

U.S. statements about the strength of Georgian democracy are used by the government to fend off criticism. More honest U.S. statements, as well as American support for independent media in Georgia, for example, could play a more productive role.

It is not clear how Saakashvili will be viewed in Washington over the next few months. Many in the U.S. are disappointed by his impulsiveness, while his style, confidence and bellicosity are wearing thin. But personal tics aside, the larger issue is the broader strategic picture, and what U.S. interests are, especially in the context of Russia.

This is not going to be easy, because giving in to Russia means abandoning our friends in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere, while a broad confrontation with Russia is clearly not what the U.S. needs right now. But getting this balance right will be far easier if an assessment of Georgian democracy and domestic politics is grounded in reality.