Freedom and democracy don’t come easily to a land that’s known precious little of it over time. Often, a nation overthrows an authoritarian government and replaces it with a democratically elected one, only to see the new government subvert the rule of law and impose a new authoritarianism.
That’s why as a nation teeters between freedom and authoritarian – its people hoping to strengthen freedom while its government is tempted toward a new iron fist – the United States should do what it can to see that freedom prevails. The president and key lawmakers should make clear that Washington is watching and that its relations with the nation in question will depend at least partly on what direction it takes.
The Republic of Georgia, which has witnessed more than enough tumult in the last decade, is a good current example.
A small nation of less than five million in the Caucasus, Georgia is bordered by the Black Sea to the west, Russia to the north, Turkey and Armenia to the south, and Azerbaijan to the southeast. A captive of the Soviet Union until the Soviet crack-up, Georgia suffered from civil war in the early 1990s and the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which became functionally independent with Russia’s help later that decade. Russia and the two territories faced off militarily with Georgia again in 20008.
For our story, however, the big event was the “Rose Revolution” of 2003, which deposed President Eduard Shevardnadze after parliamentary elections that independent observers found riddled with fraud.
President George W. Bush, who at the time was delivering powerful calls for greater freedom and democracy around the world, had expressed interest in those elections. Although
Shevardnadze was not facing his own re-election, the elections were widely seen as a referendum on his leadership. Bush sent former Secretary of State James Baker to Georgia to meet with Shevardnadze and opposition leaders – and also to deliver a letter to Shevardnadze in which he urged free elections.
When the elections fell short, massive anti-government demonstrations erupted around the country, seeking both Shevardnadze’s ouster and an electoral re-run. When Shevardnadze tried to open a new session of Parliament, supporters of two of the opposition parties burst in, forcing him to flee with his bodyguards. Though he initially declared a state of emergency, he soon backed down and resigned.
In early 2004, the more liberal Mikheil Saakashvili was elected President – a position he continues to hold – and his party won a majority in parliamentary elections that soon followed.
The Rose Revolution brought important reforms that moved the nation along the path of freedom and away from its legacy of authoritarianism.
Freedom installed, however, is not freedom guaranteed – as witnessed by events on Georgia’s campaign trail this year.
A delegation from the National Democratic Institute – a non-profit affiliated with the U.S. Democratic Party and, like its Republican counterpart (the International Republican Institute), works to strengthen democracy around the world – wrote in late June, “The upcoming parliamentary elections provide an important opportunity to deepen, expand and institutionalize democratic processes in the country.”
All true, but troubling signs are emerging.
The main opposition party, known as “Georgian Dream,” charges that the government is subverting its activities. Several of its events have descended into violence and, though the media aired video that seemed to show government officials directing or participating in the violence, the authorities have been quicker to arrest “Georgian Dream” activists than the government officials.
In addition, government forces until recently had engaged in a persistent campaign of harassing a TV channel that was sympathetic to the opposition and the only broadcaster that it would air its programs.
The government’s activities are taking a toll on public attitudes. In mid-July, The Economist reported new polling showing that “only 38% of Georgians think that Georgia is now a democracy, compared with 49% in February.”
On July 20, Amnesty International issued a “public statement” in which it expressed concern that “the authorities are failing to protect the opposition supporters and journalists from what appears to be politically targeted violence.”
That’s important because Saakashvili needs to know that the world is watching to see whether he allows for genuinely free elections.
What he really needs to hear, and more than once, is that the United States is keeping a close eye on the elections. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton encouraged the government to hold free and fair elections during her visit to the region in early June. Obama and key lawmakers should reinforce it.
To be sure, Georgia is not the world’s most important hotspot. Nevertheless, Washington would send an important signal to the world if it spoke out forcefully about the need for free elections in the Caucasus.